Never a patient reader, I cannot sit in a place with a book for more than half hour, tops. On a typical Saturday I am home, invariably laboring through a godforsaken book, the same book I would have plodded through for better part of a fortnight. I start out at the little tea table and chair out on the porch.
Fifteen pages down, I am up. I then plonk myself down by the washing machine, into this little perforated plastic settee in a difficult corner. Another 10 pages and I am set for takeoff again, this time for the comfy sofa in the dimly-lit living room to strain on my bespectacled eyes.
By the time I have leafed through 50 pages—or should I say the rare day I achieve this incredible feat?—I would have covered every inch of the top floor, and a fair bit of the first floor too. To paraphrase Prithvi Narayan Shah, it is not with little labor that I complete a book, any book, big or small. Then, there are those soul-crushing days when even this herculean labor goes down the drain, literally. Take what happened this past Saturday.
It had been some time since I started Mohammed Hanif's Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and I was going nowhere. In a week, I had barely read 50 pages. So, this Saturday, I decide to hunker down and rifle through at least half the 250-page book. I was confident that after the initial stutter, I would get into my reading groove and lap up Hanif's second novel, just like I had savored every bit of his first, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. But that is the thing you see: while Exploding Mangoes started brisk and maintained a rollicking tempo throughout, Alice Bhatti simply refuses to take off—no Kim's rocket this—even 100 pages down the road.
I know, with literary fiction, you have to be a little patient. But when you like a writer for his humor, you expect the sarcasms and puns and innuendos to come thick and fast, so fast you barely have time to take cover.
When you are kept waiting for that first tickle for 100 pages, and it still doesn't arrive, then, this irresistible urge wells up from the pit of your stomach: to murder the goddamn writer.
Another reason I was so upset with Alice Bhatti was that these days I seldom read fiction. When I do, I prefer authors like Keigo Higashino, Gilian Flynn and Sophie Hannah, all of whom are sure to get your adrenaline rushing even though they may not—they don't—pique your feigned high-brow sensibilities.
So when I pick up a half-serious author like Hanif, and I do so with not a little labor, the book better be good, preferably Pulitzer- and Booker-perfect. Then, along comes Alice Bhatti.
Although I don't read much fiction these days, I have in this same space admitted to something remarkable in the past: that fiction can often represent 'reality' better than non-fiction. I found this particularly true of the works of Leo Tolstoy (especially Anna Karenina and War and Peace, two of my favorites). Tolstoy, I find, has this uncanny ability to bring to life his characters and settings, something even the best non-fiction would struggle to match.
Then there are works of meta-fiction like Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman that I have also read over the years, again with great patience. But even before I started on these books, I knew exactly what to expect. Not so with Our Lady. On the form of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif promised me this sizzling Chicken Pesawari (or the even more famous Pakistani mangoes, take your pick) and then delivered the blandest English fish and chips.
The last time I was so disappointed with a book was perhaps with Nick Hornby's Funny Girl. The title had again done me in. Only later was I reliably told that not everybody 'gets' the highfalutin Hornby humor. But had I been informed of this in advance, I would have been spared not a little agony.
So no more experimentation and no more high-brow humor for me; I am done, dusted, with them.
I would rather stick to my Robert Kaplan and Bhim Bahadur Pade and Andrew Small and Leo Rose and MC Regmi and, you know, drop any good name in foreign affairs and statecraft and Nepali history; on those rare occasions I do decide to take a break, I can fall back on some unadulterated low-brow fun, the cheap thrills that come with oodles of blood and gore and homicides and psychopaths. If I need an instant relief from this murderous mayhem, there is always my old beloved: PG Wodehouse.