The Story of My Reading Life

In 2020, at the Chennai Book Fair, I heard something that was bewildering and powerful at the same time. After walking around the book stalls for a few hours, I stepped out, and I was relieved to find a coffee stall. I bought a cup of coffee, placed my backpack filled with books on the ground, sat on a tiny plastic stool, and started to drink my coffee as slowly as I could. Two men walked to the stand. The one who reached the stand first asked for a cup of coffee. The other man who had just reached the stand pulled out his wallet from his pocket, enquiring how much a cup cost, and when he heard that he had to pay thirty rupees for each cup, he turned to the other man at once and said, ‘Thirty rupees. Do you really need coffee now? We can buy a book for thirty rupees.’ The one who was holding the cup was about to start drinking, but after having heard the remark, he handed the cup back to the shopkeeper, and both the men left the stand. For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of abandoning my coffee, too. I wasn’t sure if he could buy a book there for thirty rupees really, but I felt like I was reprimanded for spending that money to buy a beverage and not a book. It’s been so long since I witnessed this exchange, but I haven’t stopped thinking about what the man said. Because we live in a place where we haven’t got democratic access to books, where we make small and big sacrifices all through our lives to borrow and buy books, where we expend so much of our time and energy just to identify easier, cheaper ways to get books, and where the mere act of waking up and choosing books every morning is a constant, subtle protest against forces which want to mine our attention, polarise our thinking, and stretch the distance between readers and books. I am trying not to sound like an alarmist here — one is not shot for reading, fortunately — but the effort we make, to get the sort of books we want to read, seems invisible, but it’s painfully humongous. 

Books entered my life in my late 20’s. Just six years ago, to be precise. Until then, I might have stumbled upon problematic books written by men who sported long white beard, drove Rolls-Royce cars, abused women, and stayed stoned forever. The men who read those men enthusiastically recommended their books to me for years, but an awful breakup had to happen for me to discover the joy of reading and good books. It felt like life itself was slipping through my hands, so I didn’t pay adequate attention to how often delivery representatives appeared to drop my book-packages. For about two years, I spent more than two-thousand rupees every month to buy books. On the other hand, even without realising that I was being fair to my impulsive decision to splurge, I devoured books. In November 2015, I had read twenty-one books. I wanted to hang on to something to save myself from drowning. Books were my life raft. From 2017 to 2018, I was unemployed for the first time since I started working when I was eighteen, I was broke, and I downloaded books to quench my appetite. It’s not something I am proud of, but I wasn’t thoughtful enough to reread what I owned then instead of downloading them illegally, and I didn’t try to find public libraries in my neighbourhood. The Internet seemed more accessible than a public library then. I went back to work in 2019, landed a job that put me in the place of privilege to afford books again, but now that I had experienced a long, dry spell when I couldn’t buy books, I was intensely aware of each droplet of money I was beginning to spend to not return to the arid phase again. As expected, I noticed that I was again spending thousands to buy books, and so, I subscribed to Scribd. Spending a few hundreds appeared better than shelling out thousands. Scribd’s catalogue was massive, delightful, and diverse. I was beginning to believe that my problem was solved; I didn’t have to deplete my financial resources to keep reading. The catch was, though, Scribd’s app was not compatible with Kindle. Because I didn’t own a tablet then, I read a dozen books on my phone. It’s now apparent that I had no respect for my vision. When I recently read Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, a paperback thankfully, I was reminded of the time when I read her Neapolitan Quartet — four books, 1,693 pages, 3,60,000 words approximately — on my cell phone, a device that was slightly longer than a bar of soap. I might be judging my younger self now, but I don’t think I was not completely reckless, for it was Ferrante after all. A few months after I subscribed to Scribd, I decided to buy an iPad — I convinced myself that I was investing — just to read the books available on Scribd. Now, it felt like I could protect my money and that my long quest to find the ideal library, although it was a digital one, had finally ended. But it didn’t. In less than four months, I found myself blankly looking at the electronic pages on my iPad, words that looked like unintelligible symbols, and I found myself reading without comprehending, but simply mentally pronouncing the words. I attributed it to the memory loss and attention deficit that humanity was experiencing in general because of being cooped up, deprived of social interaction and healthy stimulation. This seemed deeper than that. I was feeling numb after spending two-thirds of my waking hours in front of a computer, triggered by the endless din of Microsoft products, wrestling with my fight-or-flight response. The memory loss, attention deficit, inability to comprehend seemed to have been accentuated by the reading I did on electronic devices in the hope that it would help me decompress. I was making things worse. Reading, I was sure, would assuage my anxiety, but I was growing more anxious about not being able to read deeply and not retaining anything that I read. Loss of the interest to write was an obvious side-effect. To make sure that I wasn’t making this up in my head, I did a little research to understand if there was anyone else like me, who felt exhausted while reading on devices. I fully acknowledged the echo chamber that is the Internet, and it came to my attention that I was not alone. Many readers had reverted to physical books for myriad reasons including the inability to comprehend and recall books read on electronic devices. I was certain that I hadn’t scratched out and that I didn’t have to return to physical books with my tail between my legs, but I was back to where I started — how would I be able to afford physical books all my life?

I gnawed at the question, the answer didn’t surface, but to make the situation worse, I discovered some Indian independent bookstores on Instagram. E-mails flew back and forth, pretty packages with gorgeous books and adorable bookmarks arrived, and the process was repeated so many times. I told myself that I had reasons to buy books from independent bookstores — birthdays, festivals, work milestones, retail therapy, and Jeff Bezos. But, on my journey to establish a healthy relationship with my book-buying habits, I learned that life couldn’t be perfect. On an uneventful morning, I woke up feeling like checking the cost of choosing independent stores. My last purchase proved that each book that I bought from an independent store cost hundred rupees more than Jeff Bezoz’s price. I decided that I wouldn’t be able to buy from independent stores every time and that I had to develop the courage to return to e-commerce sites and patronise independent bookstores once in a while. Anyway, the far left thought that I was participating in capitalism by buying books, the woke thought that I wasn’t supporting the independent stores enough, the far right thought I was being westernised, and there I was, a helpless, confused, tired person, who simply wanted to read and didn’t want to slit my wrist, shed blood just to be allowed to lay my hands on a book. With my electronic devices sunset to look after my mental health, with my relationship slim with independent stores, I was back to buying books on Amazon, but I wanted to try harder. My trips to public libraries began.

Connemara Public Library was welcoming. How did I not think of it and let myself suffer! All that the librarian needed was three-hundred rupees, and I was a member. Despite my enthusiasm, I trained myself to temper my expectations; I wanted to check out their collection first. The English Literature section was the quietest. It was way bigger than I imagined, but if the English Literature section was the Milky Way, the Tamil Literature wing was this universe. The enormity of the Tamil Literature wing, the difference in size between the English and Tamil sections, made me feel like an outsider. I read Tamil. However, as a reader, I prefer English to Tamil, and the place reminded me of how removed I was from the place I lived, how much I was missing, and it made me examine my choice to read in English and launched an inquiry about my biases. If I were an absolute outsider, I would have felt less awful maybe. If I were an outsider, it would have also meant that I didn’t belong here but somewhere. I felt stuck in between. I was neither here nor there. I swallowed the hurt and entered the English section to let books lick my wounds. The collection pulled me into a warm embrace. I struggled to choose six books (that was all I was allowed), but I felt decisive about bringing James Baldwin’s Another Country home. The copy that I had borrowed was printed in 1963 — it was twenty-four years older than me — and the moment I opened it at home, it died in my hands. The binding had encroached the text, and like characters who spill horrible but incomplete secrets before they die, the pages fell off the book as I flipped. I went back to the library a couple of weeks later to find other ancient and some contemporary books. I walked around the racks, sweating profusely, with my mouth behind the tyranny of a mask, and it occurred to me that I had spent about a thousand rupees in the last couple of weeks to visit the library. I stayed fifteen kilometres away from the library, and if I continued to read at the pace of two books per week, I would visit the library once a month and sometimes twice, and that meant I would spend a thousand rupees for the commute again. The corporates have ruined me — at times, unknowingly, I end up calculating the cost of my decisions. I did the math and decided that to make full use of my library subscription, I should become a member of another library that’s close to Connemara, and at the cost of one trip, I could borrow books from two libraries. The British Council was not as modest as Connemara when it came to annual subscription. I paid two-thousand and two-hundred rupees to become a member. Their collection, only English obviously, was not as diverse and large as Connemara, but there was an interesting mix of classic and contemporary. With two subscriptions in my pocket, I should have, ideally, felt relieved. The quest to find the ideal library should have ended there, but not yet. 

I was beginning to feel crushed under the due-date pressure. So many books were due at both the libraries, work bled into life, and the time carved out for reading faded. I was simply transporting books from home to the libraries, returning them unread. I was wasting money, time, and piling up blocks of anxiety. I could have bought more books using the money I spent for the commute. I could have read them in peace. As I write this piece, five books are staring at me from my bookshelf, including the beautiful Gionvanni’s Room, and maybe they are mentally screaming at me to send them back to their original places because they weren’t meant to stay with me so long. I can’t stop imagining how this scenario would have played out if I lived near the libraries or if the libraries lived near me. If the books were overdue, no problem. I could return and borrow later. If there were new arrivals, I could visit the library during my break at work to bring them home. I could volunteer, go for reading sessions, attend events, sit in silence, and not worry about returning home before the arrival of ungodly hours. 

I am not asking too much. From my home, there are five cinemas within a radius of five kilometres, and all the main roads which bookend my neighbourhood are populated with hundreds of restaurants. Movies, yes. Food, yes. Books, yes and no. There are a couple of libraries, but their collections fill me with dread — the Chetan Bhagats and the bankers of India who monopolise the racks by filling them with their misogynistic and mythological stories written with the goal of sending them to Bollywood. Or it’s the Sidney Sheldons and the JK Rowlings of the world, and piles and piles of academic and technical books (how to code, how to join IIT and IIM, how to crack NEET, how to speak in English) which are many Indians’ only way to a better life. We need all of those books with some room for diverse literature. I am taking a moment to check my privilege — an acquaintance, whose book collection filled me with awe, picked up a book and said, ‘I don’t like it. You can take it if you want.’ I considered taking it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy it by myself and that it wouldn’t be available in the public libraries here. My self-respect held my hands back. I turned down the offer politely. 

The system and the public make me feel perplexed. Except for Connemara, other public libraries seem to pander to the popular English novelists who misshape our reading. It’s just not the algorithm that’s messing with our reading choices, but the people in power, people who can fix the libraries’ catalogues. Maybe, their decisions are dictated by the budget, by the demand, by what the public is curious to read. Every other type of book is for the intellectuals, they think, maybe. It’s for the losers. It’s for the loners. It’s for the stuck-ups. It’s for the dreamers. It’s for the idealists. It’s for the rich. It’s for the sinners. It’s for the blessed. It’s for those who have got all the time in the universe. It’s not for those who want to live deeply. It’s not fun. While I write this, time and again, I realise that I am a minority here. If I weren’t after English books, this very system that I have been bitterly questioning could have been something that I am grateful for. But I am a minority with some privilege. Being able to read English is itself a privilege here. But no human being should suffer just to be able to read what they want to read. Public libraries are beautiful. In a country where there is no space at most homes to read and study, public libraries are a refuge. Tomorrow, I can visit a public library, sit in a wooden chair, and read my own books. I need not be fond of their collection to visit them. But this is the thing — I am back to where I started. There is a well-lit, safe, vast, quiet space, but I still need to buy what I want to read. So, I buy books like my whole life depends on it, as though I am an anxious animal squirreling away for winter. 

This year, I bought a steel bookshelf with glass doors. I loved it so much that I didn’t sleep much the night it arrived. I stayed awake just to keep looking at it — colourful rows of books framed by white doors. This year, I bought sixty-four books, and along with what I already had, I am now in possession of one-hundred-and-three books which I dream of reading someday. The roundabout route that I took to arrive where I am today has made me generous. I don’t hoard books, I don’t get too attached to them — I am not ready to donate Anuk Arudpragasam’s books yet — and I don’t harbour any apprehensions about letting them go. It feels like it’s my responsibility to pay it forward. But I still live with some anxieties. I spend more money than I intend to, I avoid buying clothes and shoes because I might as well pump that money into books again, and I am still in the clutches of my imagination that makes up unhelpful images — the times when I would be bookless. It may never happen but I suffer and survive the imaginary ones in my head every day: unemployment, fire, flood, relocation, loss of vision. The worst one among all is this — what will happen to the books when I die, when the books would be without me? 

Some Sunday afternoons are spent fleshing out some anxieties. I fix my gaze on my steel bookshelf with glass doors, and I tell myself that if I can’t afford books from next month, if I manage to read one book per week, I could go on for two years without buying and borrowing another book. The fear of missing out could be overwhelming, but isn’t it the same now, even when books keep coming home every week, every month? And then I smile — why do we struggle to expand this short life, to make sense of this long life, to live many lives in one life, to see, to observe, to feel seen, and to belong?

My little library

Of Hope And Other Angels

I have related this story so many times that the ink in my proverbial pen must have run dry by now. Even when the pen doesn’t let any ink run into the letters, rendering them invisible, I can’t stop writing this story; the impressions the letters leave are enough.

In the last few years, September has been a kind, memorable month for me. One September, I found a job that gave me economic independence. Another September, I found something more meaningful in the job I had found. September, once, brought someone into my life, who still travels along with me, with the courage and patience and fierce compassion that I never expected out of that person. Even this year, it has allowed me to reorient my view and set me on the path of creativity. Despite all the times September was sweet to me, I often think of that one time when it shook my life: Anu Boo had a stroke in September 2018.

I remember those fifteen days in fragments — a phone call; the devastating image of Anu Boo drooling her life out; several auto-rides to the clinic; vet’s confusion and helplessness; time bleeding from one day to another; Anu Boo being blind in one eye; her body leaning toward one side, walking sideways; Anu Boo standing in the living room and looking blank; desperate conversations with the vet to solve the mystery, to know the truth; Anu Boo swallowing the very anti-anxiety pills which I popped as a child; another vet looking at her with inscrutable curiosity; Anu Boo walking the long, slippery corridor at the hospital; being declared okay. Three years of strenuous exercise to bead all the fragments together, to make sense of those fifteen days, has turned futile. I still see only a montage. I do not know what caused the stroke, and I do not know what took control of her body for fifteen days. But she is here, with me, broken and whole, eager to please, quick to give that impossible love.

Not knowing what happened to her hurts me. Many nights, I would log off from work, turn to my left, and she would be lying on her bed, curled up like a croissant, wearing her vulnerability like a comforter. I would sit down on the floor, beside her, slowly scratch behind her ears, iron out the wrinkles on her forehead, and ask her to give me an answer to this question — ‘What happened that day?’ The Kabul grapes would look at me, but the answer would come as a wink. Only the right eye talks — the remnants of the illness. I would wink back and wonder how she would read my acknowledgement. The truth, the suffering, and the healing are cocooned in her silence and in research that this country cannot afford, yet, for nonhuman animals.

The trauma of going to the edge with her has permanently altered my ways of coexisting with her. An array of what-if questions taunt me when I find myself in a place to make simple, everyday decisions. A short lunch with the family at a restaurant that’s just a few kilometers away makes me worry about the time Anu Boo is left alone, although crated, at home. I dread the time when I would be asked to return to the office even though she wouldn’t be by herself. The trauma has brought reversal in our relationship — I suffer from separation anxiety that hasn’t triggered me yet. When my breath refuses to exit my body, I finally remind myself that this moment is all I have, and for now, Anu Boo is barking orders at us for her carrots to be sliced faster.

Since 2018, around the first week of September, I watch her closely, I watch everything closely, as though there is an invisible enemy against whom I need to protect all that matters to me. When she is asleep, I watch her belly to make sure it’s rising and falling. Even when my anxiety’s voice is louder than my hope and strength’s, sometimes, I look at Anu Boo with a sense of wonder that fills my entire being, like she is a miracle. I do not believe in any organised religion, and the usage of the word miracle makes me feel like I am walking out of my body, but I cannot resist the temptation of revering the unknown, something that put her back together for me. September quietly becomes synonymous for surviving with grace and gratitude.

Anu Boo is truly a survivor. When all of her littermates famished and perished, she survived, as a puppy, by feeding on her sibling’s carcass. After I rescued her from an abandoned house, rushed her to the vet, he found a funny odour escaping her mouth. He nonchalantly said that she was feeding on a carcass and she must be quarantined for fourteen days. Stifling a giggle, he added, ‘You have got a very curious puppy there.’ For three months, since the time she was born, she hadn’t laid eyes on a human being. But there she was, surrounded by a bunch of human beings, sitting on her haunches, on a cold, steel table, shivering, with her sibling’s flesh rotting in her stomach, reluctantly looking around, stealing hearts irresponsibly. She wasn’t going to let anyone stop her from surviving.

Hello Writing, My Old Friend

Why do I want to write? Why do I think I can write? What do I want to write?

I went there to find answers; I was received by more questions.

At the Creative Writing class, the facilitator gently observed that I should have discovered and embraced the answers by now. A decade ago, when I quit a comfortable corporate job, which was a world away from writing, to start writing for newspapers, the same questions waylaid me. My answers then were like Chennai’s summer — certain, harsh, and burned with passion. After a stint in media, and after living a life that demanded more of everything I had, I returned to the corporate a couple of years ago. Although I am actively involved in Communications at work, it’s still several worlds away from writing. And now, my answers to the same set of questions resemble Chennai’s winter — unsure, tepid, and coy.

The writing exercises I do for the class make me sit with the questions more. Sometimes, I squirm in the questions’ authoritative presence. Sometimes, I look at them the way I look at the night sky when the stars hide behind the clouds, when the light from the city smugly light up the clouds, mistaking the pollution it brings for brightness, and not knowing the long travel the starlight makes to land on the clouds. I look at the hazy, starless night sky and hope for a chink, a star from many light years away to wink at me, to recognise my agony. Why do I want to write?

For fame? For money? For joy? To feel special? To seek attention? To find a place? No and no and no. The compulsion, I feel, to write stems from the excess that fills me and spills over, flooding all areas of my life and threatening to drown me. I write because I want to come up for air. That excess struggles along with me, too, not knowing what to do with me – it hands me feelings which are not mine, it plants thoughts which abundantly reproduce more thoughts, like the snails in my mother’s garden. That excess, the thoughts and feelings and ideas, alighting from the books, needs to be redirected to a sea – this white space that is inviting and intimidating in equal measure.

I want to write because I want to play God, too. I want to invent people, be a fly on their walls, and truly know them. I want to be my own God. In the stories I dream to write, I want to give myself the voice I never had and the courage I wish I had. I want to confess and lace the truth – my truth –with some poetry and magic. I want to write my own safe space.

This is the difference between the time I started in 2011 and the road I am taking now: Paycheck and the thrill of scoring bylines do not hold the power to corrupt my potential. Ten years ago, even when I tried to run as fast as my peers, it didn’t seem enough. Against their multiple degrees from fancy universities, against their childhood stories about camping at libraries and devouring books even before they were tall enough to go on rides at theme parks, against their privileged lives which were removed from the squalid reality of this country, I stood no chance. My middle-class upbringing, while I am deeply grateful for what I had, did not prepare me for the unfairness of the industry I entered, and it did not equip me with the skill that I could have only afforded if I had had socioeconomic privileges. It was easy for me to chide my restless heart, like every other time, for I thought, it pined for something that was beyond my reach. It has taken many years for me to meet the ultimate truth – nothing was wrong with me, but the system was rigged.

The Creative Writing course covers important aspects of fiction writing. It intends to encourage me to aspire to become a published something. I still do not know what I want to write. Essays, short stories, blogs, I do not know. I want to write because I receive more than I need, from books, people, and life. I want to return the excess; I want to give back some words, some stories; I want to cut it all into a million pieces and leave them here. I cannot decide for the reader. The reader can pick a piece, turn it, read it, and drop it down again mindlessly. Or, the reader can take one home, and let it lie in a corner, collecting dust. I do not deserve the reader’s time and attention; I am devoid of that delusion.

Before Opening Door No. 34

Every birthday is a door. When the arbitrariness of life leaves you in front of a door each year, you are oblivious to what’s behind the door. Sometimes, you say a little prayer before turning the doorknob and you step into the room with hope and determination. Sometimes, you curse under your breath, wish you could relinquish the privilege of staying alive, and wait for the ground beneath your feet to swallow you right at that moment. Despite exercising free will, the act of opening the door feels involuntary when uncertainty crosses your mind. Once you step in, the room can appear like many things — a bootcamp, a field of sunflower, a trap, a dog park, a cat café, an ancient library… In 365 days, what’s behind the door works with the elements which make you you and eject another person when it’s time to make you appear in front of the next door. All your life, you go from door to door, surrendering the person whom you are, and collecting a person marked, touched, blessed by each door.

Time slips into civilian clothes for a few hours before your birthday every year. You are neither how old you are nor how old you will become. When Time is not watching, when Time is off duty, do you age at all? At the moment, I am in that timeless zone where Door No. 33 starts to flicker, and I pause to gather my belongings and pack my bags.

When I opened Door No. 33 last year, I didn’t pray and curse, and I was just grateful for having been given another opportunity to touch the cold doorknob one more time. Now when I look back, I can see that it was a unique year, just like every other year.

Behind Door No. 33, there was a room with a view. When I opened the windows each afternoon, I recalled what Edith Wharton wrote: “Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.” Each time I opened the window, the world waited to say hello. Clouds incessantly paraded, a young crow who aged along with me, a sparrow, an orange butterfly, a bunch of restless pigeons, a cursory glance of my neighbours living their lives… On some difficult days, I called all of it The Pandemic View. When I caught myself complaining about the spectacle that was exclusively staged for me every day, I wondered if I would have lived a different life if the pandemic didn’t exist. I didn’t need to answer. The Pandemic View would again morph into A Room With A View.

Behind Door No. 33, there were discoveries. How To Foster ‘Shoshin’, an article that I read on Pysche taught me how to walk behind things which constantly evoke awe. The article’s author Christian Jarrett mentioned, “Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, the researchers wrote that ‘one who never experiences awe ceases to discover’. The message is simple: to increase your open-mindedness, try taking the time to gaze in wonder at the stars.” My love for cosmos was born. I discovered my passion for astronomy, astrophysics, space science, and space opera. Like a sniffer dog after a scent, I hurried to watch videos, read articles, bury myself in books, and to claim a piece of the universe for myself. On days when the spirit moved me too much, I perched my binoculars on a tripod, and trained the mirrors to receive light from the Jovian moons and Saturn’s ring. Along with photons, more questions, terror, and existential dread poured into me, but so were awe and solace. Whenever I stood under the stars, when I thought about all the possible civilizations revolving around them, the absurdity and futility of life smothered me, and I felt crushed under the enormity of this universe. But, the consolation prize was how looking up helped me to stay grounded, to appreciate the human consciousness I was gifted with to observe this universe, and to let my insignificant ego be dissolved in the black ocean. As Carl Sagan said, we are all ‘…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

Behind Door No. 33, there were lessons and chances to check my privileges. I might have read a slew of books in the last 12 months, but I worked on a personal project to read more books on India’s caste system, to understand and be aware of my privileges. The process of learning about social justice, and being agitated about the system, and the liberating internalisation of how I became the very system, demanded a heavy price – unearthing what was swept under the rug and recognizing discomfort and divisiveness as byproducts of the learning process.

Behind Door No. 33, there were friends and fun. The terrace garden that my mother lovingly raised. The basket of hibiscus she offered to her gods. The vegetables she harvested every week. The ritual that she carried out to remove evil eyes cast on her plants. The snail who appeared in the garden out of nowhere. The game trail that the Plant Whisperer paved just to say sweet nothings to every leaf. If friendship is about knowing, being there, and growing together, the garden, the snail, and the hundreds of sunsets I watched with the great love of my life, were my best friends.

Behind Door No. 33, there were words. My two-year long struggle with accepting my writing voice came to a quiet end last year. After shutting down and reopening several blogs, I made peace with what I have here. Among many things, the stars taught me that the very earth’s life is just a blink in the cosmic scheme of things. During that blink, my battle with my writing is nothing. My return to the stars is imminent and I might as well send myself off with some words, even if they are imperfect. Writing a blog that is 1,000 words long makes me believe that it’s easier to sell my soul to the devil, but as a writer, even though a reluctant one at that, I have decided to negotiate with the devil. If there were no words, what would I do with this long and short life, this will to keep going?

Behind Door No. 33, there were miracles, losses, health scares, my own body that I disrespected, my mind that broke and came together, helpers. There were anger, abuse, forgiveness, and reconciliation. There were moments of confusion and revelation. There were answers and questions for which there could be no answers. There were even conventional successes. What I saw behind the door, did it keep me happy? Even after opening 33 doors, I don’t know what happiness means, but what I am certain about is, that it was a good life.

As Door No. 33 flickers in quicker intervals, I choose to give myself the credit for trying hard to accept everything I could understand and everything I couldn’t fathom. As Door No. 34 beckons, I realise that I don’t have to bear the capitalistic expectation of measuring my life using the scale that wasn’t meant for me. The temptation is hard to resist though. I might even give in sometimes. But, when this planet’s lifespan itself is too short, I will choose to try harder to not lash at myself for not fitting in, for being different, for being obsessed with this wild life in my own ways. The voice in my head continues to sound like a 25-year-old’s. It’s curious, impressionable, open, and it’s often stifled by the world-weariness, the cynicism, and the wisdom of the 33-year-old in me. The more number of doors I open, the dissonance becomes louder. When there is no instruction manual, when the system is broken, when knowledge gathered by years of human intelligence can’t help humans to go ashore, I become the ultimate authority to judge and measure my life, and I live it the way I want.

Happy 7th Gotcha Day To Us!

“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

— EB White

It was 26-January-2014. She wasn’t Anu Boo then. Just Anu. Her rough, thin fur betrayed her ribcage. There were quite a few bald patches on her body. She was lying in a tiny, blue crate, anxiously looking at the feet which crossed her crate, and refusing to exchange eye-contact with anybody who bothered to kneel, and coo at her. She seemed overwhelmed by the cacophony of the fair. The place was hot even for January. The visitors were enamoured of other ‘perfect’ puppies at the fair. The puppies didn’t have to scream, “Take me home!” They just had to do something cute, or yawn, or fall into their water bowls, and the humans went awww. Anu refused to do anything that’s adorably stupid. She was invisible in that chaos.

Anu Boo, circa 2014.

An animal welfare organisation had set up a stall at a fair, with the good intention that the casual shoppers might have a change of heart, and take some animals home. 20 days after rescuing and fostering Anu, I took her to the fair, and prayed with all my being that I would meet a kind human who would be thrilled to take Anu home. Other puppies were being adopted, and taken home, but Anu stayed in the corner of her crate. Nobody wanted her. She was a brown mutt with a chronic skin condition, and above all, she exuded an air of moroseness. That would never be accepted by humans. They expect dogs to be cheerful, and entertain them with their antics. Anu was never going to dance in their circus. So, she was considered not-suitable-for-adoption.

As sellers dismantled their stalls, and the footfall reduced, Anu woke up from her nap, and looked at me inquiringly from the corner of her blue crate. “Are we not going home yet?”, her expression suggested. I rushed to the organiser, and told her that I wouldn’t like to sign up for the next adoption drive because I was going to adopt Anu. She had always been mine, and I was awfully late to realise that. I walked back to Anu swiftly as though someone was fighting with me to take her home, opened her crate’s door, lifted her, and gave a peck on her forehead. “Anu, I have always wanted to name my next dog Boo. But you are now used to the name ‘Anu’. So, you will be Anu Boo from today, and you will learn to love all of us including my canine brother Calvin. Okay? Okay!” I told her. She yawned again, looked around, and wriggled to be left alone.

Anu Boo officially arrived.

7 years later, as I write this blog, Anu Boo is snoozing on my bed. Her defiant ear dances to the tunes of the fan. She is deep into a dreamless slumber. A lot of things have changed, and not changed, since that day I put her up for adoption at a fair. Her fur is still brown but it shines as though I polish it every day. Her countenance is still morose, but sometimes innocent, and other times, wise. She continues to be misanthropic. She loathes strangers. She is skittish around men. She runs like a deer, and sits still like a monk. She relishes carrots, and apples, and despises dog-food. She is territorial, protective, jealous, funny, and effusive about her love for her family. When she is in the mood for it, she throws her head back, and howls along with me. She knows quite a few words in Tamil, and English. When she is not in the mood, she refuses to acknowledge any language’s existence. Her boundaries are non-negotiable, and when breached, she doesn’t hesitate to snarl, and bite even if the intruder is her family. She is very unlike my first dog Calvin. She taught me that each animal is an individual with unique characteristics, and idiosyncrasies. Above all, she is a warrior.

Anu Boo, at my terrace, during the golden hour.

In 7 years, she has lived a long life. She was stranded in an abandoned house for three months before I rescued her. Starvation brought out the cannibal in her. She ate her litter-mate’s carcass to survive. She was the lone survivor of her pack. Two years ago, she had a stroke. The vet initially thought it was an epileptic seizure, drugged her for a prolonged period, and the medicines changed her personality. She wasn’t my Anu Boo. I was almost resigned to the idea that as long as she was alive, I would be grateful. But my boyfriend, who is her No. 1 fan, convinced me to take another opinion from a vet whom we hadn’t met before. I trusted his instinct, and the vet diagnosed that what Anu Boo had was a stroke. He suggested that her body had the power to heal on its own, as much as it could, and that there was no need to keep her drugged to avert seizures. In a day, Anu Boo’s original grumpy yet adorable personality returned. She became my favourite curmudgeon again. Her body is not what it used to be before the stroke. The right side of her body is not fully functional anymore. She can’t scratch her ears using her right hindleg, or hold a treat between her paws, and her jaw is so weak that she can’t gnaw at a bone. What broke my heart is her disinclination to play with her toys which she used to adore. But I have risen above the heartbreak. She is here, completely embracing life, one moment at a time, and my heart beats with gratitude for that. I want her to live LONGER, become a super senior healthy doggie, and I want her muzzle and the hair above her eyes to become grey, and her face wiser. I want both of us to be enchanted by many setting suns. May my prayers be answered.

I am often asked who my best friend is, and what I seek in friendship. I offer vague responses to those questions because the world is not ready for my honest answer. Anu Boo is my best friend. Incarcerate me for committing the crime of anthropomorphizing my relationship with her, but she is my soulmate. I wish I could love many like the way I love her. Everything about her is perfect, including her imperfections. It’s life-affirming to lie on the floor with her, and see her belly rise and fall as she breathes. It’s liberating to realise that I am loving her, warts and all, and that I am still capable of loving a soul that way, without holding anything back. I feel alive when I sit with her at the window, look out, and be transfixed by a squirrel feverishly working on something, or a crow who lands at the window and flies away in a moment just to tease her. Anu Boo is truly the guardian of my being, my life-witness. Her very life is a quiet lesson in resilience, and in letting life stab us with its beauty and truth.

Anu Boo, and yours truly.

The Year of Words

I wrote this piece for the Blog-a-Thon that happened at work. I was asked to write about 2020, and how I navigated the year. I am saving it here for posterity.

In the end of March 2020, when the pandemic shed its cloak of mystery, appeared with fangs and all, and became almost palpable, I imagined myself running around like a lost dog. A wave of questions reached my mind’s shore – “What is really happening? What does ‘Work From Home’ mean really? When do I go back to the office? Will my books in the Little Free Library I set up at work miss me?” Above all, I perpetually meditated on the question, “How do I become a better leader?” Just like the questions, the answers came in waves too. While the pandemonium demanded distance in the physical world, while I operated from behind the opaque curtain of the virtual world, the gap between the worlds threatened to become wider. The abyss was hungry, and it wished that something would fall through the crack. However, an ancient tool – words, words, oh-so-glorious words! – unfolded itself, offering comfort, and assurance. Colleagues’ non-verbal cues – the all-is-well smile at the one-on-ones, the raised eyebrows which accentuate curiosity at meetings, the stretch that follows a completed task… — could have gone on a sabbatical, at least until I befriended MS Teams fully, but the old-world charm of words came to the rescue. Even as the pandemic raged, communication became the panacea. It’s ironic, yet utterly beautiful.

The Antidote to Phone Anxiety

Until the Work From Home started, the only time I picked up the phone to make a call every day was when I had to talk to the Transport Team to know my cab’s arrival. Most times, the sweet team would drop a message even before I could call them. I am the quintessential millennial who prefers texting to calling. I would spend a couple of extra minutes to send you a carefully crafted message on WhatsApp, but I wouldn’t dial your number. It’s a quirk that’s loved and loathed in equal measure. When the Work From Home began, the initial uproar didn’t hold any space for texting. Calls flew relentlessly like migrating birds. Calls from my team, peers, sharing updates, requesting for information, seeking help, and offering support. Every time the phone rang, my heart would plummet. I would see the phone quietly hum Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1, and mutter all the courage I have got to place my unsure finger on the green button. For the first two days, the calls went in a blur. In a couple of days, the time I took, stalling and listening to my ringtone, gradually reduced. I flexed some muscles, and began answering calls after three rings. Most times, there was always an excited, enthusiastic colleague thrilled to share some information. Other times, there were tired souls who hoped that the telephonic conversation would give them a respite from the quotidian agony of the quarantine. In time, it dawned on me that we were seeing something truly unprecedented, and that it was futile to stay looking inward, succumbing to new-age anxieties. The microbe, as it wove its web across the globe, offered an antidote to my phone anxiety, and alleviated the apprehensions gifted unasked by technology. The beauty of words had a healing effect on the conversations. Collaborations seemed easier. It felt good to pick up the phone and say, “I am so glad you called…”, or something even more vulnerable like, “I can actually hear your smile…” or “I wish we were at work!” Calls are not bad after all. They need not be judged harshly, perhaps.

Not A Black Hole

As we waited for the roadmap to emerge after the quarantine began, as calls continued to travel back and forth, messages started raining on WhatsApp. People wanted to feel heard and seen, people wanted to participate, and especially when the pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, creating space to share the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives became paramount. On our team’s WhatsApp group, we encouraged people to tell us about their lives in the lockdown. The traffic on the group continued to soar. Just like how listening is critical in real life, responding to someone’s message, regardless of how significant or trivial it is, becomes important in virtual life. 2020 taught me that meaningful relationships can be forged at work, even if we work from home, by merely sending thoughtful, empathetic messages. On our WhatsApp group, people shared pictures of the food that they made during the quarantine, images of their children’s artwork, aww-inducing pictures of their furry and feathery companions, and I saw the importance of not being a black hole that simply absorbs information but responding to as many messages as possible to tell people that they are being heard. My responses ranged between being super mundane and super emo, but I responded all the same. Instead of doling out templated responses, I took refuge in the beauty and power of words again. I abused adjectives, wrote sentences after sentences, and told them that whatever they were flaunting was worth it; our world was shut down, but it still needed to be celebrated for surviving. The practice of fervently responding to messages extended to professional conversations as well. Every tiny update met with a ‘Thank you for the note!’. Every heads-up received a ‘Thank you for sharing!’ In 2020, I understood that people don’t want their messages to disappear up in the air, but they want them to be received, and acknowledged, and the mere act of sending a tiny signal back is considered as revolutionary as receiving a message from another civilization from an unknown place in the universe. Everybody wants to be told that they are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

I Hear You

The Awkward Silence missed us when the lockdown began. It waited in its home – our lifts at work – with the hope that we would return in 2020. When that didn’t happen, the Awkward Silence left the lifts, and moved into MS Teams. “Can you hear me?” the organiser would ask at the meetings, and we all would wait, thinking that somebody would say yes. The Awkward Silence would enter and stay. “Are you able to see my screen?” the organiser would ask, and again we would be washed over by the bystander syndrome. The Awkward Silence would do a quick happy dance. “Have you got any questions for me?” The Awkward Silence would smirk. “Is anybody okay to switch on the video?” The Awkward Silence would wait and watch. 2020 pilfered the difference the calendars could have on our lives, and the ways we recognise the passage of time, but it also taught that when times become tougher the real difference can be made by doing one small act at a time, bringing one small difference to the table. Like saying, “Yes, I can hear you.” Like saying, “No, your screen is not shared yet.” Like saying, “Thank you for giving some time back in this meeting.” Like switching on the video sometimes when the organiser requests for some support. They all can seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, to that person, who is trying hard to swallow the anxiety that comes with organizing any virtual meeting, it might matter more than I can imagine. 2020 taught me that we can be sounding boards, devil’s advocates, but active participation is the building block to constructive exchange, especially when it happens through two black mirrors.

2020 was all about switching between microscopic and telescopic views. It made me be enamored with an ant entering and exiting a crack on the wall. It made me be transfixed by Camus’s reflections on existential dread. It filled me with despair and gratitude. It made me take a stroll on memory lane, and it moved me with the restlessness to break into the future. It made me miss my office, and it held space to discover new things about my coworkers despite the distance. It wasn’t a year of binaries, but of nuances. And I explored its diverse landscape on the vehicle called Communication, with words as its sturdy wheels. 2020 could have been an unyielding concrete, but by the way communication made ways to strengthen collaborations, be inclusive, innovate in our own ways, and look after ourselves and everybody around us, I believe that communication is the heroic plant which rebels, and grows from concrete.

“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Of Reading and Other Demons

“I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.”

— The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The reader in me surfaced in 2015. I was 28. It was the hardest year of my life, but with the strength that the books, the community of kind book bloggers, and my own writing gave me, I survived that year. In words, I found solace. In the make-believe worlds, I found truth. In the literary characters, I found friendship. The humble books were the antidote to my loneliness, and anxiety. Under the flattering yellow light of a floor lamp, I curled up on my bed, with a warm puppy at my feet, I read and read and read, as though I was given one last chance to make up for all the 28 years I had lost by not allowing books into my universe, as though I was incarcerated by the urge to atone, and that I could tunnel my way to liberty only by reading more.

Five years later, from this vantage point, when I look at that person, she looks like a postwoman to me. Instead of envelopes, and packages, there are books on her table. Her neck, bent down toward the table, looks like a question mark. She picks up a book from a tall pile, inhales the words, stamps the book as ‘Read’, places it on top of another unruly pile, and she repeats the process. If I expand my imagination even further, I find her standing at an assembly line, picking up books, inhaling the words, and placing them again on the conveyor belt. The process of stamping a book in the first scene translated into marking the book ‘Read’ on Goodreads in real life. I am not judging her. I am not attempting to reduce her love for reading. Her single-minded focus to devour books still makes me proud. But an array of questions swim in my head when I think of that reader, and the question that I want to explore in this piece is: what role did Goodreads play in molding that reader?

As I sit with the question on how Goodreads colour the way I approach reading, more questions squirrel out of that question. Since 2015, if I hadn’t discovered Goodreads, how many books would I have read every year? How did the Goodreads Reading Challenge influence my choice of books? Did I choose short books, and children’s literature more because I wanted to meet the challenge? Why did the numbers matter to me so much? If I hadn’t been obsessive about reading 70 books every year, would I have read at all? Or would I have become a better reader who paused and thought more about what I read instead of rushing to dive into the next book? Would I have made more time to wrestle with complex ideas? Would I have had the headspace to write more about what I read? If the objective need to read more were removed from my life, would I be a reader at all?

An acquaintance shamed me for doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge. “Do you still do those challenges?” he asked, without trying to soften the edges of his condescension. I am not good at shooting a comeback instantly; I marinate the insult and question in my thoughts before choosing a suitable response. I was taken aback by how appalled the acquaintance seemed that someone reads because they are inspired to meet a certain goal. It seemed blasphemous to him. He came from the school of thought that if you are reading because you want to read more books, then you are not reading at all. You are merely reading the items on a bill handed to you at a restaurant. He argued that you read because you want to become a better thinker. And you don’t have to read too many books to hone your thinking. You just need to choose timeless books, and understand, and challenge the great minds which wrote those books.

During that unpleasant meeting, I didn’t have the language to tell the acquaintance that each reader has a unique purpose for reading. In 2015, I read because I was lonely, depressed, and books were my undemanding friends. Reading was my exit route from a reality that seemed like a labyrinth. It gave me words for the feelings which I thought were inexpressible. As the stories unspooled, it occurred to me that what I was going through was personal and universal. So, I wanted to read more. I wanted to meet literary people who were keen to relate their stories to me, and we passively exchanged notes. Even if I weren’t pleased to see the numbers soaring on my Goodreads Reading Challenge that year, I would have read. Because I was grateful to be alive. In the face of survival, engaging with ‘great thinkers’ becomes futile. The process of reading is stripped down to its core — I read because I am human.

I still do the Reading Challenge on Goodreads. It lets me stay disciplined when I am compelled by the need to sit in front of my tablet, to be numbed by what Netflix shows. This year, while my goal was to read 70 books, I have read 93 books. At book club meets, the numbers give me bragging rights. I see the jaws dropping, and I hear the collective sigh of the readers. It feels good. But I now want to play devil’s advocate, and agree with the said snobbish acquaintance. I ask these questions to myself: do I internalise what I learn from the books? How do I stop my books from becoming a scenery that I mindlessly watch while seated on a bus as it careens to an undisclosed destination? Do I set realistic goals for myself? I pronounce myself guilty of all the aforementioned offences.

As 2020 packs, and leaves, I am going to commit the ancient mistake of making resolutions. From 2021, I am going to slow down. I am going to do more research about the author after reading a book, make conscious efforts to read books mentioned in footnotes and epigraphs and ‘Further Reading’, develop the patience to stay with an idea until I grasp it fully, read more physical books, run the highlighter on favourite passages, try to write about a book even if I am pushed back by writer’s block, and stop choosing short books just to meet the goal. In 2021 too, I will set a realistic reading goal, and make meaningful, disciplined efforts to achieve it. In that process, I am certain that I will brush shoulders with ‘great thinkers’, and that organically discovering influential minds is better than being besotted with them like a star-struck fan chasing her idol to take a selfie.

In 2021, may wonderful books happen to me, and to everybody who breathes freely in between pages.

First Light

I started blogging in 2009. My memory is unreliable, but I think my first blog was about my phone which was stolen. I had employed quite a few words to describe its physical features, the attachment I had developed with it, and how I loved listening to music on the phone. I was 22, and I allowed myself to lament over a stolen phone, like a privileged teenager. My second post was a short story about a wife who poisoned her husband. I was inspired by a cousin, who was dabbling in short stories then, and I was intoxicated by the delusion that everybody can write a short story. I was just introduced to Facebook. The social media platform was aggressively convincing its users about their undiscovered talent. Everybody was a blogger. Everybody was a DSLR photographer. Everybody was an illustrator. Facebook painted a rosy picture of a world where everybody was allowed to pursue their passion. In retrospect, I realise that Facebook was like a pyramid scheme. It was militant about recruiting people by polluting their minds with dreams which were beyond their reach.

Almost after half a decade, and a short stint in journalism as a reporter/features writer, I began to be ashamed of the quality of my blogs. I abandoned Blogger, and moved to WordPress, with the hope that I was going to become a better writer. In 2015, I set up book blogs. Equipped with optimism, I wrote about how I felt about books. I inhaled books, and exhaled my feelings about it. I left comments on hundreds of blogs, subtly arm-twisting readers into visiting my blog, and by 2018, I had seen it all and found myself in the familiar spot — tired, empty, and ashamed. I had nothing to say in my blogs. Perhaps, since the beginning, there was nothing to say. Perhaps, there were no opinions, and just a lot of feelings. It became apparent in 2018 that it was time to abandon the book blog too. I shut it down.

In between 2018 and 2020, I opened a couple of more accounts on WordPress. I tried hard to write, say something, but every post sounded pathetic, desperate, and every post was a distant echo of the moaning and whimpering I made when Facebook massaged my ego. I was writing with the acute awareness of being watched. The act of writing began to feel like a performance. The readers’ feedback was the invisible string, and I was the marionette.

Readers who managed to travel along with me in my narcissistic journey for years opined that my writing voice was changing at an unhealthy rate. I was sounding like a different person in each blog. The change made my readers feel uncomfortable, and some even expressed concerns about my mental health. In truth, I was suffering. The delusion that I had something to say, and that I could say it with passion, confidence, and in beautiful words was too much to bear. There were two options to relieve myself from the agony. A) I could just stop writing. I could keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. I could keep visiting this place to consume words, and find it in me to be content about it. I could wake myself up from the grand delusion that everybody is a writer. I could just be an audience. B) I could give myself another chance. I could introduce meaning and purpose to the act of writing. I could hold safe space for myself while I flexed my muscles to understand and articulate ideas, without being stifled by the curious eyes of the readers, and without meeting my expectations fuelled by narcissism. I have chosen B.

The last blog, where I was active as a reader, where I was trying to find a voice, has been deactivated. This is a clean slate again. Here, I will try to capture, and pin down thoughts with abandon. I am not here to build a blog with thousands of followers, I don’t have an agenda, and I am not here to chronicle my life. I am here because I exist. I am here because thoughts come, and go. I am here because I love words. I am here because I love the person I become when I think I can write. I am here because I am egoistic. I am here because everything is absurd and arbitrary, and somewhere in the dark corner of the World Wide Web, a woman can find some order and meaning in that randomness, pointlessness, and namelessness.

My binoculars received its First Light a month ago when I lifted and directed it toward Jupiter and its moons. I spotted Saturn and its ring too. On the last full moon day, I mounted my binoculars on a tripod and turned it toward the moon. The satellite didn’t look like how it appeared on all the gorgeous, carefully captured pictures I saw on Instagram. The moon looked raw, vulnerable, and real. I loved it that way.

There is a world of difference between what I see,
and what gets captured.