I am an inveterate reader. Committed, addicted, insatiable.
I come from a family of readers. Growing up at a time and place where television hadn’t reached us yet leave alone the powerfully addictive internet, reading was my window to the world. We siblings would quarrel about who had first claim to a new book, wait impatiently for each to have their turn with it and then discuss it to shreds. My voice in those discussions was the youngest, but as the tradition of our family had it, each voice and opinion was heard with respect, including mine. That, I believe, encouraged me to think and speak independently.
As an adolescent I spent many an idyllic afternoon in the shade of the luxuriant mango tree in our garden, sprawled on an old cane armchair, engrossed in the book in hand. I travelled the world over, learning of different lands and climes, met the most interesting people, understanding the compulsions of many kinds of human behaviour. I learned of many other vital details as well, the way other people spoke, the kinds of food they ate, the clothes they wore. The particular and peculiar dreams they chased, their challenges and struggles, their energies and fulfilments. All that and more without even putting a foot out. All from those pages that turned on their own, almost rhythmically, pages from which men and women spoke to me earnestly, passionately, sharing the stories they had unearthed, those that they had imagined, the sensibilities they had formed, the values they had learned.
The reading habit thrives on in our family and has thankfully been imbibed and refined by our gen next. They, of course, read in newer ways too, sometimes on devices and screens, tapping on an unfamiliar word to get an idea of what it means, unlike us who would perforce heave the voluminous dictionary out and then pore through those very fine pages and finer print. Sometimes I see my multitasking daughter with her earphones plugged in, listening to a narrator reading a book, while her hands continue working on something else. Yet I stay old-fashioned faithful to paper and print. For me, there is something on the printed page of a book that so magically and intimately connects me with the author that nothing else compares to it. As if those words were written expressly for me, me alone. That only the author and I inhabit that space there, exploring worlds and ideas together, me seeing through their eyes, feeling through their beating heart and throbbing pulse. I become privy to the twists and plunges their minds take, see the thoughts appearing and the words forming as they give aesthetic shape to their creative substance. Sympathetic to their fear, anxiety, hope and belief as they transmit it all to me, trusting me and my empathy to understand and appreciate all that they had communicated. That particular private communication from author to reader cannot, I believe, be replicated in any other way. There may be audio narrations, screen and theatre adaptations of the written content, and they may be eminently successful, but then other agencies, other minds and voices intrude and that precious intimacy is lost.
I also believe that the reader completes the book. As in any communication, it is only when both ends are in matching fine fettle does the message sink in with all its intent, import and nuances. When I read I bring my perspective, my lived experience, my openness to new ideas, which might be entirely different from yours, different from the author’s too. Which is why the appeal of a book varies across readers, as also for the same reader at different stages of her life. While at times I may look forward to complexity of plot, arcs and depths to characters, a heft in the issues woven into the narrative, at others I might simply be in the mood for a mood, an ambience, its genesis, its subtleties, its heightening, perhaps with a climax and resolution.
I remain a sucker for stories. Whatever your premise, convince me through your writing and I will read it through. From mystery and crime to political sagas to espionage. Tales from wars. Histories and philosophical mullings. Dramas in families, at the workplace. Social constructs and how they changed over the centuries. The nitty gritty of race. Ethnic strife. Caste. Gender. The un-muffled cries of the planet. Translations from across the globe and from the many languages of India. The literature out there for every genre, every kind of earthly and unearthly experience is so vast and varied, it’s impossible to digest even a fraction of it in any single lifetime. Edifying, enthralling, inspiring, changing. Pushing me to read on. And on.
However, I typically read little when I’m writing. Impressionable me, I fear that my voice might imitate the one I’m reading. Of course, all that I’ve read from the very beginning has seeped and settled in me, furbished and refurbished my knowledge of the world around as also of me in it. It has questioned my hitherto givens, taught me to look differently, allow for, if not believe, the unbelievable. It has deepened my vocabulary, tweaked my expression, groomed my style, and effectively helped modulate my voice. But all only through its distilled essence. An unconscious churning through of what appeals to me, is in accord with me and myself, what challenges my thinking too but has enough value to be retained, appropriated for myself.
But what if one is so bewitched by a writer as to write like her! Like a sycophantic clone? That’s a strict no-no. I’d rather wait for the spell to pass, emerge to find myself again, question the spell and my succumbing to it however transitorily, and then begin a critique, a distillation of the writer’s appeal, their contribution to all that I know and think and feel, and then write as old dis-enchanted me. Not same old, for that magical voice I had been enthralled by has seeped in too. But again, only in its valuable residue, refining me as author without compromising the integrity of my voice.
So, books to be read pile up as the one I’m writing piles on the plot and pages. Reader friends recommend authors and their oeuvres, I look them up on the net, I sift through their reviews, I sometimes order them in. I excitedly tear through the wrappings and let my hungry eyes feast on the cover, smell the fresh pages packed with promising print. I hold them close for a minute and then stack them with the others that wait too. And I return to my computer, to what I am presently absorbed in, hoping that the thoughts and words I type are worthy to join a To-Be-Read list.
In this world of today where the virtual is beginning to outstrip the real, my reading circles meet, and discussions, arguments and quarrels (yes, those too) happen more in the virtual space. Through the beneficence of technology and social media I have managed to reconnect with friends I went to school with decades ago, many scattered across the globe, some too busy in their lives to take time out to actually physically meet. Yet, we turn up regularly in our virtual reading room. Eagerly, expectantly. Reading, reviewing, recommending, rejecting. Curious about each other’s choices, the whys of the recommendation, the rebuttals from some about why the appeal wasn’t what it was touted to be. Those who don’t read as avidly or regularly, join in from the side-lines, adding their own telling experiences with caveats to the theme that has surfaced from a book. And as our minds continue to broaden with the diversity of material read, they also close in on each other’s minds, lives and journeys, as if we had bonded spending real time together. We are Booked for life.
I used to wonder about people who don’t read, until I accepted that they were the other sorts from the all-sorts I read about. Or about those who professed to love nothing better than curling up with a book but whined about their lack of leisure to actually do so. I would itch to remind them that they preferred and prioritised other pursuits. That reading is a compulsion not a choice. One reads. Simple. Sometimes one re-reads too, some rare times as soon as the last page is done, turning swiftly back to the first where it all began. Anyway. I meet my kind in bookstores, in libraries and reading dens, the book in their hands introducing, sometimes recommending the person. In a happy role reversal, my daughter treats me to visits to bookstores in whichever city she’s currently living in. Some stores several storeys high, bursting at the seams with treasures from across the world, contemporary and from times gone by, and the both of us browsing, sifting and gathering in as much as we can. I recognise the look on the faces around, the eyes suffused with calm excitement, soaking in the riches. I appreciate their deciding between this and that as they fit their purchases in their purses. I see a child pick a storybook, looking wistfully at yet another, and I long to give it to her. But I know she’ll be back for it as soon as she can, she’s as badly hooked as I am. And my heart sings with joy.
Well, my life seems to have returned to the basic skills I was taught as a child: reading and writing. But there are so many worlds contained within those two simple words, myriads and realms of knowledge, imagination and possibilities, all kinds of sensitivities and sophistications, ranges and depths of human experiences, so much more that I am waiting to discover…that I join in the most frequent refrain I hear from readers: so many books, such little time. And I smile as I write and add mine to them.