Why I Read

I thought of picking a pseudonym for myself before writing this entry, but couldn’t think of any. I was looking for a Victorian name, because I identify with that era so much – rather with the romanticised versions of the era – and the people in the books that I so like to read. I could totally pretend that I dipped a pen in an ink pot to write this, and did not in fact press the black and white keys of my laptop.

The effect of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy on me is such that I often find myself scrolling through online shopping sites looking for clothes from that era, wondering how I’d look in a bonnet and a gown, roaming the crowded streets of Delhi. Would people laugh at me? Perhaps they’d think I’m a stage actor?

Most of my days are spent day dreaming about lounging in woodlands and gardens, picking fruits at an orchard, while a gentleman gallops by on a horse, and maybe nods at me. Other times I picture myself as the mistress of a plush manor house, ringing the bell for the servants to lay the table for the afternoon tea – cakes, tarts, sandwiches and the like.

It’s always these fancy dreams about glorious houses, and never about plagues, famines, poverty or exploitation by the aristocracy – because those are real problems which require real solutions. Those are also the realities of the 21st century.

All this fascination with the Victorians, yet, I couldn’t pick a name, because none of the Victorian names starting with an S appealed to me. So I decided to stick with my own.

Also read: On Reading Nivedita Menon’s ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ in a Patriarchal Home

My own name brought me back to my own reality. Not the plagues, hunger or economic exploitation – thanks to the privilege of being born in an upper middle class family. My reality is cramming for exams, scoring well, looking for internships and finishing the thesis that was forced on me as a part of my graduation syllabus, and to escape these seemingly hard endeavours I read.

My present escape is in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. It’s about a Nigerian woman Ifemelu, who comes to the US for higher education and to build a life.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)

America, where dreams get fulfilled, but at what cost? Ifemelu won a scholarship, yet the high cost of living forces her to look for a job. For months on an end, she doesn’t find one. Cheques keep piling up, there is interview after interview yet no sign of a job. It sends her into a spiral of depression.

The book deals with black identity, not just of non-American blacks, but black people in the US as well. Ifemelu’s cousin Dike, who was born in the US, faces discrimination at school. It makes me think about my cousin, who is eight and in the US. I I haven’t been in touch with her ever since she left with my aunt four years ago. I wonder if she faces discrimination at her school on account of her brown skin.

An old crush from school, K, who now I think is daft in the head, also went to the US to pursue higher education. He picked up an American accent. I mocked him along with my friends, as people do when foreign return emigrants flaunt an accent, probably thinking that a Western accent is a mark of intelligence. Was it subliminal? Or a conscious choice?

Ifemelu’s accent was a conscious choice to fit in an alien land, so that people didn’t over enunciate every syllable and speak to her slowly thinking she wouldn’t understand their words, even though she’d spoken English all her life, back in Nigeria. Did he also face similar issues? Did people speak to K in an over enunciated manner too? Even though he too had spoken English all his life?

My thoughts wandered next to my boyfriend’s cousin, S. I wonder if people called her exotic as they called Ifemelu because of her chocolate skin. Every time Ifemelu mentioned Nigeria, white people mentioned NGOs they were associated with and the charity work they were doing for Africa.

I wonder, if the same happened to S every time she mentioned she was from India. Did people assume the air of being charitable and flaunt the obscene amounts of money they donated for India? Did she too struggle for a job, or did she not need one?

This is what reading can do to you. It makes you question, think, wonder and ponder, not only about the characters in the book, but also about people around you, real people, living and breathing.

And so I read, book after book, to escape from my uninteresting and mundane life, waiting eagerly for the world that the next book would unveil.

Sayani is a final-year student of Kamala Nehru College pursuing Journalism, and would be appearing for her final exams soon.

Featured image credit: Gabrielle Dickson/Unsplash