For 45 minutes, JM Coetzee’s audience listened in rapt attention, as the 70-year-old Nobel laureate transported them from the warm, dusty Jaipur afternoon to the philosphical tug-of-war going on between a mother and a son in a remote village on the Castillian plateau.
“Some writers perform, some write, Coetzee will read,” historian Patrick French said, as part of the introduction. And Coetzee did: standing under the awning, reading in his slow, haunted voice, choosing a story, ‘The Old Woman and the Cats,’ that relies on Roman Catholic theology — particularly that contentious question of contraception. Coetzee said that he had deliberated on whether that story would be suitable for an Indian audience. But then “Hinduism at least takes seriously where souls come from and where they go to, more than can be said of the secular west”.
‘The Old Woman and the Cats’ that Coetzee had on earlier occasions described as a “lesson” rather than a “story”, talks about a middle-aged professor and his old mother who was once also a famous novelist. She is Elizabeth Costello, though her name is never mentioned in the narrative. She nurtures the feral, wild cats in her village, for which she is despised by its inhabitants. She also shelters a rather uncouth, serial exhibitionist.
Coetzee, famously reclusive and distant, for one sunny day in Jaipur, opened up to those people called readers.