#15. On Reading Rituals

A chat with Sangeetha Alwar on books, problematic writers, and why Shakespeare was the Chetan Bhagat of his time

Dear Reader,

All through January, I’ve displayed some pretty inconsistent reading habits. I didn’t finish a single book and abandoned about four halfway. Not because they were bad, because I just couldn’t.

I’ve tried reading with evening tea, with the night lamp in bed, at midnight in my balcony. None of it worked. It’s funny that this edition is titled reading rituals, and in the first two paragraphs, I’ve exposed the absence of any reading ritual in my life.

Amma and me reading Malory Towers at night and giggling while sipping on our teas — was that a ritual? Or was it me standing alone in the library with the smell of leather binding, picking out books from dusty shelves? Was it sitting cross-legged in the PG balcony and being distracted by every scooter that passed the road below? Or maybe it was Tara barking through the window all afternoon and finally climbing onto the bed and resting her head near my feet while I read? 

It was probably all of them. But for this edition, what follows is a conversation with Sangeetha Alwar on her reading rituals and habits. In our long internet disruption-filled zoom call we spoke about many things — from books we grew up reading to problematic writers.   

After the conversation, I’m wondering if the biggest process that should be ritualised and celebrated is the coming apart of our heroes, the writers we love. The process of understanding that we grew up reading selective histories, we were served problematic books. Maybe the only way to live is to commit to the ritual of constantly acknowledging this and correcting ourselves.

I had a lot of fun throughout the chat, I hope you take something from it too.

A conversation with Sangeetha Alwar:

So how was 2020 for reading?

Somehow, I read more in 2020 than I read in 2018 and 2019 together. I mean see, I teach so I didn’t have to travel to work. I went home so I had my mum and sister cooking, I didn’t have to fend for myself too much. I guess I just had a lot of time on my hands.

Do you have a typical reading ritual?

I have a very pretty balcony and a cane chair. That’s my nook. But I can practically read anywhere. I sit in my office and read, I read in the metro, cabs everywhere. 

Have you fallen asleep while reading?

Yaa, it happens there’s no shame in it. It is very common. Sometimes the writing isn’t captivating and sometimes you just drain. So many times, I’ve taken a book to bed and not read a single line.

I’m assuming you grew up reading?

Yes. Quite a bit in the usual traditional manner. I was surrounded by people who loved stories. I had particular stories associated with particular people. My Appa used to read me Akbar- Birbal stories, my mum used to read the Amar Chitra Katha’s Mahabharat.  My uncle used to read me one particular story of Kamsa’s death. So I read a lot of these and then graduated to Famous Five, Secret Seven, Hardy Boys.

Were there any favorites out of that lot?

I consumed the Famous Five with some vigor, I don’t know where that energy came from. I didn’t understand so much of it, I didn’t even fucking know what ginger beer was until recently. I read it like crazy, and then I had a big Harry Potter phase. But I got over that, definitely over it now.

Where did these books come from, did you have a library to go to?

I studied at Air Force school in Hydrabad; they had a really good library. Apart from that, all my birthday gifts were books. I would send my relatives lists of books to get for me.

Do you make notes on your books?

I am not a purist. I am very violent with my books. I break the spines, I dog-ear. I write with pencils, not pens because it bleeds to the next pages.

Fiction or Non-fiction?

Fiction, I can’t do non-fiction. I’ll read essays or collections of essays. Like P. Sainath’s book, Everybody Loves A Good Drought, that was amazing. But I’ve never really gotten into non-fiction. Especially Biographies I can’t. I like a lot of the academic reading I do and give to my students — that’s extremely non-fiction. But to give that dedicated time to a non-fiction book is kind of daunting at this point. There are a couple of things that I want to read at some point like I’ve read Simone de Beauvoir in bits and pieces. But there’s a huge chunk of text that I want to read. I also want to read Sapiens and see what the hoo-ha is all about. I might just end up listening to the audiobook.

How have you gotten out of the big reading slumps?

Post my masters — 2017 to mid-2019 I couldn’t read consistently. It was a creative block, a reading block, everything together. I just kept going through it. Kept making some art, tried reading smaller things, re-read a couple of old favorites. I think a combination of all that helped me get out of it. 

Do you have favourite writers?

I can tell you who made me love reading. I’d read all this detective fiction and was really tired, like is this all reading is about? And then I went into my uncle’s library and he had this whole set of books that he had gotten it about 30 years ago from the Soviet Union. That was the time when they were trying to spread propaganda about socialism. I piqued up the simplest looking one from that pile. It was Mother by Maxim Gorkee. Even though it’s a translation — the language, the way it flowed, that made me want to read more. 

So, faculty of mine in college told me in my third year that I’ve basically only read white people. She said I need to decolonise my bookshelf. Have you ever been told that? And how do you begin the decolonising?

I think I realised it myself. Until my undergrad, I had only read white people. I had a whole Russian phase after 12th grade — so I’d read Russian white people. And then I came to Masters in Christ University which has a brilliant library. We also had these specific courses on Indian literature — in English and translation. Before that the only people I knew were like Salman Rushdie or R.K Narayan. I think now I’m more conscious, I’ve stopped picking up white people. Especially white men. In fact, ideally, I don’t want to pick up any books by men. 

That’s true, every time I’m reading books by men I’m thinking of how the women in it are just not treated well. Even if they aren’t wildly sexist, I sometimes just can’t overlook it. I remember a friend pointing out to me how problematic Manu Joseph was, and then you just can’t unsee it. 

Manu Joseph was such a let-down; I can’t tell you. I liked him, I used to read his columns, he’s actually funny sometimes. Then I read Serious Men and was like what the hell, why. I Cringed.

Wait, since you studied literature, what did you think of Shakespeare? Is he worth reading?

Shakespeare was the Chetan Bhagat of his times. You can quote me on that. The whole point of being overrated or not depends on the context. If you put him in the context of the space he was writing in here nobody had done stuff like this before, nobody had explored dramatics to such an extent — then he was path-breaking.

But even for his time, the plots aren’t out of the world. They’re not amazing — he has fucking ghosts who speak. Romeo and Juliet is the WORST love story in the history of love stories. I would rate Lolita higher than it, and that’s a story about a pedophile. 

Lolita was bad. I abandoned it halfway.

I caught myself smiling at it and then went what the fuck is wrong with me. But there are some books I want to read so I know why I hate them exactly. That’s what happened with Manu Joseph, I even made a list of all the problematic things he said. 

So many books are problematic…

Yes. Another problematic one was Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant. It’s about Devadasis in Karnataka. The whole thing is just a white woman saviour complex. There’s no acknowledgment of history. Even if the history is violent you need to acknowledge it. 

I dislike Murakami as well. I think it came from his obsession with pubic hair in Sputnik Sweetheart. It’s a book supposedly driven by women, but the only way we see them is through the gaze of the male protagonist.

I didn’t like some of the classics also.

I loved Pride and the Prejudice and made the mistake of re-reading it. The first line itself is so problematic. Jane Eyre was also sexist. I understand that we need to put it in context, but at some point, I was like I don’t want to battle my own brain with each word of this.

The character was only sexist, she was constantly hated on the other women around her for no reason. 

Exactly. I think it’s a whole thing to look at for us, as readers, the art versus the artists. Neruda’s poetry is amazing but he’s a sexual predator — so how do you deal with your heroes being that? I’ve been contemplating it… thinking of writing about it, but haven’t really been able to. I think the only space for us to inhabit is to acknowledge the problems. You have to. There’s no other way to live.

Sangeetha highly recommends the Flights by Olga Tokarczuk and The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Thank you for reading.

Six Impossible Things is a monthly newsletter about art, books, reading, and feelings. You may sign up if you want it delivered to your inbox. You can follow me on Instagram @a_catinthesink