There are a lot of stories that open our eyes, make a deep imprint on our minds, and stay with us for years. That is the power of literature. I think this is what novelist, poet, Tabish Khair meant when he wrote to me in a tweet about the ‘need to propagate strong literature’. So, literature that is evocative would certainly make the cut.
I would like to talk about some of these stories I had read as a teenager and as a young man. They did leave their indelible impressions on me. There’s something very interesting that the late American novelist, Philip Roth once said. As he approached a ripe old age, he said, he would like to re-read the books that had an impact on him. I would strongly make a case for re-reading the books that we read voraciously in our youth. At least, for myself.
In an age, where we see a bar on human freedoms all over the world, the story that instantly comes to mind is “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. It is recounted in flashback and is about a bet that a banker has made with a lawyer fifteen years ago. The bet took place because of a heated discussion. The banker prefers capital punishment because ‘life is taken bit by bit in life imprisonment’. The young lawyer decries both capital punishment and life imprisonment because the ‘State is not God’ but says, he would prefer life imprisonment ‘because living is far better than dying’.
The argument ends with the banker betting two million and the lawyer agreeing to be voluntary imprisoned for fifteen years with a set of elaborate conditions. In those fifteen years, the banker has lost his millions and is contemplating killing the lawyer. He reaches the room where the lawyer has been imprisoned, the lawyer is lying motionless, and the banker is aghast to read a letter the other has written. The lawyer has decided to leave five minutes before the appointed time because he finds the idea of materialism and worldly pleasures useless. It’s a story replete with deep insights of various kinds, including the kind of reading materials that the lawyer requested for his reading those fifteen years.
On a different yet related note, another story that I remember distinctly from my teenage days is “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy. The story begins with two sisters, the elder is married to a tradesman, while the younger is married to a peasant. They discuss finances. The younger one stands up for the life of the peasant. Pahom, her husband, has been listening to their conversation quietly. He thinks to himself, ‘If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself’. Thus, the story begins. The Devil is also there, sitting behind the oven, listening. Pahom, the poor peasant, suddenly, and slowly starts getting rich. Opportunities keep coming his way. He takes membership in a different commune and is well-off after some time. But soon, he finds himself dissatisfied and keeps on looking for further opportunities to increase his finances.
Finally, towards the end of the story, he has learned about the land of the Bashkirs. He goes there and meets the Chief. The Chief, of the tribe, says their price for selling land is “always the same: one thousand roubles a day”. Pahom doesn’t understand. The Chief says, “We do not know how to sell the land. As much as you can go around on your feet is yours”. And he adds a condition “that if you don’t return to the spot from where you started, you lose one thousand roubles for the day”. Pahom says, that one could cover up a lot of land like that. The Chief says that is the only way they know. So, the next day, at dawn when the sun is up, Pahom starts. He walks far and wide, there’s virgin land all over, such land that he has never seen before. He gets tired, his feet are swollen. He starts returning to the spot from where he had started. He must return before the sun is down. As Pahom starts walking fast, running, the Bashkirs are cheering him up. The moment he reaches the spot, they all clap for him. But as he touches the spot, he vomits blood and lays dead on the same spot. The story ends with the realization that “six feet from his head to his heels” was all the land that he needed. It is important, I think, to recount this story by Leo Tolstoy, more so, in times of unchecked crony capitalism in many countries across the world.
I would also like to add in the same breath that a story which comes to mind is “The Model Millionaire” by Oscar Wilde. The story begins with Hughie Erskine about whom the author writes, “unless one is wealthy, there is no use in being a charming fellow”. Erskine is unable to find work, so, “ultimately, he became nothing, a delightful, ineffectual young man with a perfect profile and no profession”. To add to his woes, he was in love with Laura Merton. The girl’s father was not ready to give his daughter’s hand to Hughie. One of those days, Hughie goes to meet his friend, Alan Trevor, who was a painter. Trevor was painting a beggar, who was standing there in the studio. After some time, the frame maker wanted to speak with Trevor, so, he tells Hughie to wait for him.
The beggar takes the opportunity to sit down for a while. Hughie felt a lot of pity for the beggar and gives him all the money he had—which is “a sovereign and some coppers”. The beggar thanks Hughie profusely. Trevor returns soon and Hughie takes his leave. They meet later, when Trevor tells Hughie that the old beggar wanted to know about Hughie, so, he had to tell him “everything”, which includes Erskine’s financial position, Laura, her father, the Colonel, and his condition that “the day Hughie had ten thousand pounds of his own and we will see about it”. Hughie is embarrassed that Trevor told the beggar the story. Trevor lets it out that the beggar is one of the richest men in Europe, Baron Hausberg, who could buy a house in every capital of Europe. The story ends with a gentleman who comes with a message from Hausberg, who brings a letter from the Baron: On the outside, was written, ‘A wedding present to Hugh Erskine and Laura Merton from an old beggar’ and inside was a cheque for 10,000. They get married, Alan remarks that “millionaire models are rare but model millionaires are rarer still”. There is a need for retelling powerful stories, more so, in our age of information overload and fake news, as these stories seek to remind us about the different shades of human experience.