It was one of those May summer evenings where the 10-year-old me had put the summer heat to shame by staying out in the scorching heat riding my bicycle through the slender lanes of the Railway colony at my home in Jammu. Summer vacation had finally started and we were supposed to leave for Jaipur, for my Nana’s home - my mother’s hometown like every year.
It was six in the evening. We were standing with our luggage on the platform at the Railway station, which was a two-minute walk from our Railway Quarters, waiting for the Pooja Superfast Express train. My mother took me to the book stall at the platform and picked up a few magazines and a biography of Bhagat Singh. She asked me if I needed something. I picked a few Chacha Chaudhary Comics for myself. She sternly declared I could only buy one comic, so I gave in. After a day of running around in the sun, I was hungry and couldn’t stop imagining how I would relish the taste of a Blue Lays sitting in the AC cabin in the train. This is why I loved train journeys: the chips, the biscuits, the cola - things I couldn’t have in our daily routine. It was liberating being on the move with no snack restrictions.
My little sister in her chirpy, irritating voice was constantly annoying me by asking for my Walkman so she could listen to music. I kept telling her to wait till we were in the train. More often than not the train would be delayed a few hours, so we would not arrive in Jaipur until 12 noon the next day. The timing of the train hasn’t changed in 25 years.
My mother would utilize the time in the train to make us read. All of it started with the short stories in kid’s magazines like Champak, and sometimes, even Readers Digest, till my mother figured it was time to make her children read an entire book. So she took those thin biographies of famous personalities for kids, like Bhagat Singh, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sachin Tendulkar, Tipu Sultan and made us read them. These books were normally a 200-250 page affair in large font.
I was relishing my chips and what I saw outside the train window as we crossed, Bari Brahmna, Kathua, and Pathankot when my mother asked me to read the biography of Bhagat Singh out loud. I was thinking of the trees. They used to be lot more and a lot greener back then. The tributaries and canals were also brimming with water back then. You could see the shape and size of the trees change when you travel from Jammu to anywhere in India as the mountains disappeared behind us. I always used to try and find out which one was the last mountain that must exist here, before we entered plains.
I was hesitant at first, piqued, wondering why, my mother was spoiling my entire trip by making me study even here in the train.
“Every tiny molecule of ash is in motion with my heat. I am such a lunatic that I am free even jail”
Until I read this, I stopped just reading and started imagining how this young boy had made the entire British empire tremble. Unlike in our boring and bland textbooks, the ring of the word ‘Aazaadi’ and ‘Revolution’ in this book sent shivers down my spine.
The fight against injustice being above everything, all of this seemed superhuman-ish and the comics I read as a kid seemed feeble in front of this real-life superhero. The train crossed Pathankot, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Ambala, Panipat, Delhi - all these places where the rings of rebellion were rung at some point in the book and in history.
I was now engrossed reading this book in that second AC compartment under the light of those night lamps by the side of each berth in the cabin. It was also the first time my mother didn’t scold me to switch that light off, probably because she knew I was using it right. I finished the entire book that night by the time the train reached Delhi. It must have been 4 in the morning - the time when the Pooja Express gets to Delhi. The hustle and bustle of the passengers getting down at the station and getting on the train woke up my mother, like it woke everyone up. I was just holding the book at the time, looking at everyone, wondering why this guy died without a fight in the end when there was so much fight left in him.
Bhagat Singh was indeed a lunatic deaf to the sound of death, blind to the color of it. He knew that living in shackles, no matter how long the chains, and how decorated they may be with flowers and promises of prosperity, was still living in shackles. He would choose death over shackles any day. He was born free, like we all are, the only difference is, he lived free and he even dies free. He understood the aspirations of freedom. He knew we needed not wings but freedom to fly. It wasn’t until I read his biography I felt I understood him. I still had a lot of questions in my mind. Why did he not at least try to run? Why was he smiling when he was hanged?
The last words of that book read: “By Revolution I mean the present order of things which is based on manifesting injustice must change, long live the Revolution.”
Imagine a restless kid reading about freedom, rebellion, bravery and the fight against injustice so early on in his life. Imagine him pondering upon it. My mother looked at me, and didn’t say a word. I saw some kind satisfaction on her face. It shaped the kind of person I was going to turn out to be. It uncovered parts of me, even me or the people closest to me wouldn’t have otherwise known existed. I later read more texts about and by Bhagat Singh as I grew up, another one that stays with me has to be “Why am I an atheist.” The lucidity of his arguments, it was almost as if he was a lawyer arguing his case with himself.
The book was written during his time in a Lahore jail and I have always felt it was him whispering secrets to a piece of paper, in those times, alone and tortured, helpless, with nothing he could do. The sound of a freedom fighter as fierce as him, helpless in captivity makes you feel helpless sitting under free soaring skies. He found freedom in his pen. Bhagat Singh couldn’t be suppressed even after solitude was imposed and him being. Like anyone who understands the aspirations of freedom and revolution, who has understood that being suppressed into submission is against the nature of man, I related to him. I understood how these words of absolute sanity in such stifling insane times, were an act of rebellion too. He wrote to take back the power from the suppressors and found a way to feel free in those words that could soar even in captivity. Such is the power of words, such was his will to be free.
In current times, when it is so easy to be distracted from the innate, effortless, yet, intricate power of words, by explosive headlines, endless scrolling, tweets, micro tales, pint-sized fiction, clickbait thumbnails on YouTube claiming to explain history of a thousand years, concepts of a thousand books, in a matter of minutes, getting back to reading books becomes a lot more urgent.
While an HD video can bring the Buckingham Palace and the Lights of the London to you in a few seconds, it can still never take you to London. While you’re sitting in a solitary nook of your home and put you as a silent observer in a London within networks of public and commercial sociability constructed by men. In a period of social intolerance, legal repression, and cultural marginalization for homosexuals. It can’t make you walk in different times, you can’t understand the struggles of suppressed women, enslaved humans, subjugated tribes and castes as a struggle conspiring in real time as if you belong to it. You have to read books to read cities, to read times, to read emotions, to read love, there is no other way. Books make us ponder.
The city of Delhi changed for me when I read Mir’s Poetry and Khushwant Singh’s Delhi. Living in Delhi for years could not change it for me the way books did. No videos about Delhi could. Now, when I take a walk from the tube lights and advertisement-ridden stairs of the Chawri Bazaar metro station to Gali Qasim Jaan on a March afternoon, I know I need to stop by the Daulat ki Chaat thela because that hundreds-year old delicacy can only be found in these thirty days of the year when the weather permits.
I know that little shop of ltr (perfume) was run by the ancestors of the shop keepers since the time of the last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar. I know I am walking on the stains of the blood that was shed there and the spirit of people who had to leave Dilli for Karachi still haunts the housed there. I know the significance of where I am. I know the lessons it taught us.
In the world dominated by social media we are looking for instant gratification, we do not ponder. We are absolutely missing out on the nuance in everything. As an effect, we miss out on understanding everything. The discourse on news channels is one example. It has turned so black and white. It is as if the news cycle is a competition of saying the simplest thing (however wrong or full of hatred it may be) for the understanding of the masses, so they find it relatable, rather than trying to create an understanding about complexities of an issue. The fake news floating around on WhatsApp, leading to lynching in my country, for example, exist because we have accepted that we don’t need to look further. Is it because we don’t want to slow down, read and understand? I can’t help but attribute this to the almost extinct reading culture amongst us. They don’t want us to read, and we are obliging.
We the humans of Social media generation are just getting the outlines; the colors are missing. And colors, they slow us down in this fast-paced world, books they slow us down, they make us appreciate and understand things around us, they make us question ourselves, things we thought we knew. And it is worth it, because reading a book is an effort which we make towards getting to know a story, a concept, we acquire those words, those stories, those struggles, all this, voluntarily.
I have always felt someone reading anything out to another; or helping one understand something can never have that effect. It doesn’t slow you down like books do. One always waits for someone else to stop telling you, whatever it may be, one always waits for the other person to stop talking, because the pace is not ours. Books, when read, are read at our own pace. That instant when you read something so profound that you stop for a moment and just look in the oblivion and digest what you just read, that can never be done by someone else’s voice.
The beliefs which are regressive and wrong yet so dearly held by us for years cannot be changed overnight by anything but books. The voice in our head needs to be ours. Only when we are absolutely alone can we ponder and change, and that perfect atmosphere is what books create. Every single day I struggle with finding time to read after a hectic day of working in a place where I don’t belong, where books and words hold no value, where it’s just numbers and files. The temptation to just let go of the complexities, and lie back after all this, to watch something on YouTube or to just scroll through the plethora of attractive, excitement, opinions, distorted news on Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram is way too hard to resist, one gives in more often than not, but it is never fulfilling the way reading a book with some light sarangi music playing in the background, over a coffee would be.
A few years back a lot of this ‘giving in’ and not reading at all led to a silent hurricane of discontentment brewing in me, probably because I had at some point seen the world on the other side of the social media in the books and I just knew, I needed more colors in my life, I needed more books. Ever since I make sure I dedicate at least an hour of my day, reading a book. I have stopped caring about how many books I have left to read, I just strive that one hour of escape from the world of internet, job and hustle to slow myself down to keep me sane.
As the last running bookshop in my hometown had to shut its doors to give way to a mobile shop last month, I can only hope that the world around us slows down for a moment and gets through those difficult first fifty pages so they can walk in someone else’s story in a world which is different, yet tells us a lot about our own world. I can only hope to see another mother in that Pooja express making her children read a book, so every child, like me, can find that one night where they stay awake till the train reaches Delhi and read the story of Bhagat Singh its end, so in every heart no matter what they do, where they work, the revolution, the fight against injustice is always brewing and when the chaos of the world gets too much to take, they can open a book and let the vanilla fragrance of old wise words slow them down a little.
I know ‘Dilli Door Ast’ but books and only books will guide us there.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.