The curious mind of a discerning writer


He was an outsider, but that’s okay, since it never impeded him to pen about a city which he entered as an inquisitive student and ended up embracing its warmth and culture on his way.
Not only that, he also inhaled its heat, dust and grime voraciously through his bodily pores. “Every atom of you reacts to an alien place, community or a country you land up in. But with the conscience of a curious journalist and the eyes of an observant eagle, I slowly, but steadily started soaking up things like a sponge into my fold,” confides Canadian journalist-turned-author Craig Taylor.

Recently, he breezed, through the City of Joy Kolkata to deliberate on Charles Dickens — one of the prolific novelists of the Victorian England — to commemorate his bicentenary (February 7) at the just concluded 36th edition of the annual Kolkata book fair. Taylor discussed the nitty-gritties of a writer’s relationship with a city at the inaugural Literary Meet recently held as part of the gala international bookfest of the culture capital. Author of two widely acclaimed books — Return to Akenfield and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain respectively, Taylor’s second title had first found its vent of expression in print via a column in The Guardian. Incidentally, both his works have been adapted for stage-productions. An enterprising editor of the literary magazine Five Dials, his third book with an interesting name Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now — As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It was published in the autumn of 2011.
Conversing about his own tomes, Taylor sets the ball rolling. “Akenfield is known to be a little village and I wrote the piece in 2006. It sketches life in a rustic backdrop,” he informs. Many critics may hereupon find an echoing element from Thomas Hardy’s pastoral novel, The Return of the Native where the Egdon Heath played a significant character in the story. About the plays, he chips in, “They are categorised as socio-political plays conveying different voices. The idea was to present a panoramic view of street-life and providing snaps of various incidents happening around us. It captures life as it is. In other words, a beautiful journey in motion where there are days of both sunshine as well as the dark, grey clouds.”
Quite kicked about NRI fiction writer-journalist Suketu Mehta’s critically appreciated Maximum City, which got nominated in the final run up to the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2005, Taylor ascertains that he loves discovering new cities and learn about their salient features. “Exploring the subtle essence of a new city is so fulfilling and exhilarating. In this case, reading about Mumbai has been quite a revelation of sorts to my mind’s eye,” he agrees. Vikram Seth and Amit Chaudhuri are two other authors from the sub-continent whose beautiful little portraits of India catch his fancy. Not to leave out the literary goldmine on the other side of the border, Jamil Ahmad and Ali Sethi’s titles from the neighbouring Pakistan are some other great gems of fiction, he attests.
“The westerners just lap up the literary pearls borne out of the sub-continental oyster. Can anybody dare to imagine climbing up to the idyllic foothills in Pakistan and write such breathtaking stuff that Ahmad scripted in The Wandering Falcon? What a moving saga it is!” he says.
Visiting Kolkata — the erstwhile British capital — for the first time on the British Council’s initiative to participate in the grand endeavour of “Dickens 2012”, Taylor vibed and interacted with school students on the master’s illustrious works and defining style.“Disckensian stories are blessed with a picaresque quality. They are a fascinating documentation of life and characters drawn from real life. His stories make for pleasure reading and are meant to enjoy with streaks of satirical innuendoes in abundance. I remember reading out the magnum opus Great Expectations to my ailing mother at her hospital bed. Though she was a bit groggy with medicinal drugs, yet whenever I stopped in between, she would just open her eyes and plead me to carry on further to savour the next twist in the tale. So, the suspense and intriguing factor are always kept alive in a Dickensian tale as the plotline takes a critical turn to arrive at a thrilling juncture. Although am not a die-hard Dickensian admirer, but I reckon that his sentimental, outlandish characters do create an honest engagement of place, time and a deep sense of reportage with his teeming readers, cutting across centuries, age-brackets and social demographies,” he raves at a makeshift reading room while deliberating on a programme, aptly titled “City Lights”.
Doing a whirlwind tour of Kolkata, Taylor whisked past the metropolis’ popular book haven — the College Street stretch. “That area is incredible. You’ll find a pile of books stacked up in every recess and corner. There is a whiff of old world charm spread all over the place. And the perfume regales a newcomer as well!” he rattles delightedly. “There is still a colonial hangover in the city’s air...But it also binds a first-time visitor with an emotional connect to depict the city in his/her own way. For every eye has a different angle of vision and a distinct tale to tell,” he argues, with a point to ponder. About the book fair, he says, “I’m still in awe of this event’s enormous magnitude. It’s really heartening to see a sea of people milling around a massive festive ground to browse, buy and simply leaf through the pages of paperbacks, hardbacks which seem like a holy grail to them. Long live the carnival!”

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