Authors May Be Celebrities Everywhere But On The Delhi Metro, Readers Are Too
On many occasions, all sorts of people made small conversation just because you had a book in hand and you were reading.
I am relatively new to using Metro rail. All these years I have been driving a car to Connaught Place from Gurgaon, but by last December I was tired and sick of daily traffic snarls. My commute that used to be less than 40 minutes a decade back had extended to one and half hour one way every day, on some crazy ones it could be a painful two hours to cover a distance of mere 27 km on the so-called Expressway.
Finally one Monday morning I took the plunge with a book in my hand and never looked back at the car.
The initial issues of crowd, claustrophobia and not getting a seat dissipated as I quickly learnt to balance myself on my feet without holding the bars or the uncomfortable hangers above. All I needed was a corner, a little roomy one, a light above and some distance from anyone listening to loud music on a mobile phone. The book would open the moment I boarded. Nothing else mattered. Fifty-five minutes of pure bliss, READING, while chauffeured in metro coach with no worries of traffic or weather, no stress, no traffic lights, no honking, no fumes, no struggling with gears, clutch or brake, no guilt of adding to the pollution. And the best part was No Smoking for an hour. What more, all of it in some 40 rupees.
Friend number one happened on a cold January morning. It was one of those slightly crowded days barely a month and a half into my new found pleasure when I was reading a rather bulky volume of Baburnama, standing in a corner. About ten steps away from me was a lady standing and flipping through dozens of sheets of paper, occasionally writing or marking something on them. I caught a glance of her when she lost her balance and unintentionally pushed the lady in front of her who said something rather nasty. I indicated to her to come and stand opposite me where she could rest herself against a side panel. She did and in the process possibly saw the title of the book. Having finished what she was doing, ten minutes later she moved closer and with a smile asked if I was a ‘historian’. Bemused, I said No.
Why would somebody be ‘publicly’ reading Baburnama these days, she asked. This question is more of a reflection on our times rather than my choice of the title. A few minutes later I got to know that she was a lecturer of Medieval History at Janaki Devi College. And it so turned out that her guide, while she was doing her PhD was a senior historian from Aligarh with whom I had worked on a certain project. Her station announced… contacts quickly exchanged… she got off, and I found what I call my first ‘Metro-Bookend’.
The second one was a few days later when I was reading Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. A young girl standing along with her friend wanted to know how was the book. We got chatting, the girl obviously had not read anything of ARs, not even an odd essay or her writings in the press. She was enamoured by the name Arundhati Roy. As long as your destination hasn’t come these chats sometimes can extend to subjects other than books… like politics or the current dispensation. She later emailed to say that she had finally managed to read the book, which to her, was rather boring and didn’t have a ‘story’.
On many occasions, all sorts of people made small conversation just because you had a book in hand and you were reading. I suspect there appears an aura around your head when you are reading. Reading in public spaces conveys a ‘studious or possibly intelligent’ demeanour. Even if someone is pretending at least it is different from those fiddling with a mobile phone.
I read both English and Hindi. Hindi mostly for its vast literary wealth that one has missed over the years of colluding with angrezi. English, for many reasons besides the fact I don’t know any other language. Wish one had learnt Urdu, Iranian, French, Italian, Russian or Turkish. English helps you bridge this gap through works available in translation, though I have always felt that I am missing something when I am reading an author like Orhan Pamuk or Chinua Achebe.
There was something interesting that I noticed in the first three months of Metro reading. Not many people would strike a conversation if I were reading a Hindi book, whatever it may be – from the greats of Premchand to Rajendra Yadav, from Nirala to Manglesh Dabhral. Hindi reading was second or sub-class in an otherwise secular space of a Metro train.
I wonder what would be the response if one was reading Urdu or say Gurmukhi book.
I couldn’t dare to do it with these two languages (for fear of further disappointment), but I did try to fake it with a French novel once. Having read its English translation and even with my pathetic diction and little understanding of French, I knew I could get away in a tight situation. For three days I held the book in my hand, intermittently opening and closing it to show off the cover, moving from one corner to the other, walking through the compartment as if looking for a seat, dropping the book, desperately trying to attract attention… not one person even came forward to talk. It indeed is sad that neither the vernacular nor another language finds any space in a Metro – the Metro that connects millions of people of all possible tongues.
But, then one never knows what all can happen.
Friend number 3 from an MNC: One late evening, past 9.30 there was this 27/28-year-old guy sitting next to me – leaning or rather bending over my left shoulder peeping into the book I was reading (My Mum’s Daughter – Natasha Badhwar). After a while, I held the book up to him – offering it so he could read. He was utterly taken aback by my gesture. At first, he turned his face trying to look the other way saving him the embarrassment. But I spoke to him politely and told him he could read it if he wanted. He hesitated, cautiously smiled and said, he got interested in the book as he had read the chapter head about ‘daughters’.
He too had a seven month old daughter. I asked him what did he do, ‘a salesman at a big brand watch showroom in Select City Mall, Saket’. ‘But Sir, I have not read a book since my school’, he said in lyrical Hindustani very unlike the hash of Hindi zubaan that the city takes pride in. Having asked him if he read magazines or newspaper, he said ‘Yes’. I asked which one… he was a little perplexed for he went into some kind of deep digging inside his head, a process I couldn’t fathom.. all he had to mention was one filmy magazine or a local daily… But he couldn’t name one. Then he fumbled and added ‘it is a Urdu newspaper that I read’… which one I persisted.. Milap, Pratap, Sahara? No answer. Finally, his head hanging down, eyes still on the book in my hand he said he couldn’t remember the name of newspaper… ‘my father is a shopkeeper, he gets it, he reads it… I only get to glance at it once in a while’. Terrible…, I said. You must be getting the newspaper for many a years, ‘Yes, but I don’t know the name. I get to read the news, that’s all. Why?’ I explained to him that the author of the book is a newspaper columnist and these are the compilation of her weekly pieces in Mint. He had never read an English newspaper, though he claimed ‘I can read English, not fluently’. Had my copy not been author-signed, I would have probably given it to him. Another friend made.
Friend number 4. I meet an AUTHOR.
I am reading this yet unreleased book. There comes a young boy probably 23 /24 and stood right above where I am sitting and reading. From my sitting posture I can’t see his face unless I lift my head to look at him, but before that, I notice the steel bangle (kara) in his right hand firmly holding a book, with the left he was holding the hanger bar above. Finally, I glanced up… as our eyes meet he says ‘Hi’ with a broad smile. Without wasting any further time he asks ‘What are you reading Sir?’ I turn around the book and show him the cover and ask ‘Have you read it?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know the author, the person whose picture is there on the cover?’ ‘No, Sir.’ ‘Never mind that, you weren’t even born when he was making great cinema like ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai?’ ‘Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho’, ‘Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro’ or for that matter his magnum opus ‘Naseem’.’
‘What do you do Sir?’ He has still not returned my book, nor is he even attempting to at least turn it around, read the back cover or even the flap matter. I give him a very brief background and ask ‘What is that book in your hand?’ Hastily he turns it around and hands me the copy, ‘The Dreaming Reality‘. The cover image has a boat with a young couple in it against the backdrop of setting sun, their hands meeting at the point of oars as if rowing the boat together, the faces and bodies just a shadow – very amateurish cover design I think… right on top are the names of two authors in very small type. Noor Anand – Karan Kapoor. I turn the book and read the back cover which has a few snippets of the story. Home, Nostalgia, Love, Lust, Betrayal. Utopia, are the highlights. It is the story of a 16-year-old boy in a relationship with his part-time tutor.
I hand the book back to him. ‘What do you think of it?’, he asks. ‘Of what?’ ‘The book…’ he stops mid-sentence looks at the blinking red dot on station indicator plate of the coach. His destination is nearing I think. ‘How can I say anything till I read the book.’ Oh yes… pointing to the name on the cover he adds, this is me… I have written this ‘novel’ together with my friend Karan. He opens the inner back cover of book and points to the picture of his co-author. I shake his hand, congratulate him. Meanwhile, the person sitting next to me has left… Noor quickly grabs the seat and the first question he asks me is ‘Where do you get off?’ At Dronacharya station, ‘and you?’ At Green Park, he says and quickly starts telling me the story… I stop him in between and look for the name of publisher… none on the covers, not even inside. ‘Have you self-published it?’ ‘Yes’, came the reply with a big grin. I am very happy for you. Thanks, Sir… I printed one thousand copies as first edition’ he adds. That’s great I said. I have sold all in various DU colleges.
I am very impressed… you sold one thousand copies… in how many months…. One month sir, both of us visited most of the colleges, he names a few ‘and sold it to students at fifty percent discount,. I turn the book around once more and look at the price, Rs. 349. ‘Do you have an extra copy’, I ask. Noor lunges to the floor where his knapsack was and pulls out a copy in a flash. Handing me that he says this is for you. I pull out 250 from my pocket and give it to him. He resists but accepts with thanks. I ask him to write something for me. Noor borrows my pen and quickly scribbles “Wars changed the world in 20th Century, in this Century, Words will”. Adding his mail ID to it he wrote, With Love.. His signatures seemed like a large speech bubble spread across the page. ‘Next station is Green Park’, the metro speakers blared.. Noor got up, shook my hand and said… ‘please do write to me and tell me how did you like the book’. ‘I will, I said. He got off waving… our co-passengers foxed at the young lad signing the book, having just realized he was a celebrity of some kind.
While the authors are celebrities – in Metro rail – book readers are no less.
Having lost his way in the Himalayas, once in total wilderness of Tibet and another time in a high-altitude valley of Kumaon, Rajinder Arora found his way back home only to fulfil his dream of being face-to-face with Mt Everest. A mountaineer, trekker, photographer and collector of all sorts of memorabilia Rajinder is a graphic designer by profession. His adventure travelogues have been published in Indian Mountaineer and some online journals. His publications include three poetry booklets for children in Hindi; an illustrated volume on Everest trail; besides short stories in English and Hindi. A bookworm, he lives in an awful place called Gurgaon.