Psychology textbooks like to add these little fact boxes between chapters about how strange or unusual some tribes or cultures act. I think I’d fit into these boxes quite easily. This is a story I don’t mind telling but unfortunately it isn’t enough to leave the story at that. For this essay to make sense we have to go way back.
From my family, I inherited distaste for the random songs and dramatic nature of Indian movies and unfortunately I didn’t grow up when the Tulu language was anything more than something people spoke. So all I’d watch on TV were English cartoons. It was this glorious mish-mash of loony-toons, Hanna Barbara and some terribly dubbed anime. I could understand English very fluently thanks to this but couldn’t read the language just as well.
My first few memories of trying to read aren’t very pleasant ones. I knew what the alphabets sounded like but couldn’t make them words. Once in my stuffy first grade classroom, we were given red hard bound books and told to read them.
-Did you read the title?
-Um… what does the title say?
-What does the first page say?
-I don’t know so don’t ask.
-It says help on every page. Help me, help him etcetera.
I still don’t know why I had a hard time realizing that the word help was repeated on every page. It wasn’t reading that was the problem. These days I suspect it was English. Most Mangaloreans don’t even know Tulu has a script, let alone being able to read it. The emotions and the world of English language that was offered on TV was interesting, kept you hooked. But it would be a long time before I felt any of those emotions they talked about.
Because I couldn’t or wouldn’t want to read, I’d ask my family to tell me what those comics that turned up in Readers digest funny pages meant. Eventually they’d get tired of it so I had no choice but to force myself to read them. It wasn’t long before I discovered there were pages filled with jokes surrounding the comics. I was lucky enough to have grandparents who didn’t have cable till a few years ago so every time I went there on vacation I’d read their collection of Readers Digest. They had a collection starting from the 1960’s so this kept me occupied for a few years. I progressively went on to discover that they had jokes at the end of every article, factoids between pages until I eventually took to reading the articles.
I also took to reading many other books, comic, and magazines that my grandparents had accumulated over the years. These were all books meant for adults. I wouldn’t even bother remembering the names of characters in novels until very recently. I went back there a few days ago and found this book of short stories I used to read. James Joyce, Chekhov, O’ Henry. I couldn’t help thinking that if only the seventh grade me had bothered to read and remember the names these authors, then I could have awed many people.
This early head start in consuming information in an information obsessed world did me some good. I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I’d only stuck to Animal Planet and the other stuff I watched on TV. It might have been harder to get all this info from another language. More importantly it would still be a different language. I can’t shake the feeling that I lost something when I eventually took so much to becoming the reader that I am.
There was this distance that crept into conversations. I could fake it away, but it was still there. I was already a quiet fellow from this unusual micro-minority background that was a mixture of well-educated, kanjoos Tuluva Jains. The fact that everyone in the family grew up when their parents had gone from filthy rich zamindars and capitalists to people who flailed around ineffectively when they had their money and privilege taken away made things more unusual.
Add to this Mangalore, a place where language and worship once had very tribal roots, that seems to be on this speeding train to this weird place people would call modern. Most readers I know like to call reading an escape from the real world. I don’t see it that way.
If you met my grandfather, the man who has been collecting and reading these hundreds of books for fifty years despite being rather poor, you’d know pretty soon you couldn’t call him a bibliophile. If you spoke to him about books, and how they make you feel, and how you like this and that, and how it made you feel like this and that, he’d tell you to get a life. I think I fit in to this older way of looking at things a bit more.
I’m not saying readers don’t have lives. I mean that reading isn’t just an escape for me. Be it movies, literature or art I’m not lost or running away when I read. I’m there. I’m Rijul reading Ukrainian folk tales from the last book my uncle ever bought, I’m Rijul sitting in my living room and reading about the Islamic golden age, I’m Rijul who wastes his time with the daily quota of 7 fact based listicles a day. I am Rijul sniffing my yellowed copy of The Histories trying to see if I can smell nostalgia. I have emotions and feelings similar to what people talk about in all those books but I never really relate.
Maybe it’s also because I don’t visualize things that I read unless it’s required or I want to. Maybe it’s because sometimes I’m translating into English from this stream of wordless ideas that flow in my head. So what the hell am I doing reading about Mediterranean pirates and devouring ever novel I come across? Let me use a metaphor. You know those random people who didn’t own TV’s or read? They are a rare breed these days but you will remember one or two of them if you think hard enough.
Did you ever wonder what these people did all the time? Did they just exist? Did they never get bored? Are they aliens? Do they just sit around and exist? Funnily enough I think I’m like them but in reverse. It stems from where I’m from, from a tradition, from a language that was only spoken and from me being just a little weird. I just read, the same way they just exist. I don’t read when, like them, I have things to do. I read when I’m just not doing anything. To be able to read, I don’t need to fly away.
What I read doesn’t have to be written by great men and women, it doesn’t have to be very good either.
Everything goes- even the haphazard erotica some techy from Haryana wrote about his maid/mom/aunt/favourite actress in a train, chai shop or coffee day. Somewhere between the lines, even the worst writers end up mixing languages or stumble on radical positive thought. If they don’t, it’ll still be funny and you get to figure out what your prudish neighbours are actually thinking of in hill stations and bus stops.
It is also nice to see what other people like to read. Fun fact, an uncle of mine who became chief recruiter for the RSS has enough copies of debonair for an apocalypse or two. But in the end I don’t think it matters. A scribble on a table, a long epic on the Aztec feathered serpent or just a random poem on what Du Fu thinks the moon hides- they are all worth reading.