Growing Up A Reader In A Town That Didn’t Read

I am fascinated with words. I remember being a young girl and looking forward to nothing but curling up with a book and devouring it. I would wait for my mother to get back from school with a fresh haul of books she would have picked for me from the school library. The genre did not really matter. I just needed to take in more and more words and stories. This passion stays with me still and I cannot travel anywhere without a book in tow.

I went on to pursue a course on English Literature ( surprise, surprise!) and now I write professionally. It would be correct to summarize that reading and writing are integral parts of me and have played a consistent role in shaping the person I am. The thing with books, whether Fiction or Nonfiction, is that they open one’s mind to a whole new world with different insights and perspectives. Several social and political issues are tackled, and when you read it in a storytelling format it tends to make it easier to grasp a concept. A lot of clarity is given on prominent issues such as racism and sexism, and while more tedious and time consuming than watching a movie, books do spruce up your imagination and you tend to get more involved with the characters and their stories. It really is a beautiful experience to go through the journey of the characters in a more detailed form; it just tends to feel more real.

This hobby, unfortunately, was not the easiest to harness. Not when there was no Amazon or Flipkart, and when you lived in a small town.  I recall being sixteen and desperately wanting to read ‘The Catcher In The Rye’. I could not find it in any of the bookstores. In the end, I had to source it from elsewhere.

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I have never known what to make of my hometown’s reading culture.  Reading, when I was growing up, especially fiction, came under this premise of being a waste of time. In my class of about fifty students, there were about maybe fifteen of us who read. We read religiously and traded books on the daily while bonding over which character was our #mancrushwednesday. Also, it somehow managed to get categorised as a female hobby; and while it was rare to find girls who read, it was even rarer to find boys who shared the passion and love for words.

While I read as much as I could, Victorian Classics that were at home, for example, an exposure to a more varied diversity in genres was lacking . For instance, Philosophy or Greek Mythology did not even strike me until I left for further studies. But where was a person in Shillong in the early 2000s even supposed to cultivate the habit with a Public Library that was as good as non-functional and a scarily  inadequate number of bookstores; which additionally were not as well stocked.

Bookworms are not very common in the world, I get that. And I admit that my experience in India’s most well-known liberal arts college is an outlier. But it was refreshing to be immersed in a crowd of bookworms when I entered St. Stephen’s. Being well read was considered important amongst most of my peers and it was not limited to my course. Students pursuing degrees in Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, indulged in the pastime too. What pleased me the most about being in New Delhi was an acceptance of the culture of reading.

The reading culture in Shillong is greatly affected by the perceptions that surround it. It was never the “cool” thing to do and there were only a small bubble of people who were taken in by it. Parents too with their preference for “useful textbooks” and their dismissal of  other genres entirely as a waste of time, played their part in negating its value.

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I think we underestimate the importance of reading for pleasure, which Fiction is primarily. There is an emotional side which too often gets pushed to a corner. Books of Fiction explore fantasy, sci-Fi, and the like, giving one social and behavioural insights, and human stories which deal with emotions and psychology- topics we normally do not talk about. When I read and learn about a character, I become involved in the entire life story of the individual/individuals. Stories on mental health, racism, homosexuality, bullying, puberty, love and loss are available and the books holding these stories comfort me in times of need, and open up different outlooks on a spectrum of topics and social situations.

When a child is growing up, and even after, there is an undue amount of pressure to excel academically and then professionally. In the rat race, development of the self is not given priority, when it ought to be. I’m not implying that reading is going to instantly make everyone better individuals, but much like sports, it does help in developing some crucial life skills that go beyond the classroom walls, and help one become better adept to the challenges in the real world. The all-round development of the child cannot be forgotten and immersing the child in habits outside of school books ought to be imperative. Growing up, reading helped me in profound ways and I believe I am more socially proficient because of it. I see an appreciation for sports increasing in Shillong, a wonderful thing indeed. My great hope is that the appreciation stretches to include more and more hobbies, and that reading becomes one of them.

 

Author: Camilla Lyndem

Camilla Ann Lyndem is a Staff Writer. Based in Bengaluru, she is a graduate of St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, where she completed her Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree in English Literature.Although a hardcore liberal arts student, she enjoys coding and has worked on building smart models, including a smart irrigation system (take that CS students).

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