‘I like strong women characters. Jane Austen made a huge impact’

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|Politicians & Literature|

Meira Kumar | 67,  Bihar
Lok Sabha Speaker, Congress

Meira Kumar
Meira Kumar Photo: Garima Jain

MY PARENTS WERE voracious readers and I grew up in an atmosphere of books and reading. My father had an imposing library, full of rare books. When I turned 10, or perhaps even earlier, he gave me a little almirah full of books and said, “Begin your own library.”

I love reading fiction and I’m a loyal reader. As a child, I looked forward to the Chandamama comic. Then, of course, there were the fairy tales and lok kathayein or folk stories — such as the Panchatantra and the Gita Updesh (lessons from The Gita). As an adolescent, books were my best friends. My father encouraged me to read the Mahabharata. It is such a rich text and has been reinterpreted in so many ways. This year, I chanced upon Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation that I picked up at a railway station on my way to Allahabad.

Then there was Russian literature. It explores such a vast canvas in such great depth. I’m, in fact, revisiting some of that now — I’m currently re-reading And Quiet Flows the Don, the classic by Mikhail Sholokhov, which tells the story of Russia’s entry into World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. I have also read War and Peace many times. Tolstoy’s ability to manage so many characters at the same time is masterly. When I went to Moscow in 1978, I made a pilgrimage to Tolstoy’s home. I was so thrilled! I’m also drawn to fiction that centres on strong women characters, be it Marie Corelli’s Thelma or all of Jane Austen, who made a huge impact on me.

And there’s Bengali literature: Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Bimal Mitra and so many others. Tagore’s fine novel The Wreck operates on a vast canvas, as does Sarat Chandra’s Charitraheen. Among the more contemporary Bengali writers, there is, of course, Mahasweta Devi.

Speaking of contemporary writers — in Hindi, I recently finished reading Mamta Kalia’s Apne Apne Shahar Mein. It’s a pity that people are reading less vernacular literature these days. I meet writers who say their books are not even going into a second print run, which is a great pity.

I really like what I’ve read of Tamil literature. There is Kannagi, based on the classic from the Sangam period, Silappathikaram, believed to have been written by the Jain poet-prince Ilango Adigal. RK Narayan imparted a Tamil flavour to English with Malgudi Days.

In some ways, you could argue that I’m conservative in my choices. Great literature, the classics, is time-tested, invariably painted on large canvases and are stories that have shaped generations. And then there are books like Amritlal Nagar’s Nachyo Bahut Gopal, which are revolutionary and made a significant impact on me. I object to the classification of literature like this as Dalit literature. It is the sort of label designed to keep a book in its so-called place. By assigning labels to Dalits writing as anarchists, we try to push them further out into the fringe.

And finally, I’m also a big fan of poetry. As a little girl, I was taught to recite Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s Jhansi ki Rani that I can still quote verbatim. I memorised this when I was five. It is incredible what the impact of just a few words can be. Words are all powerful. They can start a war or bring peace. I can finish you with my words, I can demoralise you, or I can also take you out of your depression, inspire you.

The House I run is all about words. The aim of this great institution is that it is the place where conflicting views are expressed. There are 38 parties in my House, all with different points of view. It is words, the gift of language, which creates convergence where there appears to be only divergence. This is the basis of cooperation and progress.

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