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Live forever!

Ray Bradbury 1920-2010 A prose-poet, his finest legacy will be his haunting short stories

books Updated: Jun 08, 2012 19:19 IST
Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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There’s something odd about reading Fahrenheit 451 on an e-reader. Odd, considering that Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel depicting a society where books are banned and burned loses a bit of its inflammatory power when not read ‘on paper’.

When I heard about Bradbury’s death on Wednesday evening, I immediately collected all his books I possess — The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, I Sing the Body Electric!, Dandelion Wine, The October Country and Something Wicked This Way Comes — and piled them up on my bedside table. My intention was to read them all again at one go, books I had first started reading when I was less than a third of my present age; books that led me to believe that stories can get embedded in one’s head forever.

And yet, for almost an hour, all I did was look at the books, trying to remember what I felt when I first held a copy of Dandelion Wine and read the first few lines: “It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow.”

And then to my shock, I realised that I didn’t have my copy of Fahrenheit 451. Downloading the book, I started reading the slim novel named after the temperature at which paper starts to burn. The story of a fireman, whose job it is to burn books and who discovers the illicit pleasure of reading them, is not an Orwellian fable about censorship. It is a story about a society that has willingly given up reading, with minority groups finding many books offensive (sounds familiar?) and the State simply facilitating things. The opening lines are riveting: “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.” When I witnessed the fire that burned down large parts of the Calcutta Book Fair in January 1997, with charred books lying sprawled on the fair grounds the next day, all I thought of was of Montag the fireman in Fahrenheit 451.

But it is Bradbury’s short stories that remain his finest legacy. While his books will be found in the science fiction racks of bookshops, there isn’t much science in his fiction. In this, Bradbury is closer to Italo Calvino, although he didn’t shun the ‘sf’ tag as vociferously as the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, with whom he shares many themes.

The Martian Chronicles, separate stories loosely tied up to tell us of humankind’s attempts to colonise Mars, is a stunning exploration of what it is to be — and not to be — human. While Lem’s Solaris dealt with the sheer impossibility of humans to understand an alien life form, Bradbury’s Martians and humans are equally unable to fathom each other. The consequences are sometimes tragi-comic, such as when the Martians, believing the humans to be insane Martians projecting their demented hallucinations, put them in an asylum and then gun them down.

A sheer prose-poet, Bradbury had recounted how, as a 12-year-old, he was inspired to become a writer after he met Mr Electrico, a magician, who commanded him to “Live forever!” Nineteen years later, he wrote the short story, ‘The Last Night of the World’, about a couple who wakes up with the knowledge that the world will end that night. They go about their day normally, the story ending with them wishing each other good night.

Which is all I can do to Ray Bradbury, magician-writer, who has managed to pull off what Mr Electrico had ordered him to do so many moons ago.