An Irishman’s Diary on reading ‘Ulysses’ in the Indian Ocean
An encounter with a book about everybody
One hot afternoon in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I sought refuge from the boiling tropical sun in a shaded bookshop. There, in one of the long wooden trays, I noticed a big, heavy book with a green hardback cover. Its title was embossed in gold. It was Ulysses by James Joyce.
I had heard about this book but I had the impression that it was difficult and tortuous. I took it up hesitantly and began to leaf through it, dipping in here and there. There was a welcome whiff of familiarity about it. The way people spoke, the use of words and phrases, the Dublin setting, the references to things and places that I recognised. There was humour in it as well.
It is said that Ulysses is a universal book but it was its Irishness that appealed to me. I bought it because I was homesick. This was in the 1950s. I hadn’t been home for almost two years. I was getting tired of sailing about the Indian Ocean on deck-passenger ships on eastern service with the Marconi company.
I walked in the heat to the Galle Face hotel that overlooked the sea and went into the Wine Lounge for a long, cold drink. There I began to read Ulysses.
After a while, a thin, dark-skinned man appeared beside me.
“That is a very strange book. I have read it, even though I don’t understand everything in it,” he said. I invited him to sit down.
If I remember rightly, Rasaretnam was his name. He told me he had studied medicine in Dublin. There he become familiar with the writings of James Joyce. However, he had failed his exams and his father had called him home.
He now ran a small and, according to himself, barely profitable furniture business in Colombo.
When we parted he said, “The more you concentrate on Ulysses the more you will enjoy it. It is about everybody.” He gave a rueful laugh. “Sometimes I think I am in it too.”
I was in an ideal job to give this strange book the kind of attention it needed. I was the second radio officer on a ship called the Aronda, plying back and forth every month between Chittagong at the top of the Bay of Bengal and Karachi at the top of the Arabian Sea, stopping at Colombo there and back.
One of the most tiresome duties was the six-hour night watch in the radio room. Little happened. Rarely was a telegram sent or received.
So, sitting there in my shorts, as the ship ploughed steadily through the blackness of the tropic night, I started to read Ulysses.
At first I found that a single hour of concentrated reading was all I could manage in one night. It was hard going.
Yet, bit by bit, I began to be fascinated not just by Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly and Stephen Dedalus, but by all the other very real and memorable characters that moved about the streets of Dublin.
Our ship may have been near the coasts of Malabar or of Coromandel but I found myself being carried back to a city I knew fairly well, engrossed in the real-life conversations in its pubs and on street-corners. In some ways, reading Ulysses was like taking a slow circuitous walk with someone who had an intense interest in the most ordinary things in the lives of ordinary people.
It took me about three months to finish Joyce’s masterpiece.
When I finally put the book down, I had some idea of what Mr Rasaretnam was talking about when he said that Ulysses is about everybody.
It’s about imperfect, incomplete human beings with whom we can all identify. They endure the dissatisfactions of life with a kind of subdued dignity and occasional humour.
Many of the men in the book, like Leopold Bloom, trudge about the streets trying to make a very uncertain living. Some are just about getting by. For some of them, the promise of personal fulfilment has faded. One of them might have been Mr Rasaretnam, the failed medical student, now eking out a precarious livelihood in his furniture shop in Colombo.