I see people around me who are walking through life in a haze, unfeeling, uncaring, numb. Most people do not understand how I can be constantly over-stimulated by the world around me. I get affected by injustice, by death, by even love. Just the other day, my mom was narrating this television commercial where a little boy breaks a piggy bank and the mom trying to clean up, hurts her finger. She gets upset and is giving her son a telling off when the little boy brings a piece of cotton wool and an antiseptic lotion (the product) to his mother. The mother, touched by the gesture, tells him gently that if he needed money he could have asked for it. The boy answers that he couldn’t have asked for money from her because he wanted the money to buy something for her birthday. The mother hugs her son and says, ‘when did you grow up?’ My mother is snivelling on the phone while narrating this story and I am on the other end, listening to the story and wiping away my tears and berating myself for being so sensitive. That is what I am talking about. The world gets to me. The only way I survive is by diving into a book.
I am the kind of reader who remembers every aspect of reading and associates it with the book. For example, I remember reading Snow Leopard during a trek on the icy Zanskar river in Ladakh. I read Mrs. Dalloway at my mother’s house while I was ill in bed. I read Midnight’s Children as part of a Masters research project in the flat that I shared with a friend in Toronto. I still remember the scratchy feel of that university accommodation couch. I’d picked up The Hours from a hotel library and had read non-stop while the sound of the sea thundered nearby. I have read in many stationary locations and while on the move. Flights, I find, are one of the best places to read a book right after hotels because tea is just a button away! But my pandemic reading is like twirling around merrily and then suddenly bumping against a glass wall. A hard stop. The books I am reading now are forever going to be remembered in this way. These books will have one singular association – ‘the time we were all stuck inside the home’.
There is no escape
It may sound counter-intuitive, but reading helps me to face reality by escaping into another world. It gives me a fresh breath of air. It helps me to find the humour in things. It helps me cope with the stress of an acerbic (but unavoidable) relationship, a looming deadline, or losing a loved one. When there is too much noise in my head, I can silence it by reading. When the world becomes too much for me to handle, I pick up a book. You could say that it is a constructive way to distract myself. Reading does the opposite of numbing me, mind you. I don’t read so that I can feel less. I read so that I can feel more, but about someone other than myself and my insignificant worries and anxieties. I would rather cry because a character in a book lost their best friend. It makes me feel less selfish. But with the world whirling around on an axis of complete chaos, I cannot find the escape anymore.
Reading time and space
The pandemic is messing with my reading. No longer is my 6-year-old rushing out the door every evening to play with his friends to give me two solid, silent hours of guilt-free reading. No longer am I getting those sweet 15 minutes of reading time while waiting in the car outside my son’s school to pick him up. I cannot get myself to unplug from reality as readily as I could in my pre-pandemic life, mostly because I am not getting my time and space. Besides, there is the most practical difficulty of acquiring books. Three months in and things are starting to look up a little. I am trying to find time, energy, and the will to step into another world. Sometimes I do it out of habit, sometimes I pick up a book out of necessity. Mostly, I read because after a while the seduction of the moving images feels too hollow, shallow, and meaningless. Not only time, but also the space for reading has diminished considerably. The patterns of everyday life have morphed into one singular unit of the family. The house is the family space and every single waking hour is family time! I find it difficult to extricate myself from it all and simply be alone.
Searching for new ways to read
These days, I read on my Kindle app (which I detest) while walking in the mornings. I am a traditionalist when it comes to books. I cannot read off the screen, and I do not like audiobooks because I get too involved in the diction which distracts me from the story-line. I am considering taking up the advice of the hilarious post about reading during a pandemic. Two of those involve the bathroom. Catching up on my reading while ‘pandemic pooping’ seems like a fairly good idea. It could be a hassle-free way to read my paperback. I wish I could invest in a waterproof e-readers or water-resistant Bluetooth speakers but like I said, I am not a big fan of these modern reading devices. Or else, taking a long shower while listening to an audiobook sounds just about the right amount of relaxing. Lately, I have been reading on the kindle app while walking in the mornings. The time I spend walking seems to become more productive if I have some reading material. I have combined walking and reading since long. The only difference these days is that this is the only time I am reading. This means that every book I read is associated with movement.
Finding the right fit
I am still struggling to find the right time, place, and even the right book for the current situation. I am at a loss. There are several recommendations for people who want to read about pandemics, but I want to steer clear of these. While it is difficult to think of much else, I consciously want to avoid such thoughts. So, instead, I look for books which calm the mind but that too, I find are difficult to emotionally invest in, these days. Fantasy is the one genre which has not let me down. I read A Wizard of Earthsea and Gangamma’s Gharial and now I am getting ready to plunge into Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Perhaps, this is where I will stay for now. Till this tides over.
I want to return to my morning conversations with Virginia Woolf not because I can’t stare at the screen anymore but because I want to relish the feel of the delicious voice seeping into my being like a soothing cup of tea. I want to read in the early morning light because I enjoy the silence and not because I have to ‘get some reading done’ before everyone’s up. These days I have to work extra hard to get those much-needed and cherished moments of solitude. Perhaps in today’s world, that is how it works. Perhaps, this is the ‘new normal’ that everyone keeps talking about. But I want to slow down with a book, pick it up, read some background, spend some quality time getting to know the characters and their nuances, listen to what they have to say. I don’t want to read because I have a window of 30 minutes before some other chore. It feels forced, synthetic, artificial, much like everything else right now. It feels like I am in a dull, dimly-lit, depressing waiting room. Waiting. It feels like I am holding my breath and waiting. I have always found it difficult to read while I am waiting for something – for the phone to ring, for the kettle to boil. I would rather read while waiting for the sun to rise. Right now it feels like time has frozen and I am waiting. To exhale.