The Women of My Village and Their Underrated Love for Reading

I used to wonder what a soft rebellion was. What kind of rebellion can be so silent, so concealed, yet so commanding?

I think I might have found an answer.

I take pride in my grandfather’s knowledge of Islamic history, in his collection of Urdu books. I take pride in some of my cousins who have bookshelves filled to the brim. These are, as many would say, “well-read” people. But I have a problem with that term. What decides who is well read – quantity, quality or lived experiences?

Reading is often associated with revolution. But here again, the realm of inclusivity is the size of a book’s spine. I have discovered that revolution is more than having a whole library at your fingertips.

I have been witness to a reading-revolution relationship of the softest kind. Back in my village, there were many unknown readers in and around my grandfather’s house. These were the women. They read too, but the only difference is that their passion for the written word was reduced to being “entertainment”.

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An average Muslim woman’s library catalogue at my ancestral house, couldn’t not have Pakeeza Anchal, which was and probably continues to be the most popular Urdu periodical in my village. Women who shared an interest in the magazine had unknowingly created readership cults which were characterised by sharing and lending – since these were readers with occasional access and scarce influence. Many could never get hold of that one issue and live with incomplete stories, with cliffhangers that weren’t meant to be. Even today, I see glossy copies of such magazines stacked at my Phuphi’s place – resting untouched by anglicised hands, as a remnant of her lost readership; as an elegy to the passion that was coerced into dying.

And then, there were many like my 60-year-old Badi Ammi, who loved reading novels and felt deeply for the khatoons from the literature she admired. I hear her talking fondly of how, before marriage, she used to request the paperwallah to bring a magazine when he’d come again. I can almost feel the sharp pain in her voice when she tells that after her marriage, nobody took her love for novels seriously. She says my father used to joke about it and not bring her books. It was all fun and frolic then, but as someone who has done masters in Urdu, Badi Ammi sits with only the memories of the novels she loved. Her passion was dependant and that is why her passion was secondary. It was nearly humorous to me when she was talking of Gulshan Nanda’s Kati Patang with her index finger halted on a verse in the Quran.

And to me, this is soft rebellion.

For these women in particular, the sheer urgency of the coming monthly edition, the expectations, the yearning for the written word gave them a sense of purpose, a sense of owning their individual space within the massive boundaries set by the society around them. 

Every time these women have been expressly told that they are meant to recite verses, marry and be good mothers, every time their passion was reduced to being called “petty entertainment”, they unknowingly rebelled in the softest, most silent ways possible.

Tasneem Khan is a student and an aspiring writer from Lucknow.

Featured image credit: Twitter; Illustration: LiveWire