On reading

ArunN has a must-read post about his childhood and college readings:

As I browse the titles, I could recollect when and where I read them the first (and mostly, the only) time.David Copperfield was read sitting beneath the open mirror paneled kannadi bureau of my grandfather, which also stacked books of all sorts — from A Communist Manifesto to Kannadasan’s Arthamulla Indhumadham (Meaningful Hindusim) to The Brothers Karamazov to some vague titles on tantric secrets by one lady saint Sayimadha Sivabrindhadevi. The bureau was forbidden to youth of the house (it also had Kamasutra, I presume) and so during summer holidays while visiting my Grandpa’s place I used to creep into the room that contained the bureau in the afternoon while the household is enjoying their siesta, opened and sat down cross legged beneath the bureau, to read what ever I could rummage. The bureau’s kannadi door, if left unattended after opening, while creaking back to a closure at siesta-disturbing decibels would mimic a cat in labor with impeccable annoyance. A cross-legged posture of penance with the knees wedging the racks and the door to remain open is essential for outgrowing my illiteracy.

Lord of the Flies was read in two or three consecutive evenings after UG school, sitting in a red ‘rexine’ sofa in my college friend’s house. His father was an English professor and had the entire collection of classics and not so classics stashed in a wall cup-board whose double doors, once opened, cannot be closed  back properly over the ensuing avalanche of books. “From today, it is everyone minus one” (the original is a modified reply in a conversation) is an innocuous little sentence from To Kill a Mockingbird  that is stuck with me from my UG college days. Again, that book was read from that singularly neo-classic pile of sneeze. There was a reason for our swallowing such classical dust and deriphyllin. We both used to think of us as the next best in business to any writer we half-read and liked (say, Elias Canetti) and even started a no-profit-only-loss, typewriter-typed, cyclostyled and stapled magazine called The Ivory Tower (acronym is TIT, get the drift? that is how it became termite food).

I have my own memories of bookshelves and places of reading; I remember a niche bookshelf in my maternal grandfather’s home (from which I read a book, if I remember correct, called “Vaalgal” (tails)); another in my friend Veda’s home, whose father lent me Up from slavery of Booker T Washington. And, the local libararian who allowed me to borrow nicely illustrated and thick, hard bound volumes — Tom Brown’s school days and Ivanhoe were the favourite from this pile; and, the mathematics teacher Mr. Venkatachalam who allowed me to borrow books from the school library; Prof. Albert Irudayaraj from Sacred Heart who borrowed Abraham Pais’ Subtle is the Lord and lent it for me (because such glossy books are out of the reach of the students to borrow); and, finally, the bookshelves which were almost exposed to the weather at home from which I read the Jane Austens, Margaret Meads, K M Munshis, Gandhis, A L Natarajans and much, much more. And, all these books were read sitting on the thinnai, mostly; or, lying down on the wobbly, weather worn bench in the passageway next to the mutram. The post brought memories of intense discussions with GT, Punithan and Ela about La Sa Ra, Balakumaran and Indumathi — not to mention Ramana, Vivekananda, and Na Parthasarathy. The post also reminded me that favourite novel of mine from ThiJaa, Chembaruththi, in which, the hero reads books sitting in a corner of a room where grains are stored to avoid his brother’s comments.

What touched a cord in ArunN’s post is the following observation:

While in my twenties I dared Wuthering Heights, Lolita and 1984, I am reluctant now to revisit a Farewell to Arms or David Copperfield.

The other day, I was going through my own collection of books, built up from my B Sc days, and, I was wondering the same thing. Where is the enthusiasm with which I read Emma, Pride and prejudice, Ponniyin selvan, and Parthiban Kanavu, every summer, at least once?

Is it, as ArunN would have it, that there is no longer the need to impress your peers (and the opposite sex)? Or, is it that we are too busy? Or, is it that the reading habits and thinking patterns have changed, irrevocably?

May be back then I had a few girl friends I needed to impress and so I bespectacled me with a facade of such elevated classics and thoughts. Nowadays, I don’t need such impressive library. I am married. To a woman who is far too well read and worldly wise than me to fall for my philistine pick-up lines. I am grounded and go about reading an Anathem or Coyote Blue or How to be an Alien, none of which would make it to any of those generic must-read-for-everyone list.

Or there is a simpler reason for my neglect of those new-age classics to embrace my new found illiteracy. What if instead of reading, nowadays I keep finding other things to do? Like writing this note. Or working on that ever pending reviews or research papers. Unlike my younger days where I wanted to splash in serial lights I am intelligent and Oxbridgely and did everything other than getting educated in engineering, may be now I am actually doing round the clock what I claim to be doing and don’t have time for these ah, literati.

I think about these things at times, and conclude that I am afraid to lose myself to a book like the way I used to (Chattanathan and Bhuvana filled your mind for weeks after reading Chembaruththi) I do not have the luxury of time nor the strength, and, finally, and, most importantly, nor the company of equally crazy friends with whom one can discuss the book till the wee hours of the morning!

3 Responses to “On reading”

  1. gaddeswarup Says:

    My reading in younger days seems different. We were always in villages which had libraries and my mother used to borrow books heavily. When she was reading lying in bed, I would sit near the pillow and read along with her. I was probably not allowed to read some books. These were all Telugu books. Reading English books came much later in college. But it was tough with one’s vernacular background. But many English books were also available in the libraries of villages and small towns. I remember that Repalle library had several Bertrand Russell books as well as books by Darwin, Faraday. ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ was recommended by a lawyer who did not practice but was just living on his lands in the village. Donne, Auden, Eliot etc I picked up myself only to find later in an article that those were sort of main stream choices at that time. I guess that some of the same things seep through wherever one is.

    • Guru Says:

      Dear Swarup:

      The last point you mention is one of the interesting things about reading; people who are separated in time and space, still share the same universe for a specific amount of time bringing in a sort of continuity and dialogue — Brothers Karamazov, Eliot and Russell — names and readings that I can identify with even though we are from very different parts of this country and have read these books at very different times!

  2. Thi. Jaanakiraman’s Chembaruththi | Entertaining Research Says:

    […] I read Chembaruththi after more than a decade. The book is still gripping; parts of it are still so intense that I had to stop reading; and, still, days after reading the book, Chattanathan and Bhuvana keep popping up in my thoughts (as I noted a while back)! […]

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