City Library – Sikander Aaquil’s Lockdown Reading, New Palam Vihar
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sikander Aaquil’s work has come to a grinding halt. A building contractor, he can no longer oversee the construction of private houses — though he does spend some time every day looking after his regular labourers, now out of work. Besides keeping them supplied with necessary cash, he is also taking care of their daily food rations.
But he must keep to his bungalow, here in Gurgaon’s New Palam Vihar in the Greater Delhi Region. And let’s face it: A building contractor used to engaging with a variety of people throughout the day can find it monotonous to just hobnob with his small family 24/7, no matter how much he loves them.
Fortunately, Mr Aaquil, 50, also happens to be a poet — he writes in Urdu. And a voracious reader too. “In fact, I’m spending my lockdown days reading something that I had never read before,” he confides in his distinctive soothing way of speaking.
“I’m reading Bhagwad Geeta.”
And he is reading the book in Urdu.
Talking on WhatsApp one recent night from the self-isolation of his first floor study, Mr Aaquil says he was lucky enough to find and buy the book just before the Coronavirus lockdown started. He chanced upon it outside a hotel where he had been dining with a friend visiting from Canada.
“I picked it up immediately,” he mutters, showing the book—the pictures are taken through the phone screen that connects him to The Delhi Walla. The cover shows Lord Krishna with Arjun. Mr Aaquil opens the book, and flips through the pages, explaining that “each Sanskrit shloka (hymn) is written in Urdu script, and followed by its translation.”
He hasn’t reached far in the book, he admits, for he is reading it slowly and studying each line intently. “What I’ve made out so far is that the Geeta shows way to getting close to the truth.”
Noting that the Bhagwad Geeta is a document sacred to Hinduism and that he himself is a practicing Muslim, Mr Aaquil expresses that it is necessary to understand how other faiths struggle with the same dilemmas that life offers. “This, I think, helps weaken the barriers and the prejudices that people of different religions might hold for each other.”
Nevertheless, Mr Aaquil rushes to declare that he is also taken in by the Geeta’s literary brilliance “and this Urdu translation by poet Anwar Jalalpuri is very well executed.”
Like most compulsive readers, Mr Aaquil is involved with more than one book at a time. “I’m also reading Iqbal’s complete poetry and (Delhi-based author) Anjuman Usmani’s new collection of short stories.”
Inevitably, committing himself so seriously to literary endeavours is taking much of his waking hours. He sits down with books right after his morning yoga and doesn’t step out of his study until the lunch at 2. Evenings are spent with his family in the front garden, where he has started to grow vegetables like tomatoes and lauki. He retires to his study at 9 pm and continues reading as late as two in the morning.
One day, hopefully soon, the coronavirus pandemic will become less dangerous and Mr Aaquil shall restart his construction business. “But I will pursue Bhagwat Geeta till the end,” he says calmly but resolutely.
A life in books