Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I have already posted my list of ten non-fiction books.

This is my fiction list.

1. There's a Hippie on the Highway, by James Hadley Chase (Panther Books)

I grew up on Enid Blyton and The Hardy Boys, but I really began to read for pleasure when I stumbled upon James Hadley Chase in high school. I think I must have read at least 50-60 of his novels, and my own creative writing at the time showed unmistakeable signs of his influence, with murder plots and car chases galore.

Some of the more memorable ones were "Miss Shumway Waves a Wand" (a supernatural-themed, very different novel from the usual Chase), "The Whiff of Money" (a gripping spy story), "The Way the Cookie Crumbles" (the story of an ingenious heist), "An Ear to the Ground" (a poignant story of a good man led to his doom by temptation), "The Flesh of the Orchid" (another sad story of a woman who could not protect the man she loved from assassins), "Cade" (perhaps the saddest Chase story of all), and many more.

But if I had to nominate one, based on the number of times I went back to read it, it would have to be "There's a Hippie on the Highway". I could identify with Harry Mitchell, the hero and Vietnam vet, who remains steadfast and straightforward in spite of the corruption and crime around him.

2. Stories from Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara, translated by CH Tawney (Jaico Publishing House)

Which Indian child has not grown up with Amar Chitra Katha comics? Indian history and mythology have been brought to life in the imaginations of so many by this unmatched collection of illustrated books.

But rarely have I come across a book (i.e., not in comic book format) on Indian mythological stories that captured my imagination with the same concoction of rich characters and heroic action. The Panchatantra was relatively tame, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata occupied a different space in one's mind. I craved stories.

Hansa Mehta's "Adventures of King Vikrama" fit the bill excellently, and this remains one of my favourites. But even better was the 1880 translation by CH Tawney of the work of Somadeva, the "Kathaa-sarit-saagara", the "ocean of streams of story".

Many pleasant afternoons during my secondary school childhood were spent reading this book, and imagining the adventures of its many heroes.

Then single combats took place between the gods and Asuras, and Vidyutprabha, the father of Vidyuddhvaja, rushed in wrath upon Indra. Indra found himself being gradually worsted by the Daitya in the interchange of missiles; so he flung his thunderbolt at him. And then that Daitya, smitten by the thunderbolt, fell dead. And that enraged Vidyuddhvaja so that he attacked Indra. And, though his life was not in danger, he began by discharging at him the weapon of Brahma; and other great Asuras struck at him with other weapons. Then Indra called to mind the weapon of Pasupati, presided over by Siva himself, which immediately presented itself in front of him; he worshipped it, and discharged it among his foes. That weapon, which was of the nature of a destroying fire, consumed the army of the Asuras; but Vidyuddhvaja, being a child, only fell senseless when smitten by it; for that weapon does not harm children, old men, or fugitives. Then all the gods returned home victorious.
Intoxicating stuff! And best of all, that wonderful collection is free to read and download here!

3. The Collected Short Stories of Saki, by HH Munro (Wordsworth Classics)

Humour is one of my favourite genres, and PG Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton have had me in splits on several occasions. But there is one person whose humour has just that extra dash of wicked wit, and that is Saki (the pseudonym of HH Munro), who unfortunately was cut down in his prime during the First World War.

[...] Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired.


A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn't go vapouring about it afterwards.

And the classic

I've been carefully brought up, and I don't like to play games of skill for milk chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned to her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was causing, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later, I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could be heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady's door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour as if she had been a historic battlefield.

4. Nick Carter/Killmaster - The Amazon, by John Messman (Tandem Books)

Somewhere around the time I went to junior college (Years 11 and 12), I graduated from James Hadley Chase to Nick Carter. I think I might have read 20-30 of these outlandish spy thrillers. Chase was tame in comparison. The Nick Carter stories also had sufficient erotic content to appeal to a young male.

I liked quite a few of these, such as "Moscow", "Code Name Werewolf", and "Time Clock of Death", but my favourite would have to be "The Amazon". The action was virtually non-stop, and (ahem) the other kind of action was pretty good too.

5. Selected Stories - Konstantin Paustovsky (Progress Publishers, Moscow)

Thanks to my father's job as a professor of linguistics in the foreign languages section of the Indian Institute of Science, I had access to a steady stream of Russian, German and French books, movies and music. Especially Russian, because my father knew Russian fairly well. Through him, my mother came to read some modern (at the time) Russian authors, and one of those was Konstantin Paustovsky. Although my mother liked his stories, a Russian lady we knew at the time dismissed his work as "ochin sentimentalnyi!" ("very maudlin").

I read one of his books in English, and while I could see why someone would find his stories too sentimental, I thought they were innocently romantic and very heartwarming.

I particularly liked "Snow", "Precious Cargo" and "A Basket of Fir Cones" in that collection.

It was thanks to Paustovsky that I formed an image of the Russian people as being uniformly warm and affectionate, and it took the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (and the horror stories that came out of that war) to jolt me out of that illusion. I grew up when I learned not to believe in stereotypes, whether positive or negative.

6. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov (Panther Books)

Science Fiction is perhaps my favourite genre by far, and one of my favourites in that genre is Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. This had so many wonderful new concepts in it. The science of psychohistory was one of them. The premise of psychohistory is this: It's not possible to predict the trajectory of a single atom, or the future of a single person. But it is possible to predict the trajectory of a ball, because it's made up of trillions of atoms. Similarly, when dealing with a society consisting of trillions of individuals, it is possible to predict the future of that society as a whole. The whole Foundation story was based on the idea that a psychohistorian predicted the downfall of the galactic empire, and proposed to shorten the coming millennia of chaos by setting up a "foundation" to store the empire's knowledge.

Foundation offered several fascinating nuggets of ideas. One was that regardless of the combinations of weak/strong emperor and weak/strong viceroy, the Foundation would never be under threat from the Empire. Then there was the unexpected spanner in the works thrown by the appearance of a mutant person whose existence psychohistory could never have predicted, and who threatened to overturn the Foundation's carefully laid plans. And finally, there was the secret "Second Foundation", made up solely of psychohistorians (the original Foundation did not have a single one), and its surprising location.

Although Asimov's Robot stories are individually more interesting, the Foundation trilogy stands alone as a classic because of its elaborate and comprehensive story.

7. The Philip K Dick Reader, by Philip K Dick (Citadel Press)

Great as Asimov was, he was not the best science fiction author, in my opinion. I think that honour goes to Philip K Dick. Dick's stories have formed the basis of blockbuster movies such as "Bladerunner" and "Minority Report".

Two stories that I love in this collection are "Second Variety" and "To Serve The Master". Both are deliciously disturbing.

8. The Stories of Ray Bradbury, by Ray Bradbury (Alfred A Knopf, Publisher)

I've written more than once about Ray Bradbury, and this post should tell you what I think of his writing. Ray Bradbury is a word-wrangler par excellence. I wish I could write like him.

As a consolation, I at least have this gargantuan collection of Bradbury's stories, and I often open it to read passages from my favourites, "A Story of Love", "And So Died Riabouchinska", "The Lake", "A Scent of Sarsaparilla", and others. The man amazes me.

9. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Bantam Classics)

Surprisingly, I read the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories only in my mid-twenties. I had read a few stories earlier on occasion (our English textbook in school even had "The Blue Carbuncle"), but nothing prepared me for the treat I received when I bought the whole collection and began to read them all.

I think the best thing about the stories is the consistent level of quality. With the exception of the few stories narrated in the first person by Holmes himself, all of them are excellent.

"To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot. . . . Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example."

"The billiard-marker and the other?"

"Precisely. What do you make of the other?"

The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I [Watson] could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.

"An old soldier, I perceive," said Sherlock.

"And very recently discharged," remarked the brother.

"Served in India, I see."

"And a non-commissioned officer."

"Royal Artillery, I fancy," said Sherlock.

"And a widower."

"But with a child."

"Children, my dear boy, children."
In my hostel at IIT Kanpur, a small group of Holmes fans tried in vain to "deduce" things about one another, but we never achieved much success beyond remarking to friends carrying empty bottles, "I deduce you are going to the mess to get water."

10. Harry Potter (all 7 books), by JK Rowling (Bloomsbury Publishing)

I don't believe the selection of JK Rowling's magnum opus should be controversial in the least. Rowling is Enid Blyton reborn, and with the karmic reward of steroids to boot.

I think Rowling's contribution goes beyond smooth entertainment. She has changed our world for the better by re-igniting the love of reading in a new generation.

---- Postscript ---

I was toying with the idea of including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in this list, but decided against it. While I like Tolkien very much, this is not the easiest set of books to read. It takes a supreme effort of will to complete reading "The Two Towers", for example. I believe a good book should not be an effort to read.

[If you liked this post, you might like these other autobiographical pieces as well:
Ten Things Teachers Taught Me
Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most]

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