April 08, 2010

Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part II

Continuing with my series, this is Part II of my ongoing attempt to note the books my fellow travellers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back.

Seeing Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress in the hands of a traveler reeled me back to several years ago.

There was a time a few years ago when if you were reading a book it had to be The Da Vinci Code. I saw more copies of the Dan Brown bestseller in Mumbai local trains than any other title. There was no competition, even Jeffrey Archer, the perennial favorite, had fallen by the wayside. The Da Vinci Code came in a variety of covers, and came to be seen in a ‘variety’ of hands.

In time those who read from their passion for books, those who were the curious sort, and those who would rather read than be called out for ignorance of the book in their circles were done with reading The Da Vinci Code. The regular readers among them, possibly still influenced by the Dan Brown thriller from the year before moved on to his other titles, Digital Fortress being one of them.

In time I saw more people reading Digital Fortress. But I must say one thing from observing reading patterns in trains. If not for The Da Vinci Code I doubt if Brown's Digital Fortress would’ve gathered as much currency with readers as it apparently does. The Da Vinci Code was something else for more reasons than one.

Squeezed in the crowds I would let my mind float above the very obvious discomfort by co-relating faces with the books in their hands. It was with The Da Vinci Code that I saw more variety in the faces reading the book than I normally would. Could it be possible that it had made readers out of non-readers. I doubt it even as I concede that there were exceptions knowing well that exceptions are never the rule.

From the faces of some of the travelers I saw with The Da Vinci Code, I doubted if any of them would ever come around to reading another book once they managed to plough through Brown's bestselling offering. I couldn't be sure. Yet I took some pleasure in my certainty as if I had surmounted a level in face reading.

Held immovable in the crowd jamming the compartment my mind would float free giving me ample mind-space to maneuver my discomfort in and while away my traveling time in trying to make sense of the faces jammed around me, for there was no other way to survive the human fortress the phalanx of fellow travelers would present on my way to work and back.

While it might still be possible to flip through thrillers in crowded trains without losing the plot, the same cannot be said if you’re reading Trout on Strategy.

The gent in the aisle alternated between reading Jack Trout’s Trout on Strategy and his cellphone. Each time he would return to the book after smsing, before glancing at the cellphone to check for replies.

The lot of corporate workers is now tied to the smart Blackberrys they sport, often carrying on conversations in crowded trains when they’re not checking or answering their mails, their voices often rising to be heard about the din even as they’re supposedly driven by exasperation to berate their subordinates at work with a succession of threats as to consequences that await if deadlines are not met.

It is a strategy that works in India in keeping the subordinate level on the mat, allowed to breathe just enough to finish the work assigned. It wouldve been interesting to read of Jack Trout's take on such strategies.

Given a choice I would much rather read John le Carré than Trout. Long ago I started with John le Carré, reading up the titles I could get hold of, before shifting to Robert Ludlum. John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell.

So when I happened upon an office-goer immersed in John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man I gladly let my mind relapse to my school days in Goa years ago. It was a Reader’s Digest profile of John le Carré I read in high school that pushed me into reading his books.

I still remember the black and white image of John le Carré the profile carried, prompting me into thinking, ‘Aha, he does look like a spy.’ Back then it helped if the author looked a bit of a spy himself, sharp features et al, not that any of us had ever seen a real spy but we hoped to, and probably did in the pages we devoured of spy thrillers beginning with le Carré. After all, imagination helped us replace the reality of dreary textbooks at school.

Writing of reality and dreams in the context of his books, John le Carré notes:

A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.

While John le Carré might not agree with the reality we ‘experienced’ in his books we had little doubt about its authenticity. No fiction will succeed if it does not sound like non fiction.

I haven’t read le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man. I would be surprised if it isn't as real as the rest of his books. On his website, John le Carré introduces A Most Wanted Man thus:

A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse round his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa.

Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client’s survival becomes more important to her than her own career. In pursuit of Issa’s mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Frères, a failing British bank based in Hamburg.

A triangle of impossible loves is born.

Meanwhile, scenting a sure kill in the so-called War on Terror, the spies of three nations converge upon the innocents.

Poignant, compassionate, peopled with characters the reader never wants to let go, A Most Wanted Man is alive with humour, yet prickles with tension until the last heart-stopping page. It is also a work of deep humanity, and uncommon relevance to our times.

To watch John le Carré talk about A Most Wanted Man, click here.

It’s never an easy jump from John le Carré to Paulo Coelho, arguably the most read author on Mumbai local trains now.

Each time I see someone reading a Paulo Coelho title on the local train, and believe me many do, I cannot help wonder about the persona of the reader. I look even closer at the face tucked into a Paulo Coelho title.

On the local train I often count minutes left to my destination each time it makes a stop at a station along the way.

And when I saw a youth immersed in Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes, I made a quick mental note to find out if any of the stations along the way is eleven minutes away from my destination, an exercise most unnecessary but strange are the ways a mind works in whiling away time. Thirteen minutes, yes. But eleven minutes? No. Now, whenever I pass the station thirteen minutes from my destination I’m reminded of Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes.

Stacked tightly in crowded trains feels like a prisoner might, mentally ticking away minutes to freedom. Travelling by Mumbai local trains is not very different even given the occasional freedom of space one experiences from time to time.

Growing up we used to be told that we would be known by the company we keep, by implication nudging us into using discretion in choosing our associations, friends or otherwise.

It was a refrain we heard as much in our classrooms as back home among elders at family gatherings, driven as it was by fears founded in the unsavoury happenings around them. Family priorities differ from community to community and I’m not talking about neighbourhoods here. And I suspect it had to do more with their fear of our taking to smoking and drinking before progressing to the ‘other things’. While it was hardly repeated it swung about tangentially in conversations, reminding of: You’re known by the company you keep.

Later we came upon it in books, further cementing the adage in our minds, for we surmised that if it was in a book it had to be true. Moreover if any of us were to sidestep the caveat there was no hiding from consequences. In small towns there’s little anonymity, in turn exerting an invisible pressure to stay clean and stay on course.

In time when we discovered the library in high school, the adage mutated to: You’re known by the books you read.

And sure enough the lot of us attempted to outdo the other in the number of books we read and in the diversity of titles we could make sense of, excepting of course James Hadley Chase. The covers were too saucy to take to the female librarian at my school for issuing them let alone bring them home to middle-class families. But Nilesh, my senior at high school, was an exception.

Each morning I took my regular route to school. And once each week, sometimes twice, as I turned the corner and hit the main stretch of the road, I would invariably find myself walking behind Nilesh. He was thin, fair, and walked straight, his khaki school bag strapped tightly to his back. Propped up, as if by design, between the two canvas straps holding the upper flap down, and most of us had little doubt that it was deliberate, would be a James Hadley Chase title, half the jacket jutting out prominently for anyone who cared to look, displaying the semi-clad and sensuous model fronting the title. No one who walked to school behind Nilesh each morning missed noticing the provocatively undressed model ‘strapped’ to his back. Looking back now I can only imagine what the 80s school-going souls must’ve made of the whole thing.

Soon enough an enterprising classmate would smuggle in a Chase title duly wrapped in brown paper so it would not stand out among textbooks we read at school. So whenever any of us spied a classmate reading from a covered book with an intensity that was never bestowed on hapless textbooks, we exchanged knowing glances and soon more eyes would turn to the ‘culprit’ who remained oblivious to it all.

So when I saw a fellow traveller opposite me reading from a book whose jacket appeared to be hastily covered in a newspaper I became curious, wondering if he was apprehensive of being seen reading the book. It was very likely he was.

As he flipped the pages I caught sight of the title – The 3 Mistakes of My Life, a tacky campus book by Chetan Bhagat. No wonder he had the book jacket wrapped up in a newspaper.

If you’re known by the books you read, be assured there’ll be books a ‘self respecting reader’ will not want to be caught dead reading, more so if it is a Chetan Bhagat book.

But apparently not everyone thinks so, even flaunting the Chetan Bhagat title: The 3 Mistakes of My Life.

But then you might be able to explain away his choice of book from his choice of his t-shirt, rather on his choice of the attitude screaming from his chest.

Yes, sometimes it is that simple.

Maybe the adage could now change to: At times you’re known by your clothes as well, rather you're known by what you wear when you're reading Chetan Bhagat!

Note: Read Part I and Part III in my series noting the books my fellow travelers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back, and sometimes on their way elsewhere around the city.

A Request: I started out photographing travelers reading books few years ago to build up sufficient numbers that could be converted into posts. I’m all for this concept and my series involving traveling readers pictured with their books being taken forward by others in their cities and I would appreciate it very much if you would note/credit and link back here if this inspired you to do a series or a variation of the series of your own.

Since this is a part of my larger India Book Project involving books and the reading people, I’ll be counting on the link-back for continued and further participation of new readers.

Related Posts in my India Book Project Series

1. Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store
2. Indian Copy