Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reading on the run

Which is your favourite reading place? If you ask this question of an Indian living in India, you are more likely to get a reply in the form of a counter-question: “Do I have a reading place?” Now that’s better.

If you are living in an apartment, say, a 600 sq. ft flat, as a majority of the Indian middle class do, you might not have a reading place at home, let alone a favourite place where you can put up your feet and read in peace and quiet.

The closest you come to a reading place is your living room (“hall” as we Indians call it) or your small bedroom where you can read a few lines from your chosen book; maybe even a few pages if you are lucky. Whether you can grasp what you are reading is a different story. You have to put up with a cacophony of loud noises and sounds, emanating from the steady traffic outside, your kids and your neighbour’s kids, the housemaid in the kitchen, relatives who drop in uninvited and stay for lunch, doorbell that never stops buzzing, telephone that never stops ringing, stereo and television on full throttle…

If you are living in a large joint family, a frightening reality in India, multiply all of the above by ten and you will have a fraction of...the reading you would have got out of the way if you were living alone with your wife and kids.

Indian cities and towns are not big on public spaces, parks or gardens. There's no Central Park or Hyde Park like in Manhattan and London. So you have very little reading room under the sky. Some of the unlikeliest places where you will find people reading books, quite peacefully, are inside malls and food courts and at railway stations, amidst an odd bunch of shoppers in one and harried commuters rushing helter-skelter in the other.

A bookstore is a place where you can read an entire book without buying it. You may have to make frequent visits in order to finish it, though.

My favourite reading room, six days of the week, is the bustling compartment of a 12-car train on Bombay's famous suburban rail network. It doesn't matter whether I am sitting or standing. If you jump into the coach before allowing those inside to get off first, you get a window seat. During the 45-minute run from the suburb where I live to downtown where I work, I manage to do any one or several things like read a book or comic-book, listen to music, watch a video, play chess on my cellphone or read what my fellow-commuter is reading, which is usually a business paper whose headlines fly over my head. You can even knit if you like.

It's the same entertaining routine on the return journey. I must be crazy but I look forward to it everyday and I wouldn’t miss it for any cozy den or study in the world. Who am I kidding!

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