Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error, according to George Eliot. When I first read that as a college freshman, I recalled the summer I had just spent in India. My uncle had been reading about the US election and asked me who Ronald Reagan was. “Oh, he's just a movie actor,” I airily replied. “No one takes him seriously. Jimmy Carter will win again.” My excuse is that I was a teenager and an optimist.
I set aside George Eliot's wisdom when, slavering over Chennai's new Anna Centennial Library, I predicted in this column that the medical and engineering students bent over those lovely desks would be there for the next 100 years. I'm middle-aged now, but still an optimist. Not even 100dayslater, our leader has decreed that the library will be replaced by a hospital. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth in the papers. There is disgust with politicians who undo their predecessors' best work. There is a high court stay order. Will Chennai's citizens Occupy the Library? Don't ask me. I'm done with prophecies.
Instead, let's revisit the timeless curd-rice-and-mango-pickle dilemma. (You know the one. Will we have a nibble of pickle left for that very last mouthful of rice? Should we ask for more pickle? Pile on more rice?) Some years ago I saw the haunting film “The Hours,” based on Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name, in turn based on Virginia Woolf's “Mrs Dalloway.” When I found “Michael Cunningham's The Hours” listed on a bookseller's website, I clicked and paid. As soon as the book arrived I wrote my name with a flourish on the first page and on an auspicious day settled into the sofa to read it. Then I found that the book was a reader's guide to Cunningham's novel, part of the Continuum Contemporaries series, which provides introductions to influential recent authors.
I usually skip the reader's guide they now seem to print at the end of even new novels. I would rather let the novel age and check again, years later, whether it deserves all that investigation. But in this case I had already written my name in the book. So, one long sigh later, I made a plan. I would read this mistaken acquisition, but only after I had read both the original texts.
“Mrs Dalloway” I remembered as stultifying, far less readable than Woolf's essays. But in the years it sat on my shelf it magically became extraordinarily moving. The book had aged and so had I. Months later, I finally found “The Hours.” By the time I read that I had become fuzzy on the details of “Mrs Dalloway,” so now I must repeat steps one and two. After that, I will look at the reader's guide to “The Hours” and may even take up its suggestions for further reading. Then, if I still have some mango pickle left, I'll watch the movie again. That much I can predict.