It makes me sad that every conversation at the dinner table these days ends with me asking my parents to read X and Y author who I believe is non-partisan and objective.
We mostly disagree over history. They believe the versions that make them the better victims, while I try to point out the precarity of others. I usually win with my jargon and citations, while they waddle awkwardly around hearsay, routinely delivered in their inboxes by friends they trust and family members they care about.
We live under the same roof, yet talk small for most part of the day. Otherwise, the gaps in our knowledge become too vast and cumbrous for our comfort. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that my parents make a sincere effort to bring serious topics to the table – issues of political relevance, historical trivia and gossip about important people. I hate knowing that they are inaccurate, and unaware of their bigotry.
Once I went far enough to call them bigots. Ma asked me the meaning of the word, with a look of helpless inquisition on her face. I hate that look on her face; on their faces. I hate how far I have come. It takes me back to that day when I came out to my family about wanting to study social sciences. It has been six years since. I have two-and-a-half degrees to my name and a bibliography that runs longer than any of their WhatsApp messages.
Over time, I have successfully learnt a language that appeals to the world, but one that my parents no longer quite understand. I have only learnt to read and nurture this impossibly beautiful thing called objectivity, yet I often feel so far from it. For every time my parents say something I do not agree with, I raise my voice, ‘lose my shit’ and hand them a reading list.
Yet no one ever talks about the luxury that is reading.
My favourite book by Italo Calvino begins with a long prescription of reading habits – starting with the cosiest of chairs with an armrest, right up to an obscenely well endowed personal library to pick and choose from. I usually try to ignore the demands it makes of me and my circumstances and immerse myself in his fine writing.
My father never had a reading chair like his father did. In fact, the latter’s obsession with reading never managed to trickle down and find a place among his sons, who were driven to jobs they didn’t particularly take up for the love of the work. Jethu ventured significantly, taking up the indulgence of literature in a family that desperately needed jobs. Thus, his beloved Christopher Marlowe had to make way for insurance policies where he had to talk about life expectancy to people who were dying anyway.
“Bordadu would have loved you a lot,” is something I have heard so often from many people in my family that I learnt to nod and smile knowing it’s impossible to love someone you never met.
Bordadu has left me an enviable collection of books. There is as much philosophy as there is literature, with two tiers in between packed with history and medicine. Bangla books enjoy a separate shelf altogether. These pieces of furniture stand as much as artefacts of knowledge and pride as they do as contrasts to their surrounding scarcity.
Yet a reading list says more about a person than any memoir can. I remember running my fingers across the impeccably straight lines he would draw on some books and the dots he would mark passages with on others, each time with a sharp red colour pencil, and I’d smile at how I always found the exact same parts fascinating as he did. I had never met him, yet he spoke to me in those meticulously marked pages.
At Presidency, being called out for not reading something was often considered more humiliating than other forms of slander. Walking down that adda-loving stretch of marbled path from the canteen to the entrance, one could pick up sufficient names to drop at the next conversation, complete with keywords to pass off as well-read. I read relentlessly to catch up with peers who had pledged themselves to the humanities earlier than I had been allowed and started tutoring just to be able to buy some of the books that my friends spoke of, but the library didn’t care for.
Often, access to the latest theories came at the expense of two months of ‘salary’ and a carefully wrapped newspaper jacket lest I spoiled the cover. Jawaharlal Nehru University was particularly behind in terms of buying books – while provisions to suggest purchases were ample, the bureaucratic processes ensures that the books never arrive until the research zeal dies out. Book reviews were something I could never commit to, for one had to write about the freshest of publications that were rudely unaffordable.
Thus academia for a lot of us, despite the highest grades, was an anachronistic journey, where we were constantly playing catch up with our richer peers with newer books and faster access to ideas.
Today, my friends and I call one another and talk of our parents in exasperation, with our speeches dotted with dramatic expressions of disdain, disbelief and disappointment. We take pleasure in feeling superior at the cost of our parents’ ignorance and we make a fine show out of it. We roll our eyes and with every word situate ourselves a little farther apart from the generation before us.
A part of the process, they tell me.
It’s just that on some days, I really wish I had learnt to argue without flaunting a bibliography. Some days I really wish every conversation wouldn’t end in me asking my parents to read.
Mahashewta Bhattacharya is a research scholar in the field of visual literacy in JNU. She has written for EPW and LiveWire, among others.