Sometimes we need to read a story that leaves us cold
During this scorching April, I remembered a freezing December in Delhi more than a decade ago. Dressed in uncounted woollens, two pairs of socks and a quilt, I still couldn't get warm. It then occurred to me that I should stop watching this National Geographic documentary about a failed expedition to the South Pole. Two clicks of the remote later, watching a sitcom set in a centrally heated Manhattan flat, I felt my toes warm up.
I tried that same power of suggestion this past month, while sweltering under a whining ceiling fan. I fingered the bookshelves and poked through the towers of unread books on every table, and I constructed a new stack of summer reading.
The first thing I happened on was a volume in a stash from Scholastic, Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater. It had a snow-white cover, with wintry branches and one small dot of blood. It was a story about a golden-haired girl and a wolf, as so many good stories are. It called to mind Red Riding Hood, bleak winds, starvation, and yellow eyes lurking in the pines of the Black Forest. Most of all, it probed the female fascination with wild animals, especially the ones we're warned against. The girl's house stands on the edge of the woods in Minnesota, a chilly state on the northern American border. She encounters a wolf who is actually a boy. It is a teen romance with some bloodletting, wolves snatching children off school buses and gnawing on wrists. But it is the cold that is the real villain of this fairy tale. When young Sam is cold, he changes back into a wolf. Every icy blast from an open window, every early frost, sends him into exile from his own humanity.
The mercury seemed to dip as I read. Then I picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, last read in school decades ago. Ivan Denisovich Sukhov serves a sentence in a Siberian prison camp. On this one day, he dresses, eats his breakfast, marches to his work site, lays bricks, and comes back again.
The men are imprisoned for forgotten or even fictitious crimes. They may be released after serving their sentence, or they may be given another ten years for no particular reason. Their spare ration is nibbled at by the prison officials, guards and rats, in that order.
In any weather short of a blizzard, the prisoners turn out for roll call, get counted, frisked and sometimes stripped in the frigid air, and then walk miles to their construction site, shod in foot rags and felt boots. Their faces freeze and their fingers and toes go numb. At the end of the working day they file back to the prison.
Yet, at night, Sukhov considers the day “almost happy”. Among other things, they hadn't put him in solitary, he had bought some tobacco, and he had got an extra bowl of mush at noon. In any season, this book chills us to the bone.