Despair & the Classics

Tanuj Solanki

Tanuj Solanki lives and works in Mumbai. His stories have been published in The CaravanOut of PrintOne Throne Magazine, and numerous others. His first novel will be published in 2016 by Harper Collins India.




“…with despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up—the self.”

from Alastair Hannay’s translation of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death


Unconscious of despair

In Panchmarhi, when we were on rented bicycles, letting the stubborn summer grind over our heads in that ill-planned vacation, you told me that I should read the classics. My mind immediately catalogued all the lightweight versions I’d read in my childhood—Moby books’ abridged editions of Dickens, Conan Doyle, Verne, so on. But you’d meant the classics of antiquity, something you clarified by asking me if I had heard of Oedipus. When I said I had heard of the Oedipus complex but didn’t know much else, you nodded. Then you narrated to me Oedipus’ monumental tragedy from what you remembered from the Sophocles plays.

You weren’t pushing me to read the old classics as much as you were trying to find a way out for me. There was that question that I’d been posing a lot those days, and since you knew it well, you wanted to help me out. Perhaps you thought that a struggling writer who couldn’t cook up any new stories should go to old stories for inspiration, in a gesture akin to going back to first principles.

But it wasn’t possible for me to take your advice to action, despite every word of yours being important for me. In those days, my trouble with writing was not not having anything to write about but having only one story to write about. I was full of you, of us, of our story, of the novelty of my sensations, each one of which seemed to me to be the beginning of the universe. To me we were ourselves the first principle, the only reality that I could inhabit or come back to.

So in Panchmarhi, I listened to you telling Oedipus’ story with all the attention I could muster, memorized it as something that you’d told me while we were on bicycles bang in the middle of India, and I think I memorized the event of that telling more than what was told. I had thought that I would never come back to Oedipus as anything other than this memory.

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