Author of the bestselling Of Love and Other Sorrows and A Scrapbook of Memories: My Life with the Rich, the Famous and the Scandalous, Ashok Chopra is the chief executive of Hay House Publishers India. His latest book, Memories of Fire, is the compelling story of five childhood friends who meet after a gap of fifty-four years. They embark on a journey into the past, laden with nostalgia and humour, and encompassing all the ugly and wonderful things life has to offer.
Here’s an excerpt from this gripping tale.
God’s gift to Deepak was a phenomenal memory. Anything he ever read he could easily recall and quote. Every student and every teacher admired and envied him. They all predicted he would grow up to be a writer and achieve sure fame internationally. ‘He is a rare student . . . Mark my words, Deepak is going to be more than just a professor of literature . . . He will be much more,’ Brother Walsh would tell his colleagues in the staffroom. ‘He will lecture at Oxford!’ This was then the ultimate ambition of every teacher.
‘No, he will grow up to be a very famous and celebrated writer of global acclaim!’ some of the others predicted. How wrong they all were!
Deepak remained a brilliant mind—a genius some would say—but became just a simple professor of literature at the university. Besides an article or two, he only ever wrote letters—to poets, novelists and playwrights; he also wrote regularly to editors of newspapers; only a few of these were published in the ‘letters to the editor’ columns, and that too in truncated versions; most were ignored and junked. Deepak would get most upset if an author quoted incorrectly or translated poorly. He would immediately write to the publication with his copious corrections listed in detail. Over the years, he was in regular correspondence with the eminent writer-historian and the country’s most-read and much-respected columnist Khushwant Singh, whose column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ was published in over two dozen newspapers and magazines across India and Pakistan. Deepak would point out to the writer his errors, check his translations and cite his misquotations. Normally, Singh would agree with everything sent in and offer his thanks for the same. But once, perhaps in a foul mood, he wrote back to Deepak one line on a postcard: ‘I disagree with you.’ Deepak, who hardly ever got angry, lost his cool and responded equally angrily: ‘Of course you have the right to disagree. Just as Evelyn Beatrice Hall stated in her work The Friends of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—a statement often misattributed to Voltaire himself. But at least propound your reasons for the said disagreement. To say simply: I disagree with you is, to my understanding and knowledge, not enough. What’s the logic? What’s the ratiocination? What’s the sound judgement and chain of thought or coherence, connection or authority behind your disagreement? I fail to understand.’
Finally, Khushwant agreed that Deepak was right and he wrong. Later he wrote about Deepak in his columns and paid him a rich, and well-deserved, compliment: ‘Deepak is a rare being . . . He must be the most erudite man in the country . . . a human encyclopedia. There is just about nothing he doesn’t know . . .’ Most unassuming and totally unambitious, Deepak became a professor in the English department of the university. The position entitled him to a spacious bungalow on its sprawling campus and the headship of the department in rotation. He rejected both. In his private life, he did have a few affairs but they all ended in disaster simply because the women couldn’t discuss poetry, fiction, drama or even history with him. Thereafter, he came to the conclusion that women were a sheer waste of time and would provide various examples from world history and literature to prove his point. Each one was valid. He remained a bachelor. How he met his biological needs no one knew!