Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

13 Aug 2010, 7:29 a.m.

An Ecstatic Patron of Recurrent Light

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I first read The Great Gatsby in eleventh grade, Mr. Hatch's American Literature class. Every few years I reread it. I read it a few years ago, after moving to Astoria, and got a richer sense of place out of all the geographical references and touches. I'm rereading bits of it now.

Wow, those party scenes are much more informative, funny, and tragic when you've had friends, and been to parties you enjoyed, and not been the most awkward person in the room. In fact, all the interpersonal stuff is. I'm kind of wondering how it was that I loved this book so much for its aesthetics and psychological insight when I was so completely undeveloped on those fronts. And it's not like Anjana Appachana (Incantations and Other Stories), where I liked the work half a lifetime ago and now it seems obvious. I loved Gatsby then and I love it now, but I can't easily reach back to what I saw in it then, because every page feels fresh now.

I was rereading the end of Chapter 6 ("He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers....") and remembered Mr. Hatch -- I could call him Sam now? -- reading it aloud to us. "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" I remember his greying hair, his two desks stuffed with essays and handouts, the green chalkboard, the classroom's chairdesks in two sets facing each other. (And him, and how he influenced me, but that's several thoughts too many for this was-supposed-to-be-short post.) For his class I wrote an essay about Gatsby, comparing him to Karna from the Mahabharata. It was perhaps the high-water mark of my overachieving high school nerdery, being way longer than the minimum and including a six-page appendix summarizing the Mahabharata with special emphasis on Karna's origin, trials and fate. Cue knowing mockery from classmates. Perhaps they meant it as friendly, mostly.

My parents showed it off to their Indian visitors; their daughter wasn't into bharatnatyam dance or the sitar or classical singing and her Kannada sucked, but at least she was oddly interested in the mythology. I wonder how many printouts they made. "Just like her father," I bet the aunties and uncles said.

I came across that essay last week, while sorting through some boxes. Maybe I'll ask Leonard to read it, to tell me whether it'll make me wince to see what I thought of Fitzgerald and Vyasa before I was even really sentient as a critical thinker. I can barely bear to read my ten-year-old blog entries!

I know what I see in Gatsby now; I saw something else, something valuable and beautiful, ten-plus years ago, and I expect I'll see yet a different face in the next decade. That's a classic for you, one that rewards new orbits with fresh discovery. I now see it through layers of history: Long Island in the 1920s, Tokay High School in the nineties, Queens from the 2000s. Can't repeat the past? ...borne back ceaselessly...


13 Aug 2010, 12:15 p.m.

"Soon I will go to a colloquium on race in two sci-fi novels..."

Wow, you were ahead of the curve.

16 Aug 2010, 2:11 a.m.

This has been on my list of novels that I've meant to read for ages and haven't; I think it just popped closer to the top. Thanks for this post!