Thursday, August 18, 2011

Analyzing my greatest addiction

“Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”  - Voltaire

In The Tale of Despereaux – by Kate DiCamillo, Despereaux is a “weird” mouse who prefers to read books rather than eat them. This gets him into all kinds of trouble, as any “otherness” does in most societies. When he is sentenced to languish in the dungeons, Gregory -- the rat jailer, offers to save him. Despereaux asks "Why would you save me?"  

The answer that Gregory gives is a good place as any to begin my own examination of my greatest addiction in life. "Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story” he says. “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light’.”  That’s exactly what a good book, or in a pinch – ANY book – does for me. It opens, illuminates, and pleases my mind. It’s my almost free ticket to go anywhere and be anything I choose. It is the best way I can think of to force my mind open, experience completely foreign cultures and lives, live other peoples’ existences, and feel what they feel, and learn….just learn so many things, facts, trivia, science, and so much more! And the more I do so, the more I want to.

More and more people I meet these days do not read. I feel a little saddened and sorry for them when they say things like “books are boring”, or “I would rather do anything than read a book”. I know the futility of trying to explain to them what they are missing, no one who doesn’t have the bug can ever comprehend what it is like. Then again, to each his own, I guess, and if someone thinks they get all the pleasure they can out of life from TV, internet, and sports, that’s entirely their choice. As for me, I cannot imagine living without books. I can manage pretty well without many things that I once considered essential – parties, adda, TV, regular soirees, going out every evening, being surrounded by people – but books are as essential to my life and well being as breathing. My house is full of books, seven crates and counting, and I would go mad if I didn’t read at least a few pages a day. In fact, I can’t fall asleep if I haven’t read something first.

Teaching a kid to read is hard work, as I realize now that I am teaching mine to, and I am glad my parents invested the time and effort into teaching me to love books. Because of them, and their efforts, I will never be lonely, bored, or restricted ever in my life. Most parents don’t. They pay token lip service (and not all of them either) to the “kids these days don’t read” complaint, but obviously don’t care enough, or see it as enough of a problem, to actually make the effort to remedy the situation. At worst, they themselves read nothing other than the odd newspaper, and don’t see the need for a reading habit in their kids. At best, they are the exclusive Grihalakhsmi, Women’s Era reading mothers, and Newspapers and business magazines only fathers who see no need for either them or their kids to read anything else given that the parents are doing “just fine” without it. A third category also exists, that of people who vaguely wish their kids to read, and are trying to make them, but too little and too late.

Except in very rare cases, a reading habit is hereditary. Not genetic, or passed down with the genes, but cultural, passed down with the other memes we receive, like religious beliefs, orthodox/liberal worldviews, political stands, and such. The earliest memories I have (and I am sure my brother – another voracious reader—will agree) involve books. Not only did my parents have an extensive library of their own, most of them classics and “non popular”, leisure at home often involved a toddler Jia holding a book upside down fiercely emulating the parents, who – lying on either side of her – both had their noses buried in a book. Reading, and talking about, books, was very much a part of the general background of home life, and an important part of familial bonding. Given books from infancy on, by age twelve – when most of my peers were beginning to read the bigger Enid Blytons, I had gone through Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys, C S Lewis and Lewis Carroll, and moved on to Of Human Bondage (which I have since re read a dozen times, discovering something new each time I pick it up).

For CONCERNED parents these days, listening to the expert advice of psychologists and sociologists disturbed by the increasing intolerance and lack of depth in youth, the shorter and shorter attention spans, and the addiction to instant gratification, teaching their kids to read is becoming somewhat more of an issue than it would normally have been. However, how is the kid supposed to get the message if the parents don’t read? It will just end up being another of those “do what I tell you, don’t do as I do” lessons that kids learn duplicity from. Also, the time to hand the kid a book is BEFORE it can read. Most parents don’t, because a} the kid can’t read, b} it will just tear it up, c} I’ll have to take time out of my busy life to read the book out to him/her. While all of this is true, this actually IS the time to introduce the child to the concept of books. Looking at pictures, and yes, tearing the occasional page, will raise a curiosity about what it says. Reading to my child has been one of the nicest, closest, quietest bonding experiences I have ever had.

Yes, I had to read out the same stories again and again, but now that my little monkey has learnt to read some of them on her own, I miss it. Having always been around books, and having seen both parents, especially mom, so much into reading, my daughter already sees books as an inalienable part of her life, and --- at age 5 and a half – often chooses to read rather than watch endless cartoons. Another thing I learnt from my parents is not to force my tastes in reading on to my child. Sure, I do hand – and will continue to hand her – books that I consider good reads, but she is, as I have always been, free to read anything she chooses.

I hope, that as she grows, she will find in books what I have found. A perfect and constant friend, accessible and cheap “anytime entertainment”, enough information to set me well on the path to my ultimate ambition… “to know everything about everything”, some of the best antidepressants on the planet, the perfect escape, and so much more. I hope she also realizes the pleasures of re-reading. A lot of people I know… who supposedly read … don’t get how I can keep reading the same books again and again ( I have some that I have read as many as 50 times and can pick up again anytime). “But you already know the story!” these are the people I classify into the same category as the ones that say “I never read Wodehouse, the stories are so juvenile!” I for one don’t read JUST for a story. Every word, every line, every page, has something to offer (particularly if it is Wodehouse. hehehe). It’s about suddenly discovering a new idea or thought that you missed on previous readings. It is re-appreciating a turn of phrase or a juxtaposition of irreconcilables. It is seeing the same characters and plot from a place of slightly superior experience of lived life. “When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.”

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy”  according to Edward P. Morgan, and I find that increasingly true as social contact leaves more and more to be desired, and everyone seems to be beginning to think in black and white. I like the freedom to play the devil’s advocate to my own mind, I enjoy making myself uncomfortable in my beliefs, if only to test how deep they run. So, yes, I love to read, and can never have enough books.

No wonder then, that my idea of home décor is basically asking “do we have enough bookshelves?” :D

Monday, August 15, 2011

Yet Another Independence Day Hoopla

Another I-Day passes amidst a lot of noise. My newspapers (all 5 of them) are practically unreadable for all the “messages” by various government agencies, departments, and private firms, not to mention all the tokenism of “freedom related” news and features which are basically rubbish. News channels are doing their twice yearly rehashes of the same old footage, and old patriotic film songs (necessarily old because new Hindi films have done away with the genre) and strange programs (presumably the last minute brainstorms of some harried studio executive) interviewing really odd people. The radio is strangely thanda this year, with most of the FM channels ignoring the occasion altogether. Only All India Radio seems to be doing the yearly rundown of the top 20 march/war/aggression songs from films.

Schools, government offices, and enthusiastic mohalla committees are hoisting the tricolour, and my eardrums are practically blasted off by loudspeakers blaring deshbhakti songs at full volume, all day. People are leaving enthusiastic and over-the-top messages on social networking sites, and text messages, wishing everyone a Happy Independence Day. (now I am not going to get into this whole deal of happy this and happy that, that’s a whole other blogpost in itself). Most of these people couldn’t really care less about this entity called the motherland, or don’t bother to even think about it beyond two days a year (click here for a previous blog post on this topic). And really, most people don’t have the time or the occasion to do so either (doesn’t seem to stop them from having knee-jerk reactions to things that are seen as un-Indian, against our culture, etc, but that a whole different kettle of fish too.)

Watching the hoopla, I am reminded again of all the news over the last few years that has been cumulatively strengthening my belief that FREEDOM is actually declining at an alarming rate in this huge “democracy” of ours. A primary case in point, of course, is the new bill which, in a few months from now, could very well penalize me for saying what I just did, shut down my blog, and even imprison me. (click here for more information). This bill, presumably soon to be law, is only the most recent and OFFICIAL step in an atmosphere of increasing intolerance in a land that has always been a melting pot of widely divergent cultures, identities, and belief systems. The very basic, and primary, fundamental right of every citizen in ANY democracy – the freedom of speech and opinion – is the one that has been seeing the fastest and sharpest decline not just from increasingly touchy groups of fanatics, but also in a more organized and formal manner, from the government itself.

Books, films, art, advertising and blog content, all are under the scissors of self appointed keepers of our collective morals and culture (whatever that means). Taking offense at the drop of a hat is bad enough, but translating that feeling of being offended into violence, book burning, vandalism, forced shutdown of film screenings, and such like are worse. The capstone of the tomb, of course, is the attitude of the state, which loses no time in banning “sensitive” material. It has now gone beyond the ridiculous. Instead of the state acting like a grown up, and telling these trigger happy fanatic groups to “don’t watch/read/see it if it offends you, but let others have the freedom to choose”, it is telling people like me that we MUST bow to the opinion of a handful of fundamentalist jerks about what I should be able to watch, see, or read.

And that’s not the half of it. People in some of the biggest and most reputedly cosmopolitan cities in the country (Delhi and Pune) are now officially unable to have a drink until they are 25. This in a country where I can drive at 18, marry and have kids at 18 (21 for a man). So, according to these laws, I am mature enough to drive, placing my life and that of others in danger, at 18. I am mature enough to marry and procreate, placing my physical, mental, and emotional health and future in jeopardy, along with that of a partner and a child, also at 18. But I am not old enough, or mature enough to decide if I want to indulge in a beer? How ridiculous is that? Other fundamentalist groups, unopposed, and therefore aided and abetted by the state machinery, are telling me where I can hang out, what I can wear, who I can marry, and threatening me with violence if I refuse to follow their diktats! Pardon me for being over reactive if this reminds me of the beginning of the rise of the Taliban!

The government doesn’t have the money or the personnel, (let's call it what it really is… it doesn’t have the will) to prosecute criminals for known and proven crimes, it doesn’t have the machinery to investigate the ridiculously large scams coming to light everyday, but it DOES have the time and infrastructure to tap my phones and monitor my blogs, facebook page, and twitter posts to make sure I don’t put anything OFFENSIVE on them? As foetus, the machinery cannot prevent me from being killed before I am born, as an infant it cannot prevent me from being killed or abandoned for being a girl, as a woman it cannot prevent me from being bought and sold as chattel, or persecuted and killed for dowry. As a grown woman of legal age, in some states the government tells me I need my parents’ permission to marry who I choose, even if it is in a civil court! When my family kills me for marrying against the diktats of some ridiculous bunch of old men, the state machinery does nothing to either protect me before the fact or avenge me after!

When, as a citizen of India, I live in a state that is supposedly not my own (click here for more) the government and its machinery does nothing to safeguard my civil rights, or to prevent hooligans from beating me up, squeezing me out of my livelihood, burning my home and business, or preventing me from taking recruitment exams. As a writer or artist, if I write, draw, film, or create anything that OFFENDS a group of fanatics, they are free to beat me up, destroy my creation, vandalise my home, vandalise public facilities like libraries and shops stocking my work, ban it from curricula, and I have no one to turn to! Instead of protecting my fundamental rights, the machinery of the state will either stand by and watch the naked dance of destruction, or aid in the crime by banning the work or worse, forcing me to leave the country! And these are simple things! God forbid I should demand more contentious things like sexual and reproductive rights!

Do I really think I am FREE? The answer is a resounding NO! do I really feel like celebrating independence? I think not!