Three and a half years ago, I set upon a voyage to the distant dreamy land of America, in a quest to chase my dreams. I was so excited when I set my foot upon the land of opportunity that I started an entire blog series called the American Sojourn where I recorded my fascinations around the alien land. The roads were big, the cars were big, the people were big, things moved on the right side, random people smiled and said hello if you happened to maintain eye contact for more than a second…yada yada yada. Through the course of my stay in the US, I had unconsciously and unknowingly adopted the American way. Although I did speak to my family and friends in India ever so often, it had been two years since I had visited the country of my birth, and as a result I had forgotten how India felt like, smelt like or looked like.
So, when I landed in Mumbai a couple of days ago, my senses tuned up, the same way they did when my feet touched American soil for the first time. From the milling crowds at the terminal to the Sebastian Vettel-esque driving from the quintessential Mumbai taxiwallah, things seemed vastly different from what I had become used to. Although it only took my brain a few minutes to restore itself to the desi configuration, I began to see my country in a different light. I began to understand why the western world was fascinated with India and why people from all across the globe travel to this ancient country with magical fairydust in their eyes.
If you could describe the country in one word, it would be ‘Chaos’. Chaos is everywhere. Chaos is omnipresent. The moment I walked out of the plane and into the Immigration section of the Terminal, the concept of a “queue” became non-existent. Lines are for sissies. In India, we prefer blobs, where a blob can be loosely defined as a large gathering of people sandwiched together in no particular shape or form. There was a huge blob at Immigration, another one at the baggage carousel and an even bigger blob at customs. Chaos is not only restricted to the situations that would demand people to stand in queues. Chaos is all over the streets. The concept of “lanes” is non-existent. Following traffic lights is a mere guideline and not a rule. Honking denotes a multitude of things including acknowledgment, warning, caution, and personal whim. Indicators are for chumps.
Yet…amidst all that chaos, amidst all that ruckus, there exists an elegant, pristine and untarnished order to things. Despite of not having queues, blobs of people take whatever shape is intended. If only one person is allowed to pass through a particular point at a time, the blob will organically eject its members one by one, in some natural order that leaves no one frustrated or angry. Despite of not having strict traffic rules and regulations, traffic seems to flow smoothly. Headfirst collisions are coolly avoided every second, the motorbike threads through a keyhole spaced opening between two cars without touching either of them. The kid with a bunch of tea glasses filled with steaming hot tea, effortlessly crosses the road without spilling a single drop as cars and buses and trucks zoom past him.
Put the same scenario in any developed country in the world, and the world as we know it would break down. But in India, things somehow…somehow just magically work. Dr. Ian Malcolm’s words here, seem more apt than ever,
"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is."
Well, there it is…
A few years ago, while browsing through online lists where people voted for the best science fiction novels that they’ve read, I bumped into this book called Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Having never heard of that name before(1) , I was surprised to see it in the top 3 of almost every single list that I saw. As a kid growing up, I was a voracious reader of science-fiction, and I read through everything that I could put my hands on - Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Carl Sagan. But for some reason, I never came across Ender’s Game or any of Orson Scott Card's books. Maybe they weren't popular in India? Because if I had seen it on bookshelves, there is no chance that I wouldn't have picked it up. Hey, as a kid, who wouldn't want to read a story where a kid of your age is the protagonist, a kid like you, who would actually save humanity! That would've been a dream come true for me at that age. Indeed, when I mentioned this to one of my American friends, this was his response:
"Haha, that’s a good joke, buddy…"
"Wait, you’re not joking?…"
"Are you serious?…”
"You haven’t read Ender’s Game?…”
"Like, for real?…”
"What did you do when you were a kid?…"
"Your childhood is ruined…"
And then soon enough, other people joined the conversation and had similar reactions. Then came the slow nods of disapproval from everyone(2). I’m guessing Ender’s Game was (and probably is) like a cult book in the US, a necessary rite of passage for all geeks, nerds, and possibly anyone and everyone even remotely related to science.
Swallowing my slowly dissolving pride, I made it a point to read the book sooner rather than later. But given that Ender’s Game was classified as a YA book, I wasn’t sure if I would appreciate it as an adult who would like to spend his time reading “the classics” in order to refine his “art”(3). And then after procrastinating for a long period of time, like I always do, my decision of reading Ender’s Game reached a critical point, when I saw Hollywood’s rendition of the book. That’s when I said to myself - “I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK BEFORE THE MOVIE COMES OUT!” Since movies are inherently worse than the books that they are made from(4), I did not want to ruin the experience of enjoying the novel(5).
And thus, I set out on a quest to purchase the book and read it before November 1st - the release date for the movie. I nonchalantly walked into one of the bookstores in the city and scanned my eyes over the SciFi bookshelf - “Adams…Adams…more Hitchhiker, oh, there’s Burgess, and Burroughs…more Burroughs…and then there’s Clarke…2001…some more Clarke. Wait, where’s Card?” Orson Scott Card wasn’t there. That left me puzzled. Why wouldn’t you have a book rated by many as the best SciFi novel ever written, especially right before the movie release, the time when noobs like me would flock to bookstores to buy it? It made no sense from an economic perspective. I mean, I remember talking to a bookstore owner last year who told me that he’d sold a lot more copies of Life of Pi during the time the movie was out, than on any other period.
I walked up to the guy at the counter and asked him,
"Hey, do you guys have Ender’s Game?"
He gave me a deep frown and spoke in a pseudo-polite voice, “We don’t carry Orson Scott Card’s books here.”
"Okay," I replied, unable to come up with a better response.
"Ender’s Game is the worst piece of crap ever written by the way," he added as an afterthought.
"Uhh…Hmm…Alright." I swallowed and walked out of the bookstore having never seen such a polemic response to a book.
A few days later, I went to another bookstore in the city that had a huge SciFi collection, but surprisingly again, Orson Scott Card was absent.
I then decided to pay a visit to what is probably San Francisco’s oldest, most popular bookstore. This is such a lovely bookstore. Surely, I’ll find the book here! I thought. But yet again, despite of having a large SciFi collection, Orson Scott Card was again largely absent. There was only one not so famous book of his lying hiding between a couple of Clarke's books.
I knew that there was some meaning behind this madness, and I desperately wanted to find out. I walked up to the girl at the counter.
"Hey, how can I help you?" she asked and smiled in the friendliest of ways.
"I was looking for a book…" I started. She had an earnest look on her face.
"…Ender’s Game." I finished. And the moment I said those two words, her friendly facade was replaced by one of ice-cold rejection.
"We don’t keep Orson Scott Card’s books," she said sternly, that original smile wiped clean from her face.
This time I was determined to find out why, so I asked gingerly, “Uhh…why is that?”
She raised her eyebrows and replied in a terse matter-of-factly way, “Because of his homophobic views.” Her face had the words Like Duh! written all over it.
Ah, that’s what it is! It made complete sense to me now. I remembered reading a news article in the past where Orson Scott Card came out and protested against gay-marriage. Later, I went on to read one of his essays on his contempt on legalizing same-sex marriage(6). I can understand how his controversial views can be distasteful to the liberal, open-minded denizens of this lovely city. In fact, in any widely debated issue, especially about things that can cause large scale social change, it is natural for opposing parties to run into a heated conflict. And in a way, I guess it makes sense for the store owner not to sell books that propagate ideologies that his/her readers find revolting and distasteful. For instance, would I like to read a book that supports racism and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people? Hell No. If I ever saw such a book in a bookstore, I would probably never visit that bookstore again in my life. But then, what I don’t understand at all is why “ban” a book that is not even remotely related to the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage. I may be wrong, but as far as I know, I don’t think Ender’s Game has any hateful propaganda. I guess the reason for not selling Orson Scott Card's books is to send him a staunch message that his views will not be endorsed. But does banning a young adult coming of age SciFi book like Ender’s Game really help in solving that issue? Will it affect the author in any way, especially someone who’s already sold millions of copies worldwide? I’m not sure…
What surprised me even more was that despite of the supposed “boycott”, that bookstore still retained one of Card’s books? Does this mean that they’re not committed to the “cause”? Is there a “cause” in the first place? I’m not sure…
With my inability to find this book in stores around the city, I took it upon myself as a challenge to go through every bookstore in the city until I found this book(7).
Finally, after scouting around for some more time, I eventually found a bookstore in the city that sold the book. And indeed, as I would’ve initially expected, I found the re-branded movie-cover version of the book at the store-front.
"I’m surprised that you have this book, considering that many bookstores in the city don’t carry Orson Scott Card," I mentioned to the store owner as I purchased the book.
"Oh you mean because of his homophobic views?" he asked.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Now that you mention it, I did meet an annoyed patron who wanted us to take Card’s books off our shelves."
"Yeah, Orson Scott Card’s not the most likeable person around, is he?"
"True. He might’ve said some stupid things. Heck, there are many authors who’ve written great books, but then have gone on to say stupid things. That doesn’t mean we should stop selling those good books."
"Yeah. I think that the book should transcend the author," I said and walked out in triumphant jubilation upon completing my quest.
(1) Yes, I know I know. Don’t give me that look now.
(2) I could completely relate to it, since I do the same to people of my age who haven’t read Harry Potter or people of any age who haven’t read Lord of the Rings.
(3) I’m not sure if I’ve reached enough maturity yet. I had a tough time reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Sigh!
(4) Hmm…let me rephrase this to something that is more politically correct - “In most cases, books are strictly better than the movies that are made from them.”
(5) My personal mantra is to always, and I mean always, read the book before watching the movie. It’s almost always pointless to read a book after you’re pure imagination has been impregnated by the imaginations of someone else.
(7) This might sound silly to you guys, since if I really wanted to read the book, I could’ve ordered it on Amazon, but you know, this is one of those silly rationale lacking things that I usually do.