Travelling the World During Lockdown – One Book at a Time

I am trying to recall now the exact moment everything changed. It was a sultry afternoon in March, and the sun was everywhere. Mumbai lay silent and still beneath it. A statewide curfew had just been imposed and social media was rife with rumours that a nationwide lockdown would soon follow. The city’s markets, usually bustling with activity, now wore a forlorn shuttered-down look about them. Its many labourers lay listlessly on their hand carts, fanning themselves with folded newspapers wondering where their next payday would come from. Students rejoiced at the prospect of an early summer vacation, the possibility of postponed exams. Office-goers sat at their dining tables, coffee mugs in hand, trying to make sense of the new Work-From-Home memos their HR managers had just emailed them. An app called Zoom was to be downloaded. Meanwhile, experts on news channels feverishly debated the pros and cons of the impending lockdown: those in favour hailed it as a masterstroke, a sure-shot Corona-killer; while those against argued that the social and economic fallout would be far more dangerous than the virus itself.

Amidst this atmosphere of peak pandemonium, I switched the lights off and the AC on in my bedroom and decided then and there to distance myself from the voices on the television screen, the viral fear infecting our individual and collective consciousness and to go back to a simpler time when my mental real estate was inhabited primarily by the themes, characters and places of the books currently occupying my bedside table. My love for reading had remained unchanged through all those years preceding the pandemic, but a hectic schedule had reduced my reading output drastically. One book per week had always been the norm throughout my school and college years, on particularly good weeks I even managed two or three. But work, and of course, Netflix – that Great Distractor – were always lurking somewhere in the shadows, trying to lure me away from the life of a dedicated reader. What better opportunity then, could one be presented with than an indefinite period of homebound isolation to rekindle a lost love affair with reading?

“Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul, it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.”  

I have always held a deep fascination with novels whose writers are able to create a vivid sense of place in their work. Where a city is not merely the backdrop for the unfolding narrative but an essential character, deeply intertwined with the telling of a tale. The writers of such novels often become synonymous with their cities or home countries. The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is perhaps the best example of this. Reading Pamuk’s painstakingly detailed descriptions of the Istanbul of his childhood can leave a reader drenched in a feeling of hüzün or collective melancholy which he says the people of Istanbul suffer from as they subconsciously mourn the fall of the Ottoman Empire and struggle to come to terms with the realities of the modern world. Yet this melancholy is not viewed as something negative holding its people back but rather as a state of grace or mystique, adding further to a city already brimming with charm. Similar associations are made with the Nobel-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and his home city of Cairo, where the bulk of his voluminous body of work is based. Closer to home, I find immeasurable joy in reading Rohinton Mistry’s deeply evocative depictions of twentieth-century Bombay, especially his portrayal of life in a Parsi colony. His books take me back to my own childhood, where I loved visiting Parsi friends who lived in baugs, not only to revel in the sprawling green spaces they offer within the city but also to discreetly observe the eccentric cast of characters you often find within these closely-knit communities. The sheer variety of sensory impressions Mistry generates is, to me, quite unlike any living writer today whether describing the outer compound wall of Khodabad building stinking from frequent public urination or the sights and sounds of a trip to buy live chickens at Crawford Market. Having emigrated to Canada in his youth, he writes of Bombay with tenderness and longing perhaps only someone far removed from the city can accomplish – impressive in its fine detailing yet always subtly casting a critical eye over the inherent chaos, clamour, and corruption that we sometimes take for granted as part and parcel of our lives here; factors that perhaps contributed to his decision to move so far away?

Far away, meanwhile, is a place everyone seems desperate to reach these days as we now creep towards our fifth month in lockdown. Travel vloggers and influencers have resorted to making skincare videos to stay relevant, and most hotel owners are busy thinking up schemes and discounts to attract visitors when everything reopens. My own summer holiday plans cancelled, I decided to travel the world through my reading (much to my wife’s dismay) in a non-linear non-timebound manner, visiting both cities and remote mountainous regions, both in the present day and hundreds of years ago – the kind of metaphysical travel possible only for readers.

My journey started in Moscow in the year 1922 through A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Illyich Rostov welcomed me into the Hotel Metropol, where he kept me thoroughly amused and entertained for 462 pages with his charming demeanour and witty observations, while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfolded outside the Metropol’s doors. An ‘unrepentant aristocrat’ subjected to lifelong house arrest inside a tiny attic room in the hotel, the Count taught me that while life may throw an endless number of seemingly unfavourable circumstances our way, the way we react to them will always be firmly in our own control. He once said: “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” We spent many an afternoon and evening together, met a few memorable characters along the way until the Count finally bid me farewell, a glass of wine in hand, wishing me a pleasant onward journey in his typically polite manner.

“I thought I could wake up this sleeping country with my cries, but still they sleep as if in a dream.”

I soon found myself in Bali, a firm favourite amongst international travellers these days (many of whom also claim to ‘find themselves’ in Bali.) And yet, there was not a tourist in sight – for we were in the then Dutch colony of the 1930s and caught inside Anuradha Roy’s hauntingly beautiful prose. All the Lives We Never Lived tells us the story of Myshkin, now an ageing horticulturist, who looks back on his life in a small town in north India as he struggles to make sense of why his free-spirited Bengali mother Gayatri leaves him behind as she escapes an unhappy marriage and provincial life to run away to Bali with Walter Spies – a German artist, himself escaping the Nazis. We sift through memories of Myshkin’s mostly unhappy childhood and a bunch of letters his mother wrote decades ago to her friend and neighbour back in India detailing events of her life in Bali, letters which Myshkin eventually reads with much despair. There is a point early in the novel when the aged narrator Myshkin takes off his glasses to see differently from other people and says: “There is a kind of restfulness in not seeing well that the clear-sighted will never know.” This line resonated with me long after putting down the book as it made me realise that this is not just a story of a mother and son, of India battling British colonialism or of its role in the Second World War. It is, essentially, a rumination on the imperfections of memory, how in narrating our own personal histories we may be selective based on how we choose to remember certain events while forgetting others, as time both solidifies as well as dissolves the past—a truly remarkable piece of time travel.

I jumped straight from one warzone into another (not exactly holiday material, I console the wife) as I landed with a thud in Mir Ali, a small tribal town in North Waziristan, close to Pakistan’s Afghan border. These tribal areas have long served as the battlefields for a three-way power struggle between the Taliban, the Pakistani military and the occupying American soldiers with their drones overhead. The residents of Mir Ali have always felt isolated and mistreated by the central government, sharing instead of a language and culture with their Afghan neighbours, and have fought a long and largely unsuccessful battle for independence with Islamabad. It is these barren mountainous landscapes that form the backdrop to Fatima Bhutto’s exquisite debut novel In the Shadow of the Crescent Moon, a novel so gripping and atmospheric I finished reading it in a single Sunday. It describes the events of one dramatic Eid morning where three brothers, each very different in their outlook on life, decide to pray at three different mosques to reduce the risk of all of them being killed together. And yet, in this traditionally patriarchal society, it is the two female characters – Mina (grief-stricken, serial funeral-hopper) and Samarra (fearless, fiercely loyal to her homeland) – who are the two strongest characters. Inspired, I instantly moved on to Bhutto’s second novel The Runaways, a tour de force character study into three young people and the circumstances leading up to their eventual radicalisation, shuttling me between Karachi, England and the Syria-Iraq border. Staying on in England, (taking the M1 up to Sheffield) and in keeping with the theme of radicalisation, Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours are the Streets was next – overflowing with Yorkshire slang and the struggles of a second-generation immigrant trying to find his footing in an increasingly unstable world. In the format of a late-night confession, Imtiaz Raina admits to losing his way. He lets us into his innermost conflicts, trying to reconcile his life in England – his white girlfriend Rebecca who he marries and has a daughter with, his taxi-driver father who faces humiliating racism on a daily basis but reacts only with stoicism – to his own people  ‘back home’ near Lahore in Pakistan, who view the West as this morally bankrupt society of militarily oppressive regimes, yet somewhere they would willingly move to in a heartbeat, if the opportunity arose.

“I might dream of him drowning in a slurry pit, but I do not dream of pushing him in.”

Next, I took the short ferry ride across the Irish Sea and ended up in Dublin, roaming the gothic surrounds of Trinity College with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a critically acclaimed tale of two classmates from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, who are unable to live with or without each other. Critics have hailed Sally Rooney as the most exciting new voice in Irish literature, and while I cannot completely disagree with them, I strongly feel that Caoilinn Hughes deserves similar plaudits following her recently released second novel The Wild Laughter. Exploring the family dynamics of the Blacks – a farming family based in the rural County Roscommon – this gut-wrenching masterpiece is filled with poetic language, dark humour and hidden metaphors. Set in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that hit Ireland especially hard, it explores the impact of the recession on the family and particularly its patriarch – whose physical and financial health both suffer following an ill-advised property investment. Blown away by Hughes’ intelligent prose, I left Ireland thinking of how the uncontrollable excesses of bankers and the political elite can have such a profound impact on the lives of common citizens. I fully expect to see many literary awards come the way of The Wild Laughter in the coming months.

My literary journey culminated in Kashmir, the beautiful jewel of South Asia, a land many admire for its natural beauty and precious resources but very few properly understand. To do so, I sought the help of the acclaimed academic and writer Nitasha Kaul, whose two novels Residue and Future Tense are both meticulously researched and beautifully written. While Residue focuses on the parallel lives of two young Kashmiris living outside Kashmir and takes us briefly to Delhi, London and Berlin; Future Tense draws us deep inside contemporary Kashmir, and the issues young Kashmiris from different backgrounds face. Although the two novels are very different in theme and structure, they share the common idea that while nation-states, political dynasties and non-state actors may all lay claim to Kashmir, its true riches that are its culture and heritage will always belong only to Kashmiris themselves, a diverse and myriad people who, like us, deserve to have the right to freedom, equality and most of all, a voice.

In this era of instant gratification – of Prime Now and In-Shorts – I sometimes wonder what the ­future holds for the slow-burning mental exercise of reading. Has this global pandemic hit the final nail in the coffin of the small independent bookstores, already struggling to survive? Or will it provide many others with an opportunity, as it did for me, to embark on these magical voyages that only complete immersion in a book can take you on?   

Shoaib Sumar is a Bombay-based writer and textile trader. He reads (mostly) literary and historical fiction. Like many young writers, he is currently working on his first novel.

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