I've Been A Reader My Entire Life But Books Haven't Been A Reliable Solace In Lockdown

Only fantasy fiction offered an escape–it turns out magic makes an inordinate amount of sense when nothing in the real world does.

On the night the government announced that there was to be no mobility, no socializing, no venturing out at all, I had already been a severely anxious and depressed wreck for weeks. I cried after a neighbour casually accused me of hoarding rations when she saw the two small grocery bags I was carrying home. I had stepped out in a panic after the announcement of a nationwide lockdown to buy butter, eggs, bread, vegetables and dustbin liners. I wondered if my neighbour was right, if I had done something terrible in my anxiety. The woman’s words compounded the fear I felt, and I frantically counted the supplies I had purchased – two 100-gram slabs of butter, one of everything else. I was a tinderbox and I was about to be locked in with my mind.

When the unexpected took place, I turned into a feral being made exclusively of fear. I focused on the unknowns: there was no milk in the first few days, I didn’t own a thermometer, I didn’t know how to cook more than a handful of dishes, I didn’t know when I would be able to see my parents. I read the news feverishly. I tried to feel a modicum of control by donating where I could, tried to take solace in the sheer number of people who were contributing to initiatives to feed stranded migrants and others affected by the lockdown. I had a roof over my head, air-conditioning, sufficient money for food and a well-stocked grocery store well within walking distance. I was still inconsolable. I couldn’t shake the depression, struggled to sleep and struggled to stay out of bed for long. A friend, far away from all his family and loved ones, told me he felt fortunate to just be alive. He basked in the sunny spot by his window. He took courage in the millions being raised for those in need.

I wanted to feel okay, to not be beside myself. I baked cake after cake after cake – my nervous energy dissipating in the moments that I measured and sifted flour, that I whisked the batter by fork. I did puzzles and I painted. I turned to books. I tried to read poems, reaching for old favourites – Ellen Bass, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ada Limon, Sharon Olds, Imtiaz Dharker. But I couldn’t sit still. Their words couldn’t penetrate the wall that had gone up inside me. These exceptional poets, who had instilled hope and instructions for better living in more stable times, read like another language now. I was so depressed, even they couldn’t reach me.

Through the lockdown, the reading-centric newsletters I subscribed to continued to arrive in my inbox. I scrolled through them baffled and slightly envious of the books and long-form essays they all said they’d been reading. I came across articles recommending writers’ suggestions for isolation reads and saw people’s posts of the TBR piles they were finally digging into. I had been in this position before – on the outside, looking into the reading world (by all accounts, my world).

I grew up in Porvorim, Goa, where it rained continuously for many months of the year and I spent all my free time reading indoors. I would achieve, with no effort at all, complete immersion in whichever story was at hand – Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions that included four or five novels in one book, my parents’ collection of Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer novels, the Harry Potter series. Over time, my preferences and the choice of books available to me evolved. I started reading the short stories of Alice Munro, Alice Oswald’s poems and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, to name a few. I remember reading in quiet school corners while other people my age talked to one another, recall reading in empty classrooms in Delhi University before classes began for the day.

“I came across articles recommending writers’ suggestions for isolation reads and saw people’s posts of the TBR piles they were finally digging into. I had been in this position before – on the outside, looking into the reading world (by all accounts, my world).”

But at the end of my university years, between mid-2013 and early 2016, I became palpably depressed and anxious for the first time. I found I could no longer turn to what had always been my source of solace and distraction. I struggled to read more than a page or two of literary fiction or poetry. The lives depicted and the scenes described didn’t interest me. Hurting and worn out by my symptoms, I was more wary of the sorts of white lies, illusions and manipulation that can pervade literary fiction. On the one hand, I felt let down by the unrealistic dreaming within stories. On the other, I was terrified of encountering further sadness within them. To this day, gratuitous character deaths and falling-outs disturb me far more than a work of fiction should.

Gradually, I discovered that what I could still escape into was crime fiction. I read indiscriminately – any thriller that was on the bestsellers list and in stock at neighbourhood bookstores. It started a love affair with genre fiction I still rely on. In those crime novels, I would lose myself, depression and anxiety dulled for a few hours, in a story whose stakes were far removed from mine, whose pace could outrun the corrosive spirals in my mind.

In the past two months, as the country grappled with the invasion of a highly contagious virus, and residents were confined to their homes, I tried, besides poetry, the unread books in my collection. I started a literary novel. Restless and distracted by the virus and by how ill I felt all the time, I found fault and self-deceit everywhere in the construction of the characters and the plot. I read part of a light and funny essay collection that at any other time would have soothed me, but I found myself abandoning it midway. I grew irrationally weary of language – on social media, in op-eds, in books. At a time where I truly felt that the world was wrestling with the knowledge that we are less invincible than we thought, I couldn’t relate to the authority with which many voices were speaking.

“At a time where I truly felt that the world was wrestling with the knowledge that we are less invincible than we thought, I couldn’t relate to the authority with which many voices were speaking.”

Finally, I turned to fantasy fiction, uncertain of whether it would help in this heartsick time. Seeking well-reviewed trilogies with strong female characters, I began Jen Williams’ The Winnowing Flame series featuring a determined female scientist, a dying race and imprisoned witches. I surprised myself as I read deep into each night. It turns out magic makes an inordinate amount of sense when nothing in the real world does. When nothing inside me was working, the supernatural was somehow wonderfully inclusive of my experience. In a life where a voice tells me to climb onto the wide parapet of my balcony wall and jump, a god who whispers instructions into a character’s ear resonates. The character resists and that is a triumph. Here in this story, my daily work and I are a triumph.

There are days when I am frustrated by my illness, but I am still able to pacify myself. I remind myself that a serotonin imbalance and a genetic history of mental illness cannot be wished away (though they can be managed). Trapped by the pandemic, there were periods when there was no getting through to myself, no calming myself down. I felt profound grief at being sick day after day after day. On some of those days, along with a dose of SOS medication, the world of fantasy was available to me to disappear into.

'The Winnowing Flame' series by Jen Williams features a determined female scientist, a dying race and imprisoned witches.
'The Winnowing Flame' series by Jen Williams features a determined female scientist, a dying race and imprisoned witches.

In the type of fantasy I prefer, there is often both innate power and learned mastery. I find comfort in that because there is within me both a God-given well of strength and a task: I am tasked with learning to master my fear, to squash, iron-fisted and bloody knuckled, the temptation to turn in my life. There is a swapping of language as I settle into a fantasy novel. I enter a world where there is strife in place of struggle, battle with an oppressor in place of battle with the disease, fear in place of anxiety. As I leave the dry, clinical language of being a patient behind, I am confronted with a life whose scale matches the extremity of what I am feeling. I don’t believe that it is a metaphor for my experience exactly, but it feels as alien and familiar as my disease.

I of all people know that reading is not a reliable balm – no one activity is for me. I read two excellent fantasy trilogies before starting what turned out to be a frustrating read. The respite I had found within the world of fantasy ended as I was drawn deep into a story that disappointed and distressed me on multiple fronts. There’s a trust, whether misplaced or not, that I put in a story when I enter it, particularly when I’m troubled. But stories don’t always follow the paths readers desire from them. Readers can’t predict the fear or confusion they might feel, and for someone with anxiety, that can be very unsettling. There is this prevalent idea that a good book is the best friend we need, the company we long for, the break we desire. I have definitely believed that in the past. But I have since learned that sometimes I have to keep moving, that sometimes to be submerged in a narrative is to be trapped in it. Often I am relieved to not think for a little while instead.