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July 09, 2020

Me, My Shelf And I

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Illustrations by Harjyot Khalsa

The columnist has found that reading stories set in fictional or dystopic worlds assuages his paranoia and anxiety about the planet and himself. He recommends six novels that could be unexpected beacons during extended periods of turmoil

I am a worrier. I worry till the cats, the dogs, the elephants and the cows come home. I worry when I am not supposed to. I get anxious. I think of the worst possible situation and apply it to my life. I even cry at the imaginary deaths of friends and family. So, you see how I worry?

In the middle of it all, there is climate change to add another sweet layer of despair. I am aquaphobic: large bodies of water scare me, and I constantly think of Mumbai going under, right back into the sea on doomsday. That’s one way I definitely don’t wish to die. And, not to mention this virus (which shall not be named) that is doing the rounds. The constant talk about it is quite possibly making me lose my faculties.

That’s a fair amount of worry, I think. Then there are the books in which I read about the end of days, about dystopias, about the Apocalypse. But they strangely help me to channel my inner peace. Quite a paradox, isn’t it? Not really. I read about catastrophes in fiction, in what I feel is so far removed from the world that I inhabit. Until something out of the ordinary takes place, and I am compelled to relook at and reassess my entire life.

Books such as these make me want to become better for the present and future. They, in a way, make me see my shortcomings and work on them. Their narratives reshape my thoughts and emotions to a large extent. So, this is my recommended reading list for times of uncertainty and turmoil. The hope is to be rid of anxiety and see the silver lining, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And read, read, read, till those nerves have been calmed….

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel The world as we know it is over thanks to a fictional flu pandemic. A group of actors traverse the American landscape and educate people about Shakespeare by putting up his plays. Mandel writes with such empathy and grace that you will not want the book to end. It has certainly seen me through tough times: when I lost a close friend, and when I had no hope left in the kindness of people — Station Eleven came to me and showed me the power of reading. The idea of art being lost and people travelling from one place to another to revive and keep it alive fills me with optimism.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai A novel about the consequences of trauma and loss, it is set in Chicago among a group of gay friends during the AIDS epidemic — the very start of it, actually. It is a novel about the loss of hope and how to confront unresolved grief. This one is a personal favourite because Makkai speaks of gay men as humans first. I do not remember the time when AIDS was known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), but am well acquainted with the prejudice against gay men, irrespective of time. We are constantly ignored and almost made to feel invisible, and this book helped me deal with that. The Great Believers allowed me to see that while there are intolerant people in the world, there are also those who understand and love you for who you are.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks It is 1666, and a young maidservant is trying to survive in the middle of the Great Plague in an English village. The book takes place when science wasn’t that advanced, yet people survived. It made me think of COVID-19 and our current times and the technology which we have in place to research and battle it. Though the story is seemingly dark and dreary, in essence it isn’t so. If anything, Brooks speaks of survival and love. Perfect for an extended afternoon of reading.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh I love everything that she writes. This one is about voluntary lockdown. In New York, a young woman attempts to sleep through an entire year. It is a strange book to begin with; however, once you are in it, it will not let you go. A read that will make you see the world differently and analyse what you are made of, what your aspirations are — and perhaps make you realise that sleeping isolated for 365 days is precisely what you need.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth A tome. One that most people aspire to read but do not get around to doing so because of its sheer size and scope. A book that will surely take you about three or four months to finish. It is set in ’50s India, right after Independence, and the story spans four families and an array of different characters, all joined by the need to find a suitable match for Lata Mehra. A Suitable Boy is filled with hope and perfect for the circumstances we find ourselves in now.

Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague by Kalpish Ratna “Kalpish” is the portmanteau of Kalpana (Swaminathan) and Ishrat (Syed), the book’s two authors, who are both surgeons. They write about the infamous bubonic plague epidemic of 1896 and how the Raj imprisoned Bombay by antiquated disciplines, leading to a tragedy of epic proportions. Room 000 also tells the story of the first Indian detective of Bombay Police who is trying to solve the mystery behind the plague while pursuing a killer on the run. I must say that in this case, two heads are most certainly better than one. The world created by Kalpish Ratna is believable and, in a rather macabre fashion, will make you want to be a part of it.

MORAL OF THE STORY

Good things come to those who read.

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