Lockdown Reading is a series where authors will enlist the books they are reading (or not) during this time. Previously, Annie Zaidi had detailed the books she has been trying to read, Rheea Mukherjee had revealed the one the book she is reading these days, and Namita Gokhale had given a glimpse of the way she spending time during lockdown. It was followed by Paro Anand and Anukrti Upadhyay sharing the books she they are revisiting and reading. This week, Saikat Majumdar does the same.
Among so much that we’ve lost in the last couple of months, one of the saddest things for me have been the illness and the death of the college campus. Temporary closure the world over, and in many instances, dissolution or permanent dismemberment; several institutions are closing shop or cutting programs for good. Education, it seems, will never be the same again. It is in strange time that I’ve been turning to Plato’s philosophical treatise The Symposium, which is a spirited (in every sense of the word) discussion on love but really, a brilliant illustration of Socrates’ method of teaching and education. Plato was the inventor of the modern “academy”, the earliest form of the university in the western world.
The ghost of Socrates, imagined through Plato at a time like this, makes you wonder: what is a college campus? Is it a physical space? The instructor taking a walk along with their students, discussing the world and life? A laptop screen that you perch in your home for the best zoom background? It is with a sensory sadness that I’m completing work on something I’d begun a while ago –a contemporary campus novel that refashions classical myths to examine the teacher-student relationship. The Symposium has been a strangely comforting reading while I’ve continued to re-imagine spaces – stretches of greenery and the library, the buzz of conversation and the hum of lectures – in world where all of that has suddenly become a memory, the classroom a honeycomb of boxes on the zoom screen. My fiction often etches a longing for the absent, and as with many other spaces, we don’t know when we’re going to get the campus back as a physical reality in our lives.
But as we count our losses, we also have to take stock of our privileges: a big one being the luxury of time and space to finish big, ambitious books, sometimes left halfway before. One such recent read was The Hindus: An Alternate History, by Wendy Doniger. I was completely absorbed by Doniger’s limpid narrative style, very much like telling a fictional story, even as she gives us a complex layering of knowledge, and especially powerful counter-histories to dominant stories. For instance, I did not know that there was a Jaina version of the Ekalavya story from 16th century CE where Drona berates Arjun for cheating Ekalavya and gives a boon to the tribal people. That too, a very different kind of mentoring myth.
A very different big book that was alternatively breezy, intense, light and shadowy was Longform: An Anthology of Graphic Narratives (vol 1, more to come in the future), an amazing collection of words and art edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee, and Pinaki De. It’s refreshingly eclectic – many of the artists are from India but there are also artists from Iran, France, and South Korea. It’s also intensely political in nature, telling some violent stories of caste oppression, as well as familiar narratives of middle-class angst and repression, articulated in ways that are both real and surreal. A very moving reading experience.
Also enjoyable – sometimes disturbingly thought-provoking was Eleven Ways to Love – a collection of personal essays on love, relationship, and dating, that ended up telling larger stories of power and politics through the intimacy of romantic and sexual exchange, as well of the engrossing urban landscapes where they take place.
I’ve been re-reading the short story collection Mohanaswamy by the wildly popular Kannada writer, Vasudhendra, beautifully translated into English by Rashmi Terdal. Queer life in contemporary India is imagined most often through the urban, Anglophone experience, so it is deeply refreshing, almost comforting to read the life of the loving and affectionate queer man Mohanaswamy, who comes from a small village in Karnataka but attains professional success in Bangalore. People exploit his vulnerable sexuality – straight and queer people alike – and take advantage of him, but somehow that establishes Mohana as a greater, kinder, and nobler character. Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, edited by Ashwini Sukthankar brings to the fore the narratives often eclipsed in the queer world – that of same-sex love between women. It is an uneven collection with some profoundly moving stories, often from rural and vernacular spaces. You realise soon that the beauty of the book is its unevenness, its raw, messy quality. It deserves to be noticed alongside better-known collections like Minal Hajratwala’s stunning Out: Stories from the New Queer India, or even the canonical Same- Sex Love in India: A Literary History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. I’ve also been listening to a lot of poetry, in the audio format on the Poetry Foundation’s website as well as on YouTube. I’ve particularly enjoyed the words of Claudia Rankine and Evie Shockley, on the black experience in America today, cast in a seductive and dangerous kind of verse.
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