The book lover’s commute.
[Text by Nikhil Kumar; photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Among a sea of humanity that travels on the Delhi Metro everyday, there are some who read. How is not a question. A reader has to find a way. A reader always finds a way. The Metro, despite its thousand and one farts, warts and all, gives the reader an anonymity, a sense of solitude. The anonymity, the sardined bogies give, is its greatest generosity.
I have been a beneficiary of this munificence for a long time. It has accommodated me not only as a commuter, but also as a reader. Without discriminating it accommodates everyone; at times more than it can stomach. It would be fair to say that the Metro is a great leveller. Perhaps, not as great or dramatic as death, but certainly less final and more forgiving.
In the beginning of my Metro life, one used to jostle to get a seat or to stand at a place where one, presumably, would get a seat after a few stations. These places, though, kept you busy in ways one would prefer not to be. Most of the time was spent avoiding the shoves and the pushes. Sometimes, when I did get the seat, I would spend the journey sleeping or trying to avoid dozing off on the neighbour’s shoulder.
As a reader in the Metro, I have not found a better place than the one near the two seats reserved for senior citizens, which is mostly occupied by not so senior citizens. The vestibule area isn’t bad either, except it gets too jolty at times. And when you are holding A Suitable Boy, you don’t want to be jolted. It can be hazardous not only for your wrist, but also for people standing beside you.
The first time I had picked Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, I didn’t get past a couple of hundred pages. Perhaps I needed the loneliness of the Metro to immerse myself in the 1950s of the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjees and of Nehru. It took about a month and a half to read the novel in the Metro train – all of its 1,474 pages. I will boast no more of my might deed. If there is someone who should boast, it is Mr Seth, for having written a magisterial account of a country in its infancy.
The novel is peopled by a diverse variety of characters including the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The diversity of the characters is comparable to that of the Metro. I don’t say that lightly. The present PM travels in the Metro too, as the photos would make you believe. He was also photographed reading in the metro. I thought he was only holding the book and not reading.
Well, leaving the asides, aside, Vikram Seth’s remarkable book presents not only the ostensible subject, the search for a husband of a young girl, but also surrounds it with the broader history of a new nation and its tensions and changes. More notably perhaps is his representation of the quotidian aspects of the provincial towns, which had until then, not seen adequate engagement in the English language. Mr Seth, like a miniaturist, brings alive the characters and their milieu through his language and imagination. The novel is also a reminder of the idealism with which Nehru’s India had stepped out to discover herself again. And in times like ours, this book becomes urgent again to understand simpler and better ways of life.
[Nikhil Kumar is interested in history and politics. He lives in Sector 10, Dwarka.]
The boy on the tracks