On Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point.
The undergraduate college I went to in Bombay was so short of classrooms that it taught the arts lectures from 7.30 am to 12 noon and the science ones from about 11am to 4 pm. This meant that every day I was free at around midday to go home. I chose, however, to stay on and spent the afternoon in the college library.
As years went by I graduated to bigger and better libraries. The British Council had a wonderful reading room and a collection of newer books that I coveted. My family was a literate one and reading books was a passion. My uncles and my elder brother wanted me to be politically oriented, that is, a left-wing, intellectual. They urged me as a preparation to read George Bernard Shaw's Prefaces and Harold Laski's A Grammar of Politics. But I wished to make my own discoveries. It was then that I discovered Aldous Huxley.
I had heard of Brave New World from many people - so that would not do, as that was far too common. But a friend who was slightly older, a playwright and theatre director, suggested Huxley's Point Counter Point. The British Council had a copy, a pale-green covered hard-bound Chatto and Windus edition. I borrowed it and my life was transformed.
Huxley is not thought to be a good novelist. He is far too didactic and his characters get into long monologues. But while I found out all this later, in 1956, when I was 16, Huxley took hold of me like a primeval force. Here was a totally new world. Above all, he was cynical and funny. Growing up in Bombay, forward and westernised as it was, was not at all glamorous, especially if you were lower middle-class and went to a suburban college rather than one of the downtown ones.
We were stuck in our Gujarati/Marathi world. Conventional morality, a lot of fake spirituality and the usual politicians' cant were thrown at us. The literature in Gujarati or Marathi and Hindi that I could read, as well as much that was available in English, was romantic and soppy.
In to this world came Huxley. The very beginning of Point Counter Point debunks the value of sacrifice in a relationship, mocks the ethereal romantic sentiment that is duly shocked by the physical aspects of love, portrays the hypocrisy of Walter Bidlake who is trapped into "living in sin" with a woman he no longer loves, and who lusts after Lucy Tantamount who strings him along. Soon you are plunged into a host of characters all pretty much mocked by the author, who invites you to have the same attitude.
I am sure I missed a lot of the subtlety in Point Counter Point. But at that time it was an experience of sudden adulthood. I may not have had any practical experience of love or sex but soon I became the cynic everyone was shocked by. I followed up by reading Huxley's other novels, Eyeless in Gaza, After Many a Summer, Antic Hay, Crome Yellow. For a while I became the local Huxley expert. To be able to rattle off quotations from really obscure authors to feign grown-upness and to pretend that one was in interwar London, was great fun.
I was disappointed, however, to find that my hero had fallen for Indian spirituality. For me at least, he had helped me escape from all that nirvana nonsense. He had taught me not to trust any authority, indeed any public statement even when made in private. He had taken me inside people's skulls and shown me what really went on. If he had fallen for the local mumbo-jumbo that was a pity. But then Huxley had prepared me for all the gurus to fail - even himself.
Lord Desai is professor of economics, London School of Economics.