I am writing this in a train and sitting next to me are an elderly couple. The gentleman is easily in his mid-60s and is reading a book. Curious to know what book he's reading I tilt my head at a certain angle, imagining that I am doing so imperceptibly. But his wife notices me. "Oh, it's just a novel! Tell me beta, does it suit him to be reading such novels at this age? Now at his age he should be reading the Bhagavad Gita, but your uncle keeps reading these novels," she says and chortles. She asks her husband to show me the book he's reading. The gentleman, clearly unhappy, stares at her, then shows me the cover briefly and goes back to reading his book. Embarrassed, I smile and thank him. "See, it's just a novel!" the woman says, dismissively.
This, for me, is something of a déjà-vu.
Reading novels, my folks thought, was meant for idlers.
I was raised in a conservative Vaishnav household, wherein reading any kind of secular literature, unless it was purely academic, was seen to be a form of dawdling. While non-fiction still qualified as quality reading, indulgence in fiction (novels) would attract disdainful looks from the elderly. "The human intellect is too precious to be wasted on these fabrications!" their looks said. Reading novels, my folks thought, was meant for idlers. My grandmother would tell us the story of some distant aunt of ours who'd earned a bad name for herself because she read too many novels; or maybe because all she did was to read novels. We were told that it was difficult finding a match for her. "Which saas would want a bahu that just drinks tea and read novels all day?" my grandmother would shrug.
Because of my folks' misgivings about fiction, as a child I was never exposed to the classics. I had not heard of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters until after I finished college. There was hardly anyone in the family who read fiction, which obviously meant there were no novels in the house for me to lay my hands on. This is not to say that I wasn't reading. In fact, while my peers were reading Austen, Dickens and Twain, I was reading Meera, Jaydev, Soordas et al. But anything that wasn't didactic or that did not glorify the Lord or did not fetch you marks on an exam was considered no good.
Now in retrospect when I revisit the situation, I find it very amusing. In one sense this practice could be seen to be very restrictive and orthodox, depriving a child of the pleasure and treasure of the world of fiction. Yet in another sense it could be seen as an exercise in decolonization, even if inadvertently so. I was not disallowed per se to read these classics, but I was never encouraged either. And even when I did read them (thanks to the school library), I was completely oblivious to the canonical status that these books enjoyed. For me it was just another novel, and for my folks, perhaps just a waste of time (and of the precious human intellect). I would have never gotten around to appreciating indigenous literatures if I were distracted, or possibly even consumed, by the glamour of the English classics or novels in general.
In one sense this practice could be seen to be very restrictive and orthodox... Yet in another sense it could be seen as an exercise in decolonization...
However, this ostensibly decolonizing practice could have also taken a perilous turn: it could have made me myopic and parochial, and worse still, chauvinistic. I too could have turned into one of those narrow-minded nincompoops, who are so blinded by the almost mythical glory of the past that they refuse to acknowledge its unsavoury facets. But I was salvaged. And like it is almost every other time, this time too it was mummy dearest to the rescue.
My mother had been a reader in her childhood -- and I can safely assume that she must have been a secret one. In those night-time conversations that mothers have with their children, lying in the bed next to them just before they slip into sleep, my mother would tell me how avidly she read the popular Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. She would get us Chandamama (in English) to read and would also often read it to us. Thus she was the one who introduced us to the world of fiction. More importantly, she had also passed on her love for languages and reading.
But perhaps it was a little too late. A considerable span of my childhood had already passed without reading fiction, and whatever little I had read would not qualify to be called refined literature. Still, the seeds that my mother had sown did not go waste.
I realized: to err is human, and to think that we (the Orient) have never erred or that they (the Occident) cannot err, is bovine!
Much later in my life I decided to study literature formally. And my introduction to literature, and by extension humanities, as an academic discipline prevented my falling prey to chauvinism. (Though I must confess I was almost there. Almost!) It taught me that genius does not belong exclusively to one country, one race, or one community. And, interestingly, my being rooted in the indigenous culture in my growing up years also prevented me from blindly holding the Western canon in reverentially high esteem. It taught me that imperfection also doesn't belong exclusively to one country, one race or one community. So, in a way, it did solve its purpose of decolonization. To put it simply, I realized: to err is human, and to think that we (the Orient) have never erred or that they (the Occident) cannot err, is bovine!
What I still could not fully shake off was this deeply ingrained guilt I feel while reading novels. Even today, I feel a slight uneasiness if I sit to read a novel first thing in the day (no matter however desperately I want to). Three years ago an uncle of mine had come to visit us. I was in the first year of my master's and was trying to penetrate Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He walked in to my room and upon finding me reading, he asked me hesitantly: "Beta, is this your course book or just a novel?" For him a book that was not a course book (prescribed in the curriculum), was still just a novel. Just a(nother) novel. What a waste of the precious human intellect!
But my bookish woes aren't confined to just this culturally conditioned guilt. Books now present me with a new and a different set of dilemmas. I should try to write about those the next time though. For now I have a book to return to.
PS. The elderly gent sitting next to me is reading Half Girlfriend.