The page that turned me

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Can a book change your life? some of  India’s most successful people describe the books that altered their plans, their worldview and their reading tastes

Tapur Chatterjee, Model:

A book that significantly changed your life:
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne has made a huge difference in my life, as I have started looking at everything in life with positive eyes. The author keeps the drilling the message “be positive” in different ways all through the book. It’s all about knowing that what you give to people, always come back to you. It’s great when you can actually take something from a book that you can use in your day-to-day life so effectively.

A literary character you would have loved to marry:
The one character I would like to get married to is Sherlock Holmes. I was a protected child, and it’s a fantasy to run off in the woods with a bad boy character like him. His life seems so adventurous.
 

Lillette Dubey, Actress

Photo : Shailendra Pandey

A book that significantly changed your life:
The book that transfixed and transfomed me was TS Eliot’s The Wasteland — he broke all the old rules of poetry and represented a vision of humanity in 20th century in evocative, dense prose that was moving, searing, truthful and remorselessly tragic.

A writer (dead or alive) that you would love to hang out with:
The writer I would like to hang out with would be who else but the bard, William Shakespeare. I would talk to him about the writing, the characters, the drama and his insight into the human soul, and of course, he may just write me my very own sonnet. That will be worth all the rubies of Burma.

Anushka Manchanda, Singer

A book that significantly changed your life:
I read Roots by Alex Haley when I barely 14. Reading about slavery in such a descriptive and graphic manner made me realise that I take many things in my life for granted. It made me value my life and the time I was born in, and the country I was born in.

A book you would like to see made into a movie:
I think Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre should really be made into a movie, and if a director can find a younger Edward Norton, he would suit the role of the young child in the book perfectly. The way that child looks at the world is amazing. It’s so compelling that whenevr I read it, I go to a different world.

Rahul Bose, actor

A book that significantly changed your life:
The one book that changed my life has to be my chemistry textbook. I have
never felt so much fear than when I used to pick it up in class. It was my
first experience with horror fiction. I still sweat at the memory of it and
it still haunts me at night.

Who is the funniest literary character you’ve read. Why?
It’s a close tie between Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy O’Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces and (Pelhalm Grenville) Wodehouse’s Psmith. While Ignatius is inherently funny because of his whiny, self-pitying, partly ascetic and extremely intelligent character, Psmith makes me smile inwardly always and laugh out loud ever so often. He is deeply introspective and sensitive in spite of his attempts to appear thick skinned. I’ve always thought that if Sherlock Holmes made jokes, he would be Psmith…

Javed Akhtar, Poet, Script Writer and Lyricist

A book that significantly changed your life:
I believe that a single book can only change and transform people with strong religious convictions. My view of the world was shaped by my parents’ library when I was growing up. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of thinkers, so from a very young age I found myself grappling with ideas of socialism, secularism, caste struggles and justice, found in the works of Soviet writers like (Maxim) Gorky, Lenin, (Leo) Tolstoy, (Nikolai) Gogol etc. In particular, I was deeply influenced by Gorky’s The Mother and his depiction of the soulless capitalist world. Juxtaposed with this was my exposure to the extremely liberal and Leftist world of Urdu Literature through writers like Ismat Chughtai, Kaifi Azmi and of course Krishna Chandra. As I grew up and began to discover writers like Chomsky on my own, my previously formed beliefs were only strengthened and reinforced.

Shahana Goswami, Actress

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
When I was sixteen my mother gave me a copy of Philip Larkin’s Jill. It was the first proper ‘grown–up book’ I read, and I finished it cover to cover in a single sitting. Its the story of a very ordinary and somewhat awkward young man trying to fit in with the crowd at Oxford, set in the early 70’s. I loved it especially because it didn’t follow the standard pattern of presenting a conflict and then its resolution; it is just a glimpse into Jill’s life which you’re pretty sure will continue to be the same. Larkin’s stark and fluid style influenced my later love for reading – (Haruki) Murakami – as well.

Given a chance, which writer (dead or alive) would you most like to hang out with?
Definitely (Haruki) Murakami. Since the first time I read him, I’ve related so much to the way he writes. His thoughts have an erratic flow, he jumps from one topic to another with such ease that seem to mirror the way I think. I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about! Also, in spite of the fact that he is Japanese and writes stories that are set in Japan, I’ve never felt like he is talking about an alien culture because the subtexts and symbols he uses are so universal.

Dibakar Banerjee, Filmmaker

Photo : Vijay Pandey

A book that significantly changed your life:
Joseph Campbell in The Masks Of God covers mythology from around the world, from ancient to modern. It’s a book that draws its content from anthropology and history and he has successfully probed the mysteries of life through the eyes of many cultures. His book has changed the way I perceive myth in my day-to-day life.

What’s the most disturbing book or scene you have ever read? Also, describe why you find it disturbing.
I recently read Chuck Palahnuik’s Lullaby and found it extremely disturbing. The characters in the story discover a culling song disguised as a lullaby and find that they can kill anyone they wish to every time they recite it. While the angle of attack was very interesting, the mood that the writer creates is distinctly eerie. I am fond of hardcore humour but even the comic elements in this story have a sense of cruelty to them, they highlight the absolute hopelessness of death. Although the larger theme of a book like Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, is paedophilia the reader is still likely to find nuances of love and humour in Humbert’s perversion. However Palahniuk’s Lullaby had a darkness to it that affected me for days after I finished it.

If it were up to you, which writer would you like to write a tell-all memoir?
I would want the cook at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to write a tell-all memoir of his life, because I feel history must have been made in that kitchen. Did you know that President Rajendra Prasad actually kept a cow and only drank that cow’s milk? It will also expose the real person behind the president. Sometimes very simple people are caught behind the pomp and splendor of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A book like that would expose the intricacies of diplomacy.

Prabuddha Dasgupta, Photographer

Is there any writer or book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
One book in particular doesn’t come to mind, but a vital, influential force in my life since my teenage years, has been the songs and poems of Canadian poet, novelist, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. His work has validated my deepest, darkest, most private longings and experiences, and through him I have discovered the beauty, both tragic and comic of my own inner life .He has, in no small measure, shaped the person I am. Book wise I would name Stranger Music and Book of Longing, both by Cohen.

What’s the most disturbing book or scene you have ever read? Also, describe why you find it disturbing.
A disturbing book that keeps coming back to knock on my consciousness again and again is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a perverse love story between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl. What is really disturbing is that despite the perverse plot, it is one of the most beautiful books I have read…where the sense of moral outrage is kept in abeyance by the sheer power of its literature. As one critic said: “An obscene masterwork like Tropic Of Cancer demands that you work past the sex and excrement to recognize its beauty, but with Lolita you have to work past its beauty to see how shocking it is.”

Prahlad Kakkar, Adman

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
When I got my first physics book in school, I stared at it for a while, flipped through it, turned it upside down, tried to absorb it through osmosis and eventually gave up and flunked the subject. Then I turned 40 and decided I wanted to become a scuba-diving instructor, because they get all the ladies, and found that I had to learn Physics in order to teach diving! So when I found myself face to face with that awful book again I mastered it and became an instructor (and got the ladies as well).
Also, during the time that I was growing up, everybody carried around a copy of The Fountainhead as a mark of being intellectual. People read it and subsequently wanted to be architects! The book is about integrity and vision, and the lead characters just blow you away. It’s also an awesomely well-written book.

 Who according to you is the most romantic literary character you have ever read about? Why?
There is a little known Italian book called Silk, which seems to have gone out of print now. It is the story of a young French man attempting to smuggle silk worms out of Japan, who falls in love at first sight with a Japanese woman. Their love never really blossoms because the lady is already the mistress of a powerful man, and so it is confined to glances and a sole letter that he writes to her before he is deported from Japan. Eventually he returns to France, lives a half empty life with his spouse, always pining for the love he once so briefly knew. One fine day he receives a letter in Japanese, the most exquisitely written letter one could ever imagine, and finally his life seems to have meaning again. Towards the end of the book the man traces the letter to its writer only to find that she never wrote it, and that in fact it was his French wife who discovered the cause of his loneliness, and wrote him the letter hoping it would give him the love he needed to survive. The story was so beautiful it left me stunned for hours after I read it. A very special Japanese lady gifted it to me and I have only gifted it to very special people since.

Which book would you like most to see adapted into a movie? 
Actually if there was a book that would want adapted as a movie, The Fountainhead would be it. Though I am sure it won’t be as much fun to watch the movie, because while reading a book, you can exercise your imagination to the limit. I would also want Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to play the lead role of Dominique.

Milind Soman, Model

Photo : Shailendra Pandey

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel Tarzan Of The Apes is that one book because the character of Tarzan is the ideal man, who inspires you to be the best that you can be in any given situation. Apart from his good looks, great physique etc., it is his independence, his morality and his ethics that set him apart from all the other superheroes. He has no gray shades, no dark and twisted psyche born of a tortured past. He operates purely according to the law of the jungle, free of all personal vendettas.   

 

Photo : Deepak Salvi

Milind Deora, politician

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
Yes. It’s the best book I last read – Eric Clapton’s autobiography, Lost inthe Blues. Besides talking about music, it is a story of the basic human struggle — professional and emotional in particular. It would make a great movie as well. His determination and eventual success would inspire upcoming artists and musicians.

 

Aparna Sen, filmmaker, actress and women’s magazine editor

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
The great epic Mahabharata, which tells the tale of the Bhārata dynasty, continues to affect my life in various ways. It is of immense importance as its discussion of human goals – dharma or duty, artha or purpose, kāma or pleasure or desire and moksha or liberation – explain the relationship of the individual to society and the world.

Given a chance, which writer (dead or alive) would you most like to hang out with?
I would love to hang out with its author, Ved Vyasa. What interesting conversation he would make! But I would have to make sure he used a lot of deodorant as he had terrible body odour, by his own admission.

Shyam Benegal, Filmmaker

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
I remember being gifted with a copy of Glimpses of World History, a series of letters (Jawaharlal) Nehru had written to his daughter, when I was at school. That opened up the world to me in a way few books had done before. It created a worldview that I don’t think I had before that. I started to see the world outside my own world. Suddenly one discovered there were so many other worlds and so many other histories. It made one very curious and interested in all sorts of things. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single book.  They’re not always great books, they can just be novels. They affect you in different ways and lead you to other things.  I discovered (Ernest) Hemingway in my teens and because of his books, I got interested in the Spanish Civil War. If I hadn’t seen Hemingway, I wouldn’t have known (Federico Garcia) Lorca or heard of him. One thing leads to another. Because of Marquez, I got very interested in all the other Latin American writers…

Who would you count as your funniest writer?
The American writer Ogden Nash used to make me laugh all the time: “Celery, raw / Develops the jaw/ But celery, stewed / Is more quietly chewed.” I haven’t picked up any of his books in a long long time. They’re all getting yellow and brown!  It was great because it was written in very plain spoken language — it was very funny, and you didn’t have to exercise your mind too much. It’s an absolute delight to see the way people use English.

Which book do you pretend you have read, and why?
Yes, there are several. One is a book by the Austrian writer, Robert Musil —The Man Without Qualities. I’ve tried to read it so many times and just given up that I feel that I’ve actually read him. There’s a lot of that — books left half-read, one-third read, when you know you’re cheating. These things do happen from time to time…

Ratna Pathak Shah, Actress

Is there a book that changed or shaped or transformed your life?
Yes, there is. It is not a book; it is a play that I read a long time ago. It was written by George Bernard Shaw in 1903 and is called Man and Superman. We performed a part of it and we called it ‘Don Juan In Hell’ (Act 3 Scene 2). And that is a piece of writing that definitely influenced and changed my life in many ways. Firstly, as an actress, because I finally figured out what I was doing wrong as an actress. I started to look for ways to change my problems and sort them out. So yes it was a revolution. I can’t say it was a breakthrough because I don’t think I got it right. I think I was quite unable to improve my mistakes at that point. But I started thinking about them in a much more serious manner. And I finally managed to correct some of them at least. So yes it changed my life as an actress. And also as a human being, because that play really talks about man in a relationship in the most interesting way that I have come across.  

A literary character that you find the most memorable?
I find interesting characters created by the English writer Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Particularly Psmith and Jeeves – these are the two characters that I find the most interesting. They always have the most perfect and appropriate thing to say in every situation. They have solutions to every problem, which they eventually resolve. Besides, they are absolutely, completely funny and unbelievable and are in the top for me.

In everything you have read which writers have inspired you the most, and why?
John Berger has. So have George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. All are writers who opened my eyes and made me think in ways that I didn’t otherwise. Among the fiction writers, I would probably say that Amitav Ghosh and John McPhee really made me think quite differently from how I was used to thinking. They have changed my way of looking at the world, each of them in a completely different way.   

Which book would you recommend to someone who reads only one book a year,and why? 
Yugant, by Irawati Karve, which is absolutely wonderful. It is wonderful piece and everyone should read this one. It is wonderful because it talks about Mahabharat in a very contemporary way. It talks about the characters and their dilemmas in a much more personal manner than the Mahabharat itself, with interpretations that make a lot of sense to me. The book is completely different from the Mahabharat because she is looking at the characters from the inside, speaking of them as human beings and people with emotions and dilemmas and loves and things like that rather than just the story itself. Plus it is a short version of theMahabharat, in which the story becomes more important than the characters. Here the characters speak to us as human beings. And I would like to recommend any of Ismat Chughtai’s work. I think that, particularly women would find the books extraordinarily accurate, even in our contemporary world, because she wrote in 1930s but her stories are completely accessible and relevant for today.

Who would you count as your funniest writer?
P G Wodehouse definitely.

Shantanu Moitra, Music Director

Is there a book that changed or shaped or transformed your life?
It’s a book called Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It’s about the author’s fateful expedition to climb Mount Everest, in which eight climbers were killed and seven stranded by a rogue storm. Nature is something we admire, yet don’t respect. We take it for granted, till we experience its prowess and power. This book talks about how Mount Everest was treated like any other man-made tourist destination – like an Eiffel Tower, till this catastrophe occurred. In that sense it’s an eye opener. It’s influenced me because I’m a mountaineer myself, and it’s made me very respectful towards nature…

Is there any literary character you would have loved to be — or have unconsciously or consciously modelled yourself on — who / why / how?

Tin Tin. Because I wanted to live in Marlinspike Hall. I wanted Nestor for my butler and Snowy for my pet dog – I never had a pet dog – and Captain Haddock for my friend. I wanted to know people like Thompson and Thompson and Professor Cuthbert Calculus. I wanted, and still want, to be free – especially in today’s day and age of appendages. I wanted to be able to get out there and enjoy what life has to offer.

Manvendra Singh, Politician

Photo : Shailendra Pandey

Is there a book that changed or shaped or transformed your life?
Seven Pillars Of Wisdom: A Triumph by Thomas Edward Lawrence (also known as The Lawrence Of Arabia), because of the sheer scale of the areas he touches so vividly and deeply. This book influenced me in my academic pursuits. I took up Arab studies for my graduate and post graduate degrees, and I think Seven Pillars… had a fair part to play in that decision. 

Also The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin, which for me is the perfect travel book. I always looked at traveling from a tourist’s perspective before I read this book. It made me look at raveling from a writer’s perspective.

Is there any book you would secretly like to ban? Or any book you wish was not banned? Why?
I don’t believe in banning books. The fact that you find a Mein Kampf being sold on the pavement and on traffic junctions should stand testimony to the fact that you can’t ban books. Even when Satanic Verses was banned I remember reacting very negatively. The business of banning ideas and thinking is always a losing battle.

Kay Kay Menon, Actor

Are there any writers or books that have changed or shaped or transformed your life?
Nothing that drastic, after all, any literary reading or viewing is an ongoing process. I have always been a fan of classics – (Fyodor) Dostoevsky, (Leo) Tolstoy. They will always remain dear to my heart. That was my initiation into reading. The Russian authors give you perspective into a world that you are not aware of but at the same time can identify with. That comforts you in a way and gives you an advance warning of what may be coming in life, especially in your formative years, when you’re not really exposed to life, as such.

Who is your scariest literary villain? Why? 
All of Guy De Maupassant’s scary Horla like characters.  They are quite spooky without being vulgarly spooky.

Which book do you pretend you have read, and why?
I pretend to read all of the best selling novels because they come up so often in conversation! Today, most of the time people refer to bestsellers when they talk about books.  At the same time, by token of them being bestsellers, they needn’t be great literary pieces.

If you were stuck on a desert island which book would you choose to take with you?
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky because of it’s various concepts and the life of Raskolnikov as a character and what he goes through. Dostoevsky sees life in a different perspective, almost in a Molière like fashion. Especially that whole ‘Napoleonic’ concept.  You suddenly ponder life beyond life itself.

Which is your favourite book-to-movie adaptation?
I would like to say that if the book is a bestseller, the movie might be better. If the movie is adapted from a classic, however, there’s only a slim possibility of it being better. The Harry Potter movies, for instance, are equal to, if not better than, the novels themselves.   I’ve seen Crime And Punishment and adaptations of other classics, but all these fade away in comparison to the book.

Piyush Mishra, Poet and Lyricist 

Is there a book that changed or transformed your life?
The Bhagavad Gita, a prized Hindu text. I always have a copy of it with me. There is a lot of philosophy in it, and it talks about human life in such a way that if you have some difficult questions, and you read it, you will most certainly find the answers you need. It is made for everybody and when I read the book, I found answers to my questions, which my parents, my teachers and my friends couldn’t give me. Answers to questions like what is the cause of my struggle.

In everything you have read, whom would you count as the most inspirational character you have ever encountered?
There is no one such a character, but I would say Vishnu, from the Bhagwad Gita. In my youth I was very inspired by TheFountainhead, and I was very inspired by Howard Roark, its protagonist. And for about twenty years of my life, I tried to be like him. And then my journey proceeded from Howard Roark to the Bhagavad Gita. Howard Roark is basically an extremely arrogant person. It is through him that I understood the ego and then came this ‘smashing of the ego’, which was the Bhagavad Gita. What I found inspiring about Roark was that his ego arose out of knowing himself and the world around him, as opposed to others whose egos arise out of not knowing either. So you have to take ego in a positive sense.

Given a chance, which writer (dead or alive) would you most like to hang out with?
I can’t really answer this question because there is only one answer to it, something that means everything to me, that is the author of the Bhagavad Gita. So obviously the writer is not alive but he always makes me more alive each time I read Bhagavad Gita.

Is there any literary character you would have loved to be? Who? Why? How?
Yes, I always wanted to be Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. When I started acting I treated acting as Howard Roark would have treated architecture. I wanted to know everything about acting. I had a huge ego about my acting. Today that is not there. This was in my youth.

Which your favourite book-to-movie adaptation? Why?
The God Father, because it is the only case in which I have found the movie to be better than the novel. It is very difficult to adapt a novel and this is the best adaptation I have seen. I think it was shot to be much longer than it appears, and then edited excellently. The distribution and balancing of scenes is just right.

Gul Panag, Actress

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
I do not like to read books with a “message”, so I would pick Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. I love the way Heller captures irony and in a larger sense the characters of the book teach you that there is always a lighter side to life’s trials.

Girish Kasaravalli, Filmmaker

Is there any book that has changed or shaped or transformed your life?
The complete works of Erich Fromm, the famous American thinker totally changed the way I perceived society, people and relationships.

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