Sitting on my desk right now is Chronicles, the autobiography of songwriter-singer Bob Dylan. I purchased it online and it arrived this afternoon, but it looks like I will have to wait till Saturday, my day off, to start reading it. To tell you the truth, I know who Bob Dylan is, but I have never heard him or his lyrics. I know some of you are laughing at me, but what to do, I grew up in Kanpur, where one never dug deeper than ABBA or Boney M.
But there was one occasion, a few years ago, when I've had a brush with Bob Dylan, in flesh and blood. Yes, in flesh and blood. I had a dear friend, with whom my friendship was more than just platonic (actually, there is no other way). And during an afternoon together, I discovered that she had a name for each of her breasts. One was christened Bob, and the other Dylan. Needless to say, I more than made up for my ignorance about Bob Dylan.
But that episode has nothing to do with my ordering Dylan's autobiography. The other day, I saw the book with a colleague, and happened to read the first few paragraphs. I instantly liked it and decided to possess it. That's one thing am proud of and can boast of. You will never find me asking, "Can I borrow this book, please? Shall return it to you in a week's time?"
If I like a book, I would rather possess it. So I logged on and ordered the book. And yes, that's how I decide if a book is worth possessing (and perhaps reading): by going through the first few paras. If they make me turn the first two pages out of curiosity, then that's my kind of book. Lolita is a brilliant example of that kind of writing.
It is always fun -- and also enlightening and inspiring -- to read autobiographies. Because they tell you how the famous person you are reading about was, once upon a time, no better than what you are today or were till yesterday. He or she is just as human as you, only that he or she had the doggedness and determination to make it big enough to be able to write a salable autobiography.
In fact, I spend a lot of time at the biography/autobiography section of bookshops, hoping to latch on to the life story of someone I admire. For long I had been wanting to buy Timebends, the autobiog of Arthur Miller, the celebrated playwright who was also the husband on Marylin Monroe. I had been looking for it ever since I read The Plain Girl, a slender gem of a book. But the bookshops never had. Not even after he died a couple of years ago.
Finally, I went to Amazon and ordered the book, which turned out to be a disappointment because it lacked the energy of the novella I fell for. When I read a book, I read it more for the craft than the content, and the autobiography did nothing to boost my admiration for Arthur Miller, the writer, and not the playwright.
When it comes to personal writing, Henry Miller is what I would want to be. While Arthur was feted as a talented playwright, Henry was treated as an outcaste in his own country, the US, which had a ban imposed on his books until the 1960s. But once the ban was lifted, Henry Miller more than made up for the lost years. He became an icon.
It is easy to sneer at Henry Miller for the explicit content in his works, but it is so difficult to be him. Merely injecting words like 'fuck', 'cunt' or 'prick' in your book or making it overtly sexually explicit does not make you a Henry Miller. In order to be a Henry Miller, you need to have balls, not just a prick alone. And the balls are never going to be strong enough if life has been too easy -- when you have never had to worry about when or where the next meal is going to come from. It is the uncertainty of the next meal that makes your balls and brains knock-proof enough to be able to dish out delectable prose.
So I would tamely settle for Dom Moraes' My Son's Father. If at all I ever feel important enough to work on my autobiography, his book would serve as the template: it wouldn't quite drill a hole into your heart, but it would at least caress you gently with the edge of a knife and keep you going till the last page.