On my way back home from school in a dingy van, I would often take out a book, and start reading. The journey in the school van was like a vacuum — the only time when my mind was not preoccupied with the mundane battles I had to fight at school, located on the periphery of the Central Ridge near the crowded residential area of Rajinder Nagar in Delhi; or with the music lessons that awaited me on returning home. It was the ideal time to take out a novel and read.
I was 11, and I had recently discovered Agatha Christie; it would set my pulse racing, and make a pleasant distraction from the sultriness of the days and the noisy bullies in the van. On the first day, as I was reading, I noticed an uncanny silence in the vehicle. I lifted my eyes from the book, and found all the boys staring at me, one of them trying to figure out the title of the book in my hands. Their eyes were brimming with astonishment, and, as I like to imagine, the allure of having seen something mysterious. But when I looked back at them, they broke into a dismissive laughter. Apparently, they had never seen anyone read a novel in the van before. For many days one of them would pass by my home each night, cry out “Miss Novel!”, and run away.
Being a teenager who loves books (reading, buying, collecting, and talking about them), I feel disappointed by the exoticism and condescension with which many young adults perceive reading. Reading is as natural as breathing or the morning bread and butter to me, and this why for a long time I didn’t realise that for many people in my milieu, taking extraordinary interest in books was bizarre. On a school trip to the hills, when I chose to read Marguerite Duras in the bus, my schoolmates came up to me and asked if everything was all right, because something had to be terribly wrong if I was reading while travelling, that too in French.
Most Indian youngsters, on being asked which books they are reading or have read, would give the following answers: the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, The Da Vinci Code, and everything written by Chetan Bhagat. Literary fiction is by and large unheard of, and most Indian writing – in English, Hindi and other regional languages – remains unexplored territory. While there is nothing wrong with reading about Potter or vampires, why should young people restrict their preferences to such narrow options? One of India’s greatest gifts is its multilingualism, and the rich body of literature that comes along with it in the form of ancient literary traditions in languages such as Tamil and Malayalam. Yet, my South Indian friends inform me that Tamil literature is not of much interest to the majority of young people down there.
Recently, I was interning with the student edition of The Times of India, which has a large readership among school students across the country. Strangely enough, the newspaper does not have a books section. I wrote a round-up of books for teenagers, thinking it would be an interesting initiation into reviewing and writing about books for the publication. Instead, my article was pushed to the sidelines and edited brutally, and another article about “swearwords trending with young people” was made the chief story of the page. HT Edge, a “newspaper customised for young readers” brought out byHindustan Times, doesn’t have a books section, and I have never seen a book review being published in it. Evidently, these so-called youth newspapers believe that the Indian youth doesn’t have anything to do with reading, or at least, reading and writing about books.
Looking back at the days when my reading in public would surround me with a circus of curious students, I don’t think things have changed much. The fact that youth newspapers think of reading as an activity their target audience would not be interested in, undermines the passion that many teenagers may feel for books.
Many young people are reading after all, and since they rely on media for exposure to new books and writing, they find themselves disappointed in newspapers that promise to address their issues, yet take no notice of books they would like to read. Parents too would rather have their children study for umpteen entrance examinations, success in which would ensure a seat in a top professional college, rather than waste their time reading novels, from which – in their opinion – little can be gained. As long as teenagers do not openly express their love for reading, these irrational attitudes won’t change, and my generation will have to live with the label of being ignorant to the pleasure of reading and cherishing books.