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The Reading Room of Satabdi Mishra (Co-Owner, Walking BookFairs), Bhubaneswar, India

This is a special picture from a trip Satabdi and her team made to Mayurbhanj district in Odisha where they started the first Walking BookFairs Library in Bisoi Government School for children who were working as child labourers. These 116 children have been rescued and rehabilitated by the district administration. They now go to school and all of them love stories. Walking BookFairs helped start a small library for them with a box full of story books and picture books (some of them cannot read yet).

Satabdi Mishra is a mother of a four and half year old. She co-owns and runs independent book shack Walking BookFairs in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, which mainly involves driving a van-full of books – the Walking BookFairs traveling bookshop – through villages and small towns of Odisha. She wants to spread the joy of reading all around and strongly believes that books are for everyone, including the poorest farmer in the remotest village.
This bibliophile loves good books, good cinema and good tea.

I invited myself into her Reading Room to hear all about the pages she loves, abhors, goes back to over and over again.

You’re currently reading

An Evening in Calcutta – Stories by KA Abbas (Harper Collins India)

Baluta by Daya Pawar, translated by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger Books)

Last book you bought

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

I have to confess that it’s been some time since I have bought a book, one of the perks of running a bookshop!

A Book you left unfinished (why, when)

Oh! I do that a lot. Only to re-visit them later.

A Book you’ve wanted to read for years, but haven’t yet

The Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali.

Three books everyone should read

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The Outsider by Albert Camus.

1984 by George Orwell.

We live in strange times. Anybody who has access to books, should absolutely read these three books!

An author you wouldn’t be caught dead reading

I am someone who would read anything in print. But even with all my love for adventures I am yet to read Chetan Bhagat.

A Book that sums up childhood reading years

Oh! Those glorious years! Alistair McLean, O.Henry, PG Wodehouse and some Sidney Sheldon too!

Book(s) you’ve read more than once & would love to read again

‘100 years of Solitude’ is a book I keep reading again and again.

‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago.

‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ by Pablo Neruda.

Favorite author(s)

Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Manto, Nagarjun, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami

A fictional character from a book that you most identify with and why

One of the most brilliant characters in a book is Meursault from The Outsider.

When Meursault finally realizes that people’s lives have no grand meaning or importance, and that their actions, their comings and goings, have no effect on the world. This realization is the culmination of all the events of the novel.

The most prized book in your library

A copy of ‘Siddhartha’ from a very special person in my life. This book and the person who gifted me this book have been my anchor.

Your favorite reading spot

The garden at Walking BookFairs. I spend most of my days reading by the lily pond with butterflies, spiders, squirrels and sparrows for company. But I will read anywhere.

If you’d like to participate in this or other Q&A series, holler on Twitter or leave a message below and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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Of Childhood Dreams and Book Lovin’ in Bhutan

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express

The slanting rays of the sun peer through the matchbox-stacked buildings that converge onto the square. Traffic slows down at a signal, not from bright changing lights but from dance-like movements of white-gloved hands of the traffic policeman at the junction.

Thimpu is an unabashedly quiet capital city, happily distanced from the only airport serving the country at Paro, 50 km to the west. Among a populace of less than one lakh, there are many who leave for neighbouring nations like India, usually for education and better employment. But some return to their pristine homeland, like Kunzang Choki (or ‘Mui’ to loved ones), who finished school at Darjeeling followed by university at Pune in India. All this time Choki nursed a childhood dream of opening a bookstore, and it was only when she was faced with the unavailability of titles she wanted to read that she decided to open one in Thimpu.

Nestled along a winding road close to the traffic junction on Hogdzin Lam leading to the Clocktower Square, Junction Bookstore is a quaint gem drawing locals and tourists. All visitors are greeted by Toto, a black mountain dog adopted by Choki when the shop opened in 2010. At different times of the day, he may or may not be accompanied by Suzy, the other adopted pet of the bookstore family or any of the seven strays who eat their meals with them every day.

Inside, rows of children’s stories, classics, autobiographies and a special section on writings from and about Bhutan line the shelves. The store owner’s namesake Kunzang Choden’s Folktales of Bhutan is a popular fictionalised insight into the country’s culture. The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho has also been well received by local readers. At the counter, there are glass jars filled with soil friends and customers have brought back from faraway lands. Visitors are encouraged to pick up a book and read, with tea or coffee. There is a tip box to donate for the beverages; this helps buy food supplies for the dogs or refuel the beverage stock.

A Reading Group of six to seven members meets on Thursdays to debate books. Another group, a short story club—or the Junior Bookclub—meets every Sunday to read stories. The bookstore hosted an exhibition last year titled ‘Deliberately Framed: Scenes from a Poetic Stew’ where Choki and her videographer friend Solly collected poems from 16 poets and presented them (unnamed) to photographers who were give three weeks to take a picture best representing their understanding of the chosen poem. The photographers and poets met and saw the outcome only on the day of the exhibition.

“How do you survive, in a country of illiterates?” Choki was once asked by a customer.

The National Library of Bhutan, a few kilometres from the store, was built in 1967 to help preserve religious books and manuscripts. This imposing traditional structure resembles a central temple tower of a Dzong and houses archives and images of revered figures, thus becoming a place of worship, often circumambulated by devotees.

Bhutan is commemorating the 60th birth anniversary of their fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, this year by hosting several events, including observance of 2015 as National Reading Year. While efforts to establish e-libraries across the country are underway, some existing brick and mortar stores, like Junction, have recently made a plea to Prime Minister Tsehring Tobgay to allow importing books from India without 20 per cent custom duty.

Owning and running a bookstore in Bhutan is a labour of love more than a capitalist enterprise, given the modest market size. People prefer to self-publish, which helps maintain a certain natural flavour but also loses the sharpness of editing. In this milieu, love for the written word led a passionate poet and bibliophile like Choki to turn a childhood dream into a reality. Even as her country balances local traditions with restricted tourism and taxed imports, the joys derived from turning the pages of a tome continue to light up the faces of those who step in to her book-laden world.

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Book Review: Inside ‘The Heat and Dust Project’ with Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha and Devapriya RoyThis is not a honeymoon or an escape. It is a conscious journey into a world as yet far removed from their own. It will become a permanent break from their unsettled city lives and a portrait of what has for long fueled their relationship. Coming together during their years spent at Presidency College in Kolkata, India, Saurav and Devapriya never harbored dreams of a life linked to a monthly paycheck. Moving on to the creatively charged milieu of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, their intensely passionate environment left them searching for their own version of a fulfilling life.

The answer came in 2009 as an idea that involved traveling across the length and breadth of India, with a budgeted restriction to boot. While it was Devapriya’s idea to put the daily ‘bed and board’ budget to Rs. 500, it was Saurav who proudly owns to having executed it. Soon they pitched it as a book and within months set off on a commissioned, rickety ride across India.

The Heat and Dust ProjectThe book finally shaped up into The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, a title released by Harper Collins India earlier this year. Initially struggling to describe the entire journey in one book, they soon realized the enormity of putting their experience into words and restricted this first part to only a section of the journey – a thirty-three day leg. The book is as much a delineation of their step by step journey as a historical, anecdotal account of the regions they visited. It is also a reflection of the rigmaroles that a relationship, in their case a five year marriage at the time, goes through on a journey.

The writing process seeped into their plans, with people, places and stories needing to be noted down, in a diary by Devapriya and in his mind full of a hundred stories by Saurav. Devapriya mentions an instance during the journey, in Gujarat, where they left the hotel room with the mission to ‘look for a story’. Most others simply happened to them. In addition to the budget, having set other rules such as not staying in one place for more than three days, a learning from monks who believed that to be enough time to ‘sprout roots’, the couple were forever on the go.

During the journey, where they were back in Delhi, while taking their Israeli friends (twin brothers who readers encounter more than once in the book) on a tour across their city, Devapriya admits to feeling a sense of “intense loss” while crossing the area of South Delhi they used to call home. Now having circled back to the same apartment they held before their journey, they are happily, permanently “dislocated”. Neck deep in the manuscript of the second leg of their journey, the ninety day sojourn from Delhi to Kanyakumari and back up via the Coromandel Coast, they are forever inching closer to their ideal, of an itinerant idler. The second book slated for a June 2016 release will also introduce someone they consider having come closest to their dream state, Anon Ananda, a Canadian of Gujarati descent, whom the couple met in the hills of North India. The release will be followed by their journey to East and North-East India, again for a pre-commissioned book.

While readers await this introduction, the world of these young writers has heralded them into events centered on their book (launch events are soon to be held in Delhi, followed by Mumbai) and the trappings of being a writer among today’s ever diminishing reader class. Seated at a coffee shop in Vasant Vihar in South Delhi, close to their home and a few meters away from ‘Fact & Fiction’, a bookstore that announced closure last month, the reality is playing out in the couple’s own neighborhood.

As we walk outside Devapriya points to a stall at the entrance of the complex, which once stalked only books. These have now been moved to a corner on the ground, while clothes of indeterminate shape and design take up majority of space. The hawker greets the couple as we move closer, telling them that some new titles have been added. We stand there watching Rushdie sit adjacent to Jackie Collins, while Kafka looks over from another line. We speak of recent reading lists and authors we’ve commonly devoured, wondering if soon writers will be the only ones to find joy in the written word. For the sake of those immersed in a writerly life, may such a time not come for very many years.

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Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG Marg

Originally published in The Delhiwalla

City Life - Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG MargAt 1,200 pages in tiny ant-lettering, it was an unwieldy choice for Metro commute reading. More than once during the course of the month I spent reading it, I questioned this decision. And yet there she was, bulging out of my old black leather bag, in her own black cage and cover, telling anyone in the women’s coach of the Delhi Metro who bent their heads to peek, that I was spending August on a vicarious journey through a country that did not exist anymore.

“To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

This epigraph to Rebecca West’s travel writing tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, haunts the narrative that describes the six weeks she spent in the Balkan region in 1937. As she played that time in history with what went before it, I dove right in beside her, even as the monsoon played hide and seek in August 2014 in Delhi. Shielding her and myself from the rains, I jostled with ever increasing commuters on the one and half hour Metro ride each morning and returned to her on my way back as I traveled home. Time stood divided to the before and after I was last with her.

Only once did a fellow passenger, perhaps watching me mark my reading presence by underlining a line in the book, ask, “What are you reading?” Caught as if in the celebratory light of a red carpet, I first showed her the cover and then responded, hardly masking my excitement, “I discovered her while reading another book, Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts years ago. He carried this book around during his journey.” And now I was carrying her, not on a journey through a forgotten world, but to partake in the joys of reading that flow sparingly in the slivers of everyday life in the city. Surrounded by the muscular Shiva display on the latest Amish book or the runny hand of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, I played the fool, balancing the shifting sands of Yugoslav time in one hand and the jolting motions of Delhi’s lifeline in the other.

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s Paris parlance, may have been a fitter choice for these environs, slipping in deftly between moving fingers and barely hanging purse. But Rebecca West’s is a far removed world that casts a spell that only arrival station announcements can break. Dead kings die again, heirs are thrown off balconies and before the sun has set on countries and borders that no longer exist, she has managed to turn Delhi into Dalmatia. As my eyes darted to the end, I was intensely aware that despite how heavily her world sat on a dangling wrist, I had discovered and devoured a treasure.

Tip-toeing through a ravenous coach in the Delhi Metro, clutching another printed and bound life in my hand, I often turn back to that time with West. Her words rush back amidst the cacophony of the commute and I yearn to journey with her all over again.

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And Yet the Books…

I’ve always found that poetry, more than any other genre of writing, seems to best capture moments in time, containing answers to nothing and everything. It is like catharsis, like an epiphany, like someone read your mind, picked at your thoughts and made them whole. And there they rest, outside your head, in words spun this way, reminders that all will be well, as long as you have these…

And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz

Chateau X by Martino ~ NL on Flickr

And yet the books will be there, on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

by Czeslaw Milosz

Read about his work here:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/czeslaw-milosz

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/07/seamus-heaney-czeslaw-milosz-centenary

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Book Review: A Carpet Ride to Khiva, By Christopher Aslan Alexander

Christopher Aslan Alexander_A Carpet Ride to Khiva

Christopher Aslan Alexander – A Carpet Ride to Khiva

With his tall, thin frame and bespectacled face, alongwith a Turkish middle name sandwiched between his Christian roots, Christopher Aslan Alexander would have stood out in most places. As destiny would have it, this Turkey born, Beirut-bred lad from Britain found himself in Uzbekistan in the late ’90s, while volunteering with an NGO to write a guidebook about Khiva. At this western border desert oasis close to Turkmenistan, Aslan (his adopted name during his stay) was nearly 700 kilometers away from Samarkand, the tourist-poster city of Uzbekistan.

During his seven year stay here he would find a loving family, a crumbling town still reeling under a Soviet hangover (“Khiva was to play a crucial role in pushing Russian south towards India”, Aslan informs us early on), a voracious appetite for bribes amongst all government machinery and a nation united in their love for a Mexican soap opera.

In his diary from the time, ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road‘, Aslan takes us to the heart of the city, on foot alongside him through the labyrinthine streets within the Ichan Qa’la, or walled city, (‘the most homogeneous example of Islamic architecture in the world‘). He is also our guide in navigating the ways of this desert world, when he begins setting up a carpet weaving workshop, with help of his local family, recruiting marginalised members from nearby villages – the differently abled, the women secluded from society and those battling the rules laid by missing men.

The designs for these carpets are a stunning study in history, from Timurid patterns to Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. Traveling back to England during the time, Aslan meets with Jon Thompson, Oxford professor of carpet history, and gets his hands on Amy Briggs’ essay on Timurid carpets to prepare design inspiration references to take back to the workshop, being run out of an erstwhile madrassah. He enlightens us along the way on the motifs and their significance. Speaking about distinguishing features of Timurid carpets he writes, “The main giveaway that a carpet from Timurid was in the border, which consisted of stylized letters, evolved and embellished to appear like Celtic knots in some cases.”

In reference to miniatures, which are another major source of inspiration for the carpets created at the workshop, he tells us how the word itself has been derived “from a reddish-orange pigment ‘minium’, that was popular with Persian and Mughal minaturists” and “the centre of a miniature would never contain a human being, as only Allah could ever occupy this position.”

The love affair with silk is similarly illustrated through snippets from history, “Until 1924, the Khanate of Khiva was the only country outside China to use silk money, each note handwoven and then printed in the mint located in the Kunya Ark.”

When he is avoiding boisterous parties that end in intrusive questions on his non-existent marital life, this vegetarian traveler watches mountains of “plov, the national dish, ‘of rice, carrot-shavings and raisins topped with dumps of mutton and fat’” being readied for festivities, participating in them as much as a local.

We also follow him across the border into Afghanistan on a sourcing trip for natural dyes, a mis-adventure that is a reminder of what Aslan’s work in this region really entails. His love affair with the town, its people and his desires to make the workshop self-sustainable, are abruptly impeded by local authorities, threatened by the freedom, sincerity and appreciation the workshop has received. He is the outsider they would like to keep away and in the end they do, exiling him without proper documentation to prove the charges.

This book is a journey into a fascinating culture and its crumbling edifice, of daily triumphs amidst layers of corruption, of a young man finding a new life, a new family and a purpose in a land he now calls home.

“I wrote A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I needed a way of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do”, Aslan said in an interview in 2010. He continues to find his way back to Central Asia, most recently working with yak herders to find distribution for their wool. When he’s not writing, he is “living the sequel”, one the world is waiting to read.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by this region, here are some more books on Uzbekistan to add to the reading list:

Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery

A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell

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In which Vikram Seth is (possibly) Drunk and Arundhati Roy asks Who I Am

The room is bathed in a red light reflecting off from the neatly laid out chairs and tables covered in red linen. The stage is lit, the podium is set, with a placard in front of it reminding everyone what this evening is about. It is the posthumous launch of Editor Unplugged, the autobiography ‘sequel’ of Journalist & Outlook Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Vinod Mehta.

AloneI walk in dressed in red corduroy pants (and a non-committal black & white tee), unaware then of being co-ordinated with the color of the night. My friend is waiting, with his brand new camera around his neck, waiting for her and him. She is a woman with a Man Booker Prize. He is A (bi-sexual) Suitable Boy. She is launching the book. He is going to read from it. They are the reason I’m not attending a string music festival that night at a garden across town.

IMG_20150331_185404771My friend ventures out into the thin crowd to thrust his camera unabashedly into the faces of attendees, only the remotely famous ones. I stand in a corner, watching him, wondering what wine they’ll be serving. And then she walks in, clad in a plain saree (is it light brown, with a green tinge, or does it bear the shade of dust in Delhi?). It is paired with a gold and green blouse that fits so well I want to ask her where she got it stitched. The saree is from “a small shop in Meherchand Market”, she’ll be telling gushing ladies later that evening.

IMG_20150331_195449800By now I’ve smiled at other guests, the kind of smile that simply acknowledges another human being, strangers though they may be. I’ve had a glass of white wine (of indeterminate origin, since the waiter does not know and I’d have to walk to the bar to find out, and well, let’s leave it be because it’s a nice drink on a fine evening). And then he walks in, with a non-polythene packet from the publisher (with the book inside I presume) and his mother on his arm. He’s short. He’s wearing a blue blazer and you can see that his hair will soon leave him. Some already have.

IMG_20150331_200348576After greeting certain other guests, they run into each other and smile, politely. They’re not friends. They’re here for respective roles in the book launch drama.

He’s called in first to read a passage from the book. He walks to the podium with the book packet in one hand and a glass of red (Merlot?) wine in the other. The audience will need theirs too. The reading is boring to say the least, irreverently mis-pronounced to say it all. In his drunken slur, ‘rummaging’ becomes ‘scrummaging’, silent pauses are deafening, not poignant and while he raises an arm to settle sparse but flowing locks, we all forget the man that we’ve gathered together to celebrate. And everyone claps.

“Vinod was in love with me.” She is looking in the distance as she talks about the editor who published her copious politically-incorrect essays that got both of them into trouble. My eyes dart towards the gentleman’s wife seated at the table near the stage. I can’t see her face. “We were partners.” She continues in a similar vein, taking everyone along on a walk through her years working with a man she believed stood for ‘fearless journalism’. Perhaps there are tears, if only a hint. But it now feels like an obituary in prose, befitting the event.

She smiles as she walks away from the podium and the guests are encouraged to wine and dine (with finger food). I wonder if I should ask her to write something in my book, not her book, but the one I’ve been reading. It’s from the 18th century so I presume she wouldn’t be miffed. Watching her I imagine she would smile even if she was miffed. I ask my friend if I should do it and he wants to click our picture together instead.

She is standing next to me and smiling at the camera. This is all quite neurotic (with an unhealthy sprinkling of thrill).

“And who are you”, she asks.

“I’m Manika.”

She goes back to smiling at me, at the camera and again at everyone else in this garden party book launch, before making a royal exit, the first for the night.

We follow soon after, less royally, leaving behind one of the many worlds that seem wonderful at a distance, are a tad humorous up close, and are positively entertaining if you’re watching from the sidelines, preferably with a witty partner and/or fine wine.

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Abstract art_Love by panc

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

– Shakespeare Sonnet 116

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Leaving the Bestsellers to Dolts? Beware! You Could Be A Book Snob.

Reading Woman with Parasol  - Henri Matisse“Which books were you most inspired by?”

“Hardy Boys”.

When you hear a grown man tell a crowded auditorium that his inspiration to become a writer came from a children’s mystery book series, you can be forgiven for staring with your mouth agape. And when that man is a bestselling author you have decided to stay away from, there’s enough to pat your back.

Delivering the Penguin Annual Lecture at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi yesterday, Dan Brown convinced me (and perhaps many others in the audience) that he is the lucky recipient of absolutely undeserved attention.

Accompanying a writer friend who had to cover the event, I had been drawn to the lecture by hoping to uncover the biggest mystery surrounding bestselling authors: How does such trash give scores of people giddy knees. Last evening was not going to answer that question in totality, even after marvelous words of wisdom from Mr. Brown: At being asked whether writers were soft targets on controversial issues and what responsibilities they had, he explained, “They say the pen is mightier than the sword. The thing about the pen is, it can reach a million people. A sword, well…”

It was an entertaining evening though, mostly because of the audience, like the chump who stood up to proudly state “Sir, I’ve just finished reading The Da Vinci Code, it is the first book I have EVER read” or when Brown looked particularly nervous and fidgety at being asked how he researched for his books or decided what to include or keep out. He finally answered, “I spent one year researching for my books.” Imagine, a whole year of research on books that proclaim to lay bare buried secrets of one of the most prominent religions of the world. Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time could take longer.

While I’m still questioning the worth of this “gleefully erudite” novel and its writer, it has pushed me to ponder over another matter: Could I possibly be a book snob?

Here’s the dilemma. Just because Wodehouse makes me chuckle and Proust makes my heart sing, should I necessarily roll my eyes at readers engrossed in Dan Brown or even the likes of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi?

Or, as a bibliophile, should I simply rejoice at them having found books, utter drivel as they may be?

Many who argue for the latter state that these writers have brought non-readers to the written word, even considering them instrumental in keeping publishers afloat. The argument runs that Shakespeare also played to the gallery in his time. Who knows how these men will come to be revered in future they say. ‘All fiction is entertainment after all. These men have caught the pulse of the multitude, give them that at least.’

A young girl in the audience at last evening’s lecture asked Dan Brown why each of his books has a murder in the first few pages.

“I want my books to be fun. I want people to regret putting them down to complete their daily chores.”

What really is better or right or worth a celebration then? Should we leave it at letting people discover what they might in words, with whomsoever they choose for company?

In 2005, Salman Rushdie called The Da Vinci Code, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. And yet sometimes the same person may discover and enjoy both him and Brown at different times.

The answer I believe rests in timelessness. For true art may lack universal appeal but it can hardly enjoy only fleeting attention.

Given the lifetime worth of wonders to devour, the choice may not really be between murder in five pages or description of insomnia over fifty. It is about realizing that life is too short to read Dan Brown.

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Redemption Ride

I am in love with the Delhi Metro. For one, I get to read (or watch Suits on my phone. Aha). Mothers who (can make time to) read is a group with fewer members than the Micronesian Parliament. And I refuse to be thrown off it. The metro also provides the best alternative to moving my feet vigorously on the pedal without getting anywhere. So everyday I shove, race and celebrate the acquisition of a seat, at best, and a space to place stationery feet at the very least.

On most days my head is bowed in reverence to the words in my hands. But often the action around is engaging enough to invite a look or disturbing enough to dread. While I’m almost always in the “women’s coach”, sometimes an empty seat in the “general compartment” draws me in. In the former, I have seen and heard (not eavesdropped but God some people are loud) enough life histories to feed a potboiler. Women have fainted, howled, offered a seat to heavy-set women thinking they were pregnant, proclaimed their love for possibly dubious men and first-rate rum.

Being part of a “general”-anything is sure to be fraught with mediocrity and the thus-named metro compartments come with their own share of debased drama. Nose-in-book is a cure for many things but is a meek defense against crotch-in-face. Especially, if said crotch is riddled with a fidgety hand that you want to smack with aforementioned book. A hardbound copy of Proust would be a possible weapon for it. But with only the last two volumes of In Search of Lost Time remaining to be devoured, I’ve placed Paris aside for the moment and am on a most fascinating journey with Rebecca West through (erstwhile) Yugoslavia. However, my copy of her tome is a paperback and hence ill-placed to combat a denim-dressed crotch.

Despite curious distractions we continue our journey, Rebecca and I, in Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Kosovo and beyond, past garish Turkish remnants and ruined cathedrals, with history dancing forever beside us. In the haze of a garrulous metro ride, the sights, scents and sounds of her world meet mine, ensuring that 2014 Delhi can be 1931 Balkans and our lot in life can truly seek redemption through reading.