I discovered Saul Bellow the summer after ninth grade. I was spending the summer in India, boarded up in my aunt’s old room. Herzog lay on a shelf next to the window, and I picked it up because I found the title strange. I called her and told her I had found her old book, and that I was going to start reading it. I had ambitiously decided to finish as many books as I could that year. To my surprise, she encouraged me not to read it. “It’s too grown up for you,” she insisted. And she was right. Bellow’s Herzog lifted the film of innocence from my eyes with his talk of philosophy interwoven with candid dialogue on the harsh realities of existence, inspiring simultaneously a well-examined life and an earnest immersion in community. I was struck reading it in India, especially as I began to draw parallels between the chaos of the land — raw, unvarnished, with the burdened hero of Bellow’s fiction. He wove such disparate aspects of life together, and this mélange of the metaphysical and the material, the concrete and the esoteric was reminiscent of India itself. His ideas were weighty, his descriptions often wrenching, and it was this visceral description of Moses Herzog’s search for substance that encouraged me to pair action with philosophy.
I had felt a discord before, reading Pascal and Plato while men in threadbare clothing and rubber sandals swept the roadside with brooms made of twigs. But Bellow outlined that the search for the divine, for human enlightenment does not just belong to the privileged; it is not a luxury, but a human need and thus a right. “The difficulty with people who spend their lives in human studies,” he writes in Herzog, is that they “imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended.” As an aspiring academic, this was a jolt, a timely call to implement what I read and wrote. His didactic writing, his complex works where the subject matter and the characters were common or indigent, elevated them, for they highlighted that these people too had orphic thoughts and profound insights. Philosophy is not just for the wealthy or the well-endowed, but also for the proletariat: Every man is a philosopher.
Bellow’s urge that a writer is a moralist begs one to take part in the world, rather than remove oneself from it. Indeed, the sheer effervescence of India forbade me from becoming a spectator. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cowers in the face of India, where women starve themselves to feed their idols and not a few of the wandering homeless are priests. He looked at the full man, man in his entirety, from his yearnings and regrets to his ailments and facial features. In By the St Lawrence, he describes exposed pink lungs strewn across the railroad tracks, and the “pellucid drops of fluid” reached out and pulled from my memory graphic images of exposed sores on the scalps of beggars on sidewalks, throbbing lacerations surrounded by flies. In writing that Herzog’s brown eyes were “so often overlaid with the film or protective chitin of melancholy,” Bellow likened the misery manifested in Herzog’s gaze to an insect’s exoskeleton, and through these strange yet masterful comparisons he communicated the importance and beauty, yet also the fragility and transience, of the body. His stories encompassed all the disciplines I love — psychology, biology, philosophy, literature, history — and aspire to pursue with greater depth than ever at university.
Saul was Jewish and American just as I am Indian and American, and through our patchwork cultural identities I felt a particular communion with him. Having grown up among so many different cultures like myself, he understood that the struggle of every man cannot be reduced to platitudes. The photographs of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and finally my mother and father in a row on the piano in our home in Bangalore represent the journey of carving a life out in India, a life held up by faith, trust, community; the painful and careful work of generations.
“A writer is a reader moved to emulation,” he wrote. As someone who oscillates between very different cultures, traversing India, America and Europe, I have a profound appreciation for both my own life and those of the people I have had the privilege of encountering. Bellow’s descriptions of his characters remind me of men and women I know very well, whether in Rockville, Oxford, or Bangalore. It is because you grow to love these people so deeply, and love them for their quirks, their misgivings, their flaws, their acts of kindness, that you desire to write about them and preserve them. In his eulogy for Yetta Barshevsky Schachtman, Bellow writes, “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to.” Envisioning the house in India is impossible without conjuring an image of my Papa’s few, thin, wispy strands of hair and his neatly filed fingernails, his grey chest hair peeking out of his shirt, reading a newspaper in the living room. I recall how our driver Raymond’s medicine for his alcoholism caused his hair to fall out in large clumps, how he’d self-consciously graze his hand against his exposed cranium to feel the missing tufts. I remember Shiva, a little boy in the orphanage who was being teased about his mother who was a prostitute. He came up to tell us about the cruelty of the other children, little tears leaking out of his one infected eyelid, with red rims and crust around the lashes, his open mouth revealing small misshapen teeth. These are people that belong to eternity, whose stories and suffering are worthy of remembrance.
In reading Bellow’s short story Zetland: A Character Witness, I also came to know about the life and work of Isaac Rosenfeld, his close friend and often rival. The brotherhood of Bellow and Rosenfeld, which was in life so vibrant yet so fraught, made such an impression on Bellow that he yearned to paint a posthumous portrait of his friend for the world, which remembered Rosenfeld largely as a flame that promised so much yet sputtered out. I was so touched by Zetland, particular Bellow’s reason for writing it, that it moved me to tears. Bellow loved his friend too much to let him fade into obscurity, and so he painted him, highlighting his brilliance, his quirks, and his charm, in order that he might be recognized more for his feats than for his flaws. Reminiscent of Brutus’ eulogy for Caesar, this act of defending and immortalizing his friend was to me the most beautiful example of the way words can be used to preserve, exalt, and bless another.
Largely thanks to Bellow, I have long believed that writing and reading are a means of redemption, both personal and social. Through the salvation of metaphor and simile, the most tragic life has the ability to be transformed into a gripping portrait, a work with the ability to touch its readers and express what they find to be inexpressible. It is love and care that notices, well enough to describe in rich and moving lexicon, the infinitesimal puckered scar above a pursed lip, or the slight tremors of a bony hand. As an artist, Bellow’s attention to how the soul imprints itself on the body, how the emotional manifests itself through the physical, reinforced my love for portraits, both literary and artistic. I am moved to compassion by attention to detail, as it reveals our humanity and draws on the commonalities between us. A waiter in India once recommended certain cookies at a bakery; “They are really … scrumptious,” he told me shyly. Who would imagine that an Indian man would use such a bizarre, such a peculiarly British term? And who was there to capture these instances of a world changing? The idiosyncratic verbiage of the colonizer was mingled with the sentiment of the Indian. It is at times like these, strange, seemingly irrelevant, that I wish to preserve. “On en montre pas sa grandeur pour être a une extrémité,” wrote Pascal, “mais bien a toucher les deux a la fois et remplissant tout l’entre-d’eux.” One does not show one’s greatness by remaining at one extreme, but by standing at the edge of two extremes and bridging the gap between them. That is what I aspire to do in my writing, to attempt to bridge the gap between people, cultures and ideas in a way that does not dilute them but reveals their underlying kinship.
Life in India at times is akin to purgatory. The scenes one witnesses and the interactions one has act upon the corroded gold of one’s soul like the refiner’s fire. Yet, I believe this exposure to the wretchedness, the glory and everything in between has been vital to my growth as a writer and as a person. If the best writing is based on deeply-felt personal experience, how do you imitate complexity in your work without having lived astride it? How can you write about envy, sloth, lust, violence, deception, infidelity, etc., without having had some personal dialogue with them? To understand a human being is to understand and acknowledge all of these things, to probe the depths of what it truly means to live, and thus what it means to truly love one another. The author is called to live among his subjects, to be immersed in environments as diverse as India and America, East and West. The world contains both purgatory and paradise, and Bellow has served as my Virgilian guide in showing me that an appreciation of the latter cannot be reached without an apprenticeship in the former.
Finally, it is in writing that I am moved to compassion. You think you should sin to muster up more compassion, “I will be all things to all men,” writes St Paul, “to save some” vs. “I must be all things to all men, the author says, “to save myself.”