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Books could cause huge damages; to a person’s sanity, dignity and health. Did you say ‘sanity’? What’s new in it? Books do make good citizens turn against the state. Had there been no books the world would have been a better place.
Stop wishful thinking. People would write, publishers would publish and people would read. Even if they do not want to read, the book writers and the publishers would make it such an appealing thing that it would drive people either to the Amazon portal to order the books or go to the busy books stalls in the busy markets and ask the shopkeepers, “Brother, do you have ‘that’ book? No, sold out? Really? Why don’t you suggest me something good to read?”
All the book stall guys are the same. You may have observed. To such sweet, polite and proud queries like these, they would always have this ready answer: “Madam, this is the best among the latest. A real page turner.” “Really? Give me two copies. One for myself and one for my daughter. She is coming tomorrow from the US.” “Here are your copies, madam. Hello, how are you sir?”
Here I have to correct a thing that I said in the beginning. To become good citizens also you could read books; books of a different kind, which would make you proud of your country, your army, your religion, and mind you, they may help you to scorn at the other religions also. These books could make you (or make you imagine at least) a millionaire overnight (or over a year if you go by step by step), good wives (note the point, never good husbands. Good husbands are never made, they are born), good Yoga practitioners, good cooks, good flirts, good sports persons and very good at bed.
Oh, you are asking me for a simple formula, to differentiate between books that screw up your mind and the books that help you to be a good citizen? Your question has the answer embedded, dear.
All of a sudden I started finding books in the metro trains. Good citizens started leaving ‘good’ books in the metro coaches. Good citizens who respect the border of our country and disrespect the border of all the other countries, good citizens who like to migrate to rich countries and hate all those poor people who come from the rural part of our country to the cities in search of ‘bread and butter’ (bread and butter or roti-zubzi or simply do roti?), good citizens who stand up when the national anthem is played in the movie theatre, puff up their chest and sing along and so on started either leaving books in the metro coaches or started reading those foundlings for a change.
I made a survey of these books and these are the books that I found: copies of scriptures (abridged versions) of the dominant religion, thousand mantras of many gods (if you recite it between the stations your wishes will be fulfilled), Who Moved My Cheese? The Monk who Sold his Ferrari, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Success Story of Patanjali and the following authors Devdutt Pattanaik, Paulo Coelho, Amish, Chetan Bhagat, then some Autobiographies of Adolf Hitler, Jhansi Rani, Mahatma Gandhi and so on. I was amused to see a copy of a cook book by Tarla Dalal.
Reading could be dangerous. But it depends on what you read. You read at your own risk. Always, the author or the publisher never takes the responsibility of the ‘thought damage’ that they could cause. That’s okay; because that’s what we do when we drink a bottled or canned or tetra packed fruit juice or aerated drink. We know the danger, we read the cautionary note but we don’t care. Books are also like that. There may not be a note of caution; but there could be some damage. However, my damage was of a different kind.
The other day I was in the metro coach, as usual going to my work place exactly ten stations away from where I get to with one change of line. It takes me exactly thirty two minutes to come out of the station and takes another eight minutes of walk to my office. In total forty minutes of commuting, of which thirty minutes of reading on one way and another thirty minutes on the return trip. That’s the one hour of reading time I have in a twenty four hours long day. Am I happy about it? I am happy about it because the files that I have been handling for the last twenty three years have rendered me almost brain dead, but this reading these days functions as an antidote. It is a cleansing experience. One hour of pilgrimage through books inside the air-conditioned metro coaches.
I was reading the notorious author (only in this country she is considered to be notorious, rest of the world she is famous) Arundhati Roy’s latest book, her second novel, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. Such an ironic title. A year back when the book was announced, I marked it in my dairy and waited for the book to come. Not that I am big fan of this author but I had once met her in a mall in the south part of the city. I was just coming after delivering some files to the head office and had thought of doing some window shopping. I asked the driver to wait at the side lane and ventured into the sprawling mall that looked like a coral reef in the unlikely waters. Suddenly I saw her, this author coming from the other side of the corridor. A small woman (I used to think that she was six feet tall and strong muscled who could fight the country’s army single handed) and a shy smile which definitely said, ‘leave me alone’. I did not dare even to look at her eyes (though I feel like a tiger behind my office desk with so many files heaped before me, the fate of people to which I was the arbitrator). She went her way and I went back to my car. Nothing more was to be seen. I had seen something wonderful and I did not contaminate the feeling with the visuals of dispensable consumer goods. My driver asked, “Saab, aap to jaise gaya vaise vaapas aaya.” (Sir, you came back as fast as you went). I did not say a word.
I stood there where two coaches are coupled with rubberised folding panels which remind me of accordion bellows, and read the book. A few young men were minding me, I could feel. I felt the gazes coming from different directions. First I thought one of the gazes was aimed at the book. I thought the person was simply interested in the book as the publication of it had aroused quite a lot of media enthusiasm (though not as huge as her first novel written twenty years back). Then I felt a gaze struck ‘this side of my face’ (somehow I remembered a phrase I had liked from a poster printed in one of those foreign magazines that used to come to the office library). It happens, I told myself. Somebody must be curious to see a person reading a book so absorbedly especially when everyone is lost in their smart phone screens.
“Why are you reading this book?” a shudder passed through my innards as I heard that question from a mouth that was a few inches away from my eyes. I just could not recognise the owner of that mouth that had a very thick and red tongue inside.
“Why the fuck are you reading this book?” that tongue repeated.
By this time, somebody had snatched the book from my hands and someone has pushed me to a side. The train suddenly shifted rails, I thought as I was about to fall to a side losing my balance and grip. But before I fell someone held me tight by my shoulders and straightened me. I knew it was not a kind gesture. The grip on my shoulder had the power of hatred.
“Don’t you know that this woman is a behenchod saali anti-nationalist?” I saw six pairs of eyes staring at me and beyond them there were uncountable pairs of eyes looking at the scene. Only difference was those eyes were cold and the ones near my face were hot as anger sent sparks as if from a grinding machine.
“Maaro madar chod ko, (beat that mother fucker up),” owner of one of those pairs of eyes said and before he finished someone had acted upon the order.
The blow had landed on my stomach and for a moment I thought the breath had left me and something had gone out of me through my rear end. I moaned and yet without losing my dignity, I tried to reason with them.
“Brother, I am an old man, do not treat me like this. I do not read this book for the author, I happened to get it from this metro yesterday night. I thought of reading it and leaving it here once I finished. See, it is a good story, a good page turner,” I knew I was telling a lie. I remembered my book shop friend calling me up saying, “Sir, your copy is here and please pick up whenever you want.”
“You bloody anti-social South Indian, are you trying to fool us? We know what we allow them to leave in the metro coaches. This shit of a book cannot come here. We do our combing for the kind of books that good citizens leave in the metro coaches. We know the kind of good citizens who read them. You fucking uncle, your South Indian revolution is not still dead” a very young man who could have been my first son’s age (nearly twenty) twisted my shirt collar with one hand and my left wrist with another. Even in the pain and shame I was thinking how these young people got such atrocious ideas in their minds. When this author wrote her first novel, these boys’ parents’ had even not thought of wishing them to this earth.
“Sons, please listen. Don’t do this. I could be reading it for pleasure. Or I could have been asked to read it by some learned person. Or I may be a journalist who has been assigned to review this book. Or even I could be from the Intelligence Department and am reading it for reporting the seditious content, if any in it,” I did not know what gave me courage to say that much.
Did those words change the attitude of those boys? I do not know. What I knew was this much: they kept on abusing me with the choicest expletives that makes the capital city of this country distinct from any other state capital and they went on punching me.
I did not know how many stations had passed by that time. The absurd drama of self styled mobile censors went on for quite some time it seemed, as they kicked me out of the coach (definitely without the book) I just could not make out where I was. I felt absolutely in a different place in a different time. It took a few minutes for me to regain my presence of mind. Yes, I knew this place though I had never come to this station before. It lay on the same line but seven stations ahead where I usually got down. Seven stations. That means they abused me for nearly fifteen minutes. Plus the three stations before they caught me; that comes to seven minutes and together it makes twenty two minutes. Three minutes less to my destination in the other lane. How many pages I could have finished today? At a rate of one and half page per station, how many pages? My thoughts went in that way.
I staggered down the stairs to go to the other side to catch the return train towards the intersecting station. At the foyer of the station plush like a mall I read the neon-lit board hanging like a trapeze artist in skimpy clothes: “Read with Metro, Making Reading a Habit. Ask for Books at the Metro Counter. Or Find Your Surprise in the Coaches itself.”
It had a picture of a cross section of citizens reading in an absolutely clean, ordered, not crowded metro coach as if smart phones never existed in the year 2017. I could not locate the faces of those guys who had ruffled me a few minutes back in them.