There’s a particular summer vacation I remember more than any other, not least because it was the big one after my class ten exams. It was too early to start worrying about the results and too late (much too late!) to do anything about sundry eff-ups one made in the exams.
In the meanwhile, there were a delicious two and a half months, and I was home, in Hyderabad, after some years in other god-forsaken towns. I was doing French, falling in and out of love, and had just met the most wonderful person: a neighbour down the road, Bernadette Kao. She had two young kids and a large collection of books. The first was not a recommendation, but the second—oh, but the second!
There is something special about borrowing books from friends; libraries are very worthy places, but unless it is a school or a college library, chances are you will find a limited choice of books chosen to represent either a country or some special interest.
So when Bernadette told me I was welcome to borrow as many books as I liked, my joy, to coin a phrase, knew no bounds.
(Be warned: this is a long, long post)
Every three days, I’d land up at her place and take back enormous piles of books to read. what I especially enjoyed reading were Bernadette’s Recommendations (-: why does that sound familiar :-)
In one lot I had The Monkey King by Wu Ch'eng-en, Paul Zindell’s The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man In The Moon Marigolds (yes, I chose it for the title, but the guy won a Pulitzer for it!), and among many, many other books, Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche.
For those who haven’t read it, Scaramouche is the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a lawyer who, in the process of avenging his friend’s murder, becomes many things on the sidelines and in the anonymous centre of the French Revolution. This is how the book begins:
"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony."
A few paragraphs later, “you perceive him at the age of four and twenty, stuffed with learning enough to produce intellectual indigestion in an ordinary mind.”
(All quotations off the top off my head; please forgive any missing words here and there)
Very soon, Andre-Louis is witness to the foul murder of his friend, Philippe, in a one-sided duel. The murderer being the very powerful Marquis de le Tour d’Azyr, it is impossible to get anyone in a position of authority to see that this is murder. Remember, this is on the eve of the French Revolution; Andre-Louis goes off to tilt against the windmills of the legislature. Finding the windmill intransigent, he vows to see what he can do with the wind, having taken an oath on the body of his dead friend to pursue the evil Marquis whenever he can with Phillippe’s ‘dangerous gift of eloquence’.
In short order, Andre-Louis raises the wind, flees to escape the consequences and joins a touring company of actors whose tawdry productions they claim are descended from nothing less than the commedia delle arta. Here, he becomes what he sees is the role he is destined to play all his life: that of Scaramouche – artful, sly provocateur, always ready to stir things up, always ironic, detached and always playing a part.
Since that long-ago summer when I first read Scaramouche, I’ve re-read the book several times. Oddly enough, no school or college library had a copy of the book. In college, one friend dug it up from an aunt’s bookshelf. I annexed the book, got the whole thing xeroxed and held on to my friend’s copy for a good, long while.
In at least one exam paper every year, a line from Scaramouche, suitably modified, would make an appearance (Shoma, ‘fess up! You mugged up ‘the vision that pierces all husks and shams and claims the core of reality for its own’!); and no, we didn’t exercise ourselves too much about whether this constituted plagiarism.
The first copy of Scaramouche I owned was given me by an ex-boyfriend. We were wandering around Daryagunj, when I found what I had come to think of as my edition; the one I first borrowed from Bernadette. It had a white cover, with a man dressed all in white, pointing a sword at some person unseen (I knew who the person was!). It was a Pan edition, yellowed with age. That day, the book acquired this triumphant and ungrammatical inscription: ‘remember it was me who gave you this book.’ Sigh.
Years later, another friend in another city, gave me what amounted to a farewell gift, since I haven’t seen him since then. It was a first edition, which he most fortuitously found at Select Book Store (off Brigade Road, Bangalore). It used to belong to one Charlie Shipp, back then in December 1921. For what must be a well-thumbed romance, it is remarkably well preserved, 85 years after it first saw light of day.
Then, in 2003, I decided to return to Hyderabad permanently. There were some unpleasant threads to tie up (what was that Vikram Seth poem? ‘Uncomprehending day, I tie my loss to leaves and watch them drift away’) and that took some time. By the time I came back home, I was exhausted and depressed. My mother had a gift for me: the new House of Strauss edition of not just Scaramouche, but also Scaramouche The Kingmaker and Captain Blood. The inscription on this edition of Scaramouche says, “The one book to lift your spirits and make you smile again.”
This way of unembarrassed writing is clearly catching!
And why would I apologise? I love the book and I’ve read it hundreds of times; I know large parts of it extremely well. It is melodramatic, romantic, ironic, passionate and swashbuckling by turns. And what rousing speeches there are! Sometimes, I feel that someone only has to put a sword in my hand and I will acquit myself fairly well purely on the strength of what I’ve read in the book!
Rafael Sabatini was Italian by birth, but chose to live in England and write in English because he thought that ‘all the best stories are written in English’. He wrote other books that were not as well-received as Scaramouche was when it was published in 1921. These were the years between the wars. Much had changed, but much was yet to change.
If it was ironic that Sabatini’s reputation was made by a story that was clearly revolutionary in intent, but written in a language whose speakers were the inheritors of an Empire on which the sun never set, it is an irony that no one would appreciate more than Andre-Louis Moreau – Scaramouche himself.
As for me, I am eternally grateful to the man who gave us this amazing book.
For other books by Rafael Sabatini, go to Project Gutenberg. Personally, I think the best things he wrote were the ones I’ve mentioned above, though I feel fond of King In Prussia and Anthony Wilding – the last because the edition I have is a WWII Armed Forces Edition with a print that’s almost too small to read.