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Monday, July 04, 2022

We read ourselves stories in order to live

Reading is a radical, life-altering act. Perhaps, that is why when readers do what they know best, they threaten the higher order.

Written by Manjiri Indurkar |
Updated: October 1, 2017 12:43:49 am
A reader’s life, as many would tell you, is a quiet one.

You must have heard that reading Harry Potter makes your child a better human being. According to a research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, reading the Harry Potter series makes you more tolerant towards minority communities. It is, perhaps, a big, fat cliché, beginning an essay on reading with the most popular book series of our times. But it is also relevant, because this puts the focus on the reader and not the writer and makes me pose questions I intend on answering, hopefully, with some success. What is it that reading does to us as people? And why do readers matter

To address the first question, reading is a radical act, a life-altering experience. Reading teaches you empathy. Books draw you inside the worlds of characters and teach you how to feel for them and someone like them. When I think about all the books I grew up reading, I know the kind of things I learned from them. And I never really read with the ambition of learning. It was a leisure activity. Perhaps, that’s why it left such an impact. My first introduction to social realities like class oppression, caste oppression, sexism, religious intolerance, so on and so forth, were all through the books I was reading. From Charles Dickens and Premchand to JK Rowling, every writer was telling a story and I was unknowingly drawing life lessons from them. This is what reading does to you. It changes you, it reforms you. It is why you, dear reader, matter.

For those who remember and those who don’t, I have a small story for you. When General Zia-ul-Haq took over Pakistan through a coup, replacing the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Butto, Pakistan’s best-known poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz wrote, “Hum Dekhenge (We shall see)”. As part of Haq’s forced Islamicisation programme, he banned the sari. Later that year, Iqbal Bano, the beloved singer and artist, took to stage, wearing a black sari and proclaimed in front of a crowd of 50,000 people, “Hum dekhenge”, making Faiz’s words her own.

I understand Bano’s singing as a reader’s protest against fascist forces, something that might bring down governments, something that makes these governments fear writers. For when writers write, readers bring those words to life, and it is then that revolution is born. Whenever I feel defeated in the face of all the atrocities forced on the people of my country, I turn to Bano and sing with her, Hum dekhenge. Faiz’s words when they come to me are in the voice of Bano, my favourite reader of Faiz.

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Bano is but one such example. Histories have been altered by readers. If there is one thing I took away from the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, it was this: she was killed because she was being read. When readers do what readers know best, they threaten the higher order. Alberto Manguel, perhaps the best known reader of our time, put it beautifully in his book, A History of Reading: “The writer was a maker of messages, the creator of signs, but these signs and messages required a magus who could decipher them, recognise their meaning, give them voice.”

This is why all writers are readers first. It is why reading always, always comes before writing. Because reading offers you a chance, of a possibility for, as Manguel puts it, change and illumination. This possibility exists only because we have readers. Without them, there will be no one to change, and no one to bring about the change. Words are, after all, very powerful tools in the right hands. They have the power to grant us personhood. We must remember that it is the reader who brings meaning to writing. Without the reader, words are, perhaps, nothing more than a bunch of signs. A reader is an interpreter, the one who brings about the readability in a text, gives it a voice.

Iqbal Bano As part of Zia-ul-Haq’s forced Islamicisation programme, he banned the sari. Later that year, Iqbal Bano (in the photograph above), singer and artist, took to stage, wearing a black sari and sang in front of a crowd of 50,000 people, Hum dekhenge. (Source: Express Archive)

Having grown up around relatives with supremacist tendencies, who were members of extreme right wing organisations like the RSS, I have witnessed a lot of hatred around me. In all fairness, though, my parents never pushed me towards religion, and it is one of the reasons why I didn’t turn out to be a hate-mongering bigot. But another reason, another major reason was all the reading I was doing. I couldn’t have read Nancy Drew and believed that I belonged in the kitchen. I couldn’t have read Paro Anand’s No Guns At My Son’s Funeral and hated Kashmiris for wanting freedom. As silly as it may sound to the evolved reader, I learnt a lot about racism which led to a rude awakening towards my own casteist and classist tendencies, from reading Erich Segal books. Each book, great or not, taught me something, and that something has sheltered me from hatred.

A reader’s life, as many would tell you, is a quiet one. You require that silence to get inside the skin of the character you are reading about. It opens your eyes and makes you more observant. A reader, I believe, is a vault of stories, some that they have read, and, therefore, borrowed from other writers, and others that they have observed around them, more sharply than those who don’t read, because a reader understands patience the way only a few can. The reader understands that what we are going through today has the potential of becoming a good story, and so they wait.

Look around you, look at all the storytellers you have come to admire. They are all readers. When writer Varun Grover wrote Masaan, he wrote that film as a reader as much as a writer. His highly political film was an ode to all the writers and poets he grew up reading. From Kabir to Chakhbast to Uday Prakash to Vinod Kumar Shukla, their imprints can be found all over the film. Masaan was a reader’s tribute, and a revolutionary one at that.

Then there is another reader I know, a lesser known one, perhaps, but nonetheless an important one. Devashish Makhija, a writer, poet, illustrator, and a filmmaker — you might have seen his most popular film Taandav — is one of the most indulgent readers I know. Makhija’s first short story collection, Forgetting, is littered with footprints of the many writers he read all his life. From RM Rilke to DM Thomas to Andre Breton, they all make their presence felt in his excellent stories about the gritty realities of living in a country that is constantly invalidating your existence. If you’ve watched his films, you’d know how this reader is translating all his lessons into cinema, and challenging the status quo. His films such as Agli Baar and Oonga have depicted the ugly realities of the lives of minorities in India. His recent film Ajji, which is doing the rounds at films festivals, is a brutal reimagining of the childhood fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. Laden with political overtones, the film promises to be a incisive look at the lives of those on the fringes and their fight against the state. Makhija is a sharp writer and a filmmaker with gut-wrenching imagination. But, first and foremost, he is a reader.

Grover, Makhija, Bano, Manguel, all answer my second question: why readers matter. It is because readers, even unimportant ones like me, are constantly trying to make this world a better place, a place filled with empathy and hope. A couplet from poet Dushyant Kumar’s poem, Ho Gayi Hai Peer Parvat Si, comes to mind: “Mere seene mein nahi toh tere seen mein sahi/ ho kahi bhi aag, lekin aag jalni chahiye (If not in me, then in you, the fire should keep burning).”

This couplet was penned during the dark days of the Emergency, and as we march towards even darker days, we, the readers, need to keep this fire burning. So I leave you with these lines, with the hope that you, my readers, will keep this fire alive.

Manjiri Indurkar is one of the founder-editors of the web magazine Antiserious.

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