Some of the few things that have remained constant in my life in the last 25 years are the timing of the
Pooja Express from Jammu to Jaipur, and the fact that it is always delayed by a few hours. My mother getting out at Alwar station to get the kulhar wali chai, and me finishing a book during the journey and feeling fulfilled.
My mother used to utilise the time in the train to make me read. It started with the short stories in
kids’ magazines like Champak and sometimes even Reader’s Digest, until she decided it was time her children read entire books. When my mother asked me to read the autobiography of Bhagat Singh out loud, I was irritated at first, wondering why she was spoiling my entire trip by making me study even there on the train.
“Every tiny molecule of ash is in motion with my heat. I am such a lunatic that I am free even in jail.”
At these words, I stopped simply reading. I started imagining. This young boy had made the entire British empire tremble.
The train crossed Pathankot, Amritsar, Ambala, Panipat, Delhi, the various places where the bells of rebellion had rung clear at some point in history – and as they were happening in the book . I was now engrossed, reading the book under the light of those night lamps that come fixed to the side of each cabin berth. It was the first time my mother didn’t ask me to switch that light off, probably because she knew I was using it right. My 11-year-old self had stayed up all night after reading his first proper book, just pondering over the thirst for justice and freedom he had discovered. It shaped the person I am today. Only a book could do that.
Today, it is so easy to be distracted from the innate, effortless yet intricate power of words through explosive headlines, endless scrolling, tweets, terrible tiny tales and YouTube videos claiming to explain the history of 1000 years in a matter of minutes. At such a time, reverting to reading books becomes a lot more urgent. We are in such a constant rush that we’ve started believing that watching a short video can suffice and is more productive than reading a book.
While an HD video can bring the Buckingham Palace and the lights of the London skyline to you in a few seconds, it can never give you the feel of London in the way words can. In a period of social intolerance, legal repression and cultural marginalisation, a video can’t catapult you into a different time. You can’t understand the struggles of oppressed women, enslaved populations, subjugated tribes and castes. You have to read books to read cities, to read times, to read emotions, to read love, to read struggles. There is no other way. Books make us ponder.
In a world dominated by social media, we’re seeking instant gratification. We don’t ponder. We’re
absolutely missing out on the nuances of everything, and as a result we’re missing out on understanding anything. The discourse on news channels is an example. Everything has turned so black and white. Hits and views are more important than genuine comprehension. The fake news floating around on WhatsApp leading to lynchings in our country exists because we have accepted we don’t need to look further. We don’t want to slow down, read and understand. We don’t question.
Books have the power to slow us down, to make us appreciate and understand the things around us, and to question what we think we already know. That moment when you read something so profound that you stop for a moment and attempt to digest it – that can never be done through someone else’s voice coming at you. The regressive beliefs we hold onto so dearly can’t be changed overnight by talk shows or videos, only books have the power to do that. Only when we are absolutely alone can we allow ourselves to change, and that ideal atmosphere is what books create.
As I grapple with the fact that my hometown’s last surviving bookshop was replaced by a mobile store last month,
The last running bookshop in my hometown had to shut down to make way for a mobile shop last
month, and now I can only hope that the world slows down for a moment. I hope we can get through those difficult first 50 pages so we can walk in someone else’s story. I only hope to see another mother on the Pooja Express train making her children read. I hope every child gets to experience that one night where they stay awake till the train reaches Delhi and the story they’re reading comes to an end. So that in every heart the urge for revolution, the fight against injustice, remains ever brewing. When the chaos of the world gets too much to take, they can open a book and let the soothing fragrance of old wise words slow them down a little.
I know Dilli door ast (Delhi is a long way away) but books and only books will guide us there.
Aseem Sundan is a poet and a photographer from Jammu & Kashmir, based in Delhi.
Featured image credit: Aaron Burden/Unsplash