William Wordsworth ran his rose-tinted glasses over the French Revolution and waxed eloquent-Bliss it was to be alive then. To be young was pure heaven.
I sat in front of a dust-covered window in grimy Gurgaon as the papers announced “welcome to Raisina Hell”, and read Ginsberg and saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by anger,well-fed hysterical well-clothed, dragging themselves through Rajpath at dawn looking for a quick fix. And I remembered Thoreau and said to myself “that government is the best that governs the least”.
Books are our hideaway. They are our solitude. And sometimes our sorrow and our catharsis.
I saw a young girl with a wooden leg stand and beg for food at Connaught Place. I saw the last bits of a long-forgotten meal leave her body as her voice cracked and her chest heaved and her eyes watered. And I thought of oliver twist. Dickens speaks for that young girl.
“please sir, can I have some more?”
I read Dalrymple on the Delhi metro. The Last Mughal lay forlorn and forgotten and the White Mughals moved on as the city of djinns grew old and cranky above me. I saw New delhi. I read about Old delhi. And I experienced a city at its best and its worst. Zafar, there is no “Do Gaz” for your grave even today.
Sometimes I got bored and went on a trip with Bill Bryson or Pico Iyer or Evelyn Waugh. My eyes glazed over with thoughts of sylvan isles and snowy landscapes as neighbourhood aunties fought like rabid dogs to divide sunlight into pieces big enough to dry freshly-washed laundry. Quarrels over Quanta.
When we are young and don’t understand enough to care, books are our tour guides through the world. And when we grow old and understand way too much to care, books are our escape strategies. Our eternal Plan B. sometimes our cosy excuses for inaction. What could we do that has not already been done and dusted in the pages of a book?
But then I read Clarke,Bradbury or Philip K Dick and I’m dragged into the future. Flights of unbridled,unbelievable imagination. Worlds fashioned out of nothing Oh there is so,so much left in this living. I read Tolkien and Rowling and China Mieville and wonder ‘what if’? What an exhilarating feeling to be grabbed by the scruff of our necks, taken out of our comfort zones and told “look what can be”.
Books teach us so much. They leave so much to learn on our own.
There was a time when books could start a revolution. People would read at public squares, in prison,in hiding. About freedom, humanity, about right and wrong. About the inalienable rights that are inhered in the idea of being human and how there was no cause worth fighting for, greater than this one idea. Books would be treasured,passed on from one oppressed nation to another, one enslaved generation to another. Books would be burnt,censored,feared and denounced. But they would be read. And they would kindle dreams that would drive mankind to actuate change.
Now ofcourse, all the kindling,if any, is being done by the Kindle. Digital bookstores have single-handedly changed what we read and how we read it. We are fast and changeable. Our books and our revolutions have to be fast and changeable too. We flip make-believe pages, insert imaginary bookmarks and if that book by Joyce or Tolstoy is too bulky for us to make head or tail of-poof,it’s gone. No Anna Karenina or Suitable Boy to sneer at us from bookshelfs, taunting our futile stabs at finishing them, no more remembering the copious amounts of time passed on reading “remembrances of times past/recherches temps de la perdu”, no more wishing you could cast those last 200 pages of the Lord of The Rings into Mount Doom. Hello,goodbye. No hard feelings.Worms, viruses and corrupt files are our new silverfish and termites,nibbling away at our digital bookshelf. No more arguing in smoke-filled dormitories with your tattered copies of “On the Wealth of Nations”,or “Das Kapital”(pick your poison) and making plans to change history. History is history. The revolution is over….
A little rag-picker scrounges in a dustbin. Text-book pages, stained with ketchup and burger juice. The jet-setting man’s detritus. He carefully cleans them up, sits under a tree and tries to understand why one and one make two, and starts wondering if what he is reading-‘our country achieved independence on august 15,1947’- could mean something to him.It’s not a revolution,but it’s something.