I am sitting with a copy of Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller “The Girl on the Train” on my lap. I am looking at the title, the letters cleverly designed to look as they’d look had one read them from a moving train. The catch line below the title mysteriously reads “You don’t know her. But she knows you.” Around me voices are raised in fervent discussion. I gather that there are two or three who liked the book and an equal number that didn’t.
At a cosy corner in the Sakleys Mountain Café, over glasses of warm mulled wine (because it’s still chilly end February, and because this time we wanted something more than just coffee), I catch bits and pieces here and there. Today I am silent. I have no opinion to share. I pick up a copy of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Palace of Illusions, which is lying on the table and randomly open a page.
“You could also call it waking,’ Krishna continues. ‘Or intermission, as one scene in a play ends and the next hasn’t yet begun.”
I am struck by the relevance of those words for me. I want to tell the girls to be quiet. I want to speak. I want to tell them how I’m stuck in that space in my life too. Where an old life is ending, but hasn’t fully ended and a new one is beginning, but hasn’t fully begun. Between being uprooted and settling down. The Intermission – the middle of my story; and probably at age 35, it may be even the exact middle of my life. “You could also call it waking”, Krishna says – from a dream that has been brilliantly happy and then nightmarish in equal degree. I say nothing, though. But I am suddenly acutely aware of how important these women sitting around me, armed with their intensively-researched book lists, and their endearing enthusiasm, have become for me.
Some months back, I began having a lot of problems and turmoils in my life. Things got worse and worse till a point where I was literally crumbling inside. Simultaneous to this, something very innocuous and unrelated (it seemed then) happened. I started a book club. I had wanted to for many years. I’d been a rabid reader all my life, except in bouts where two kids, then smartphone addictions and most recently Game of Thrones monopolized my time. The idea of a group I could read common stuff with, swap opinions and discuss plots and characters had always seemed exciting. Only somehow it never happened before. I either never found the right amount of motivation to actually do it, or never found enough interested people. A chance conversation one evening with a mom of my son’s friend got us going. We put together a WhatsApp group, added a few other acquaintances (ladies only), and got going. We even gave ourselves a formal name – “Between the Lines” (not that clever, actually – a google search of “names for book clubs” will throw that up in top ten). So there we were, a bunch of semi-strangers, all moms in our mid-30’s, who had over the years lost touch with reading and wanted motivation to read again.
The first book we chose was J.J. Moyes’ “The Girl You Left Behind”. To be honest, I was cringing inside. I had the air of being a more ‘refined’ reader and to be forced to read common fiction irritated me. But I bought the book and started reading it idly, with no real expectations. And I couldn’t put it down! The plot unfolds in Nazi occupied France; the story of a young woman, who grapples with personal turmoil coupled with the poverty, misery and hardship that come with the War. The world she knows is quickly collapsing around her – even food becomes scarce – yet she finds the strength inside her to be a beacon for the little community she lives in. Her trysts with the German Kommandant, her moral turmoil, were in turn sad, moving and oddly even funny. Reading about another’s despair and the underlying hope (even if it was only some made-up character from another century), gave me the courage to deal with my own situation. While I won’t go into details of what I liked (and didn’t like!) about the book, as this isn’t a book review, what’s important is the hope and strength it gave to me, by its portrayal of resilient women – flawed, real, fallible, yet strong!
The meetings themselves were as enlightening (and entertaining) as the books. When we met (once every 3 to 4 weeks or so), we were all so charged and enthusiastic. To an outsider looking at about 8 of us sitting around a table at the usual Delhi haunts, we might have appeared like a noisy, loud kitty party group (I sincerely hope not!). But our table would be stacked with books. Since it was impractical and wasteful to buy every book we chose, we did a lot of swapping and sharing. There was always someone who had to borrow a book from someone else, and someone who had to return one. Much to their amusement, and irritation, our kids (many of us had kids in the same school) were turned into an efficient courier system to transport our books. There were books lost in the process too. When one of us was dejected at misplacing her copy of “Forty Rules of Love’’ in the process of all this exchanging, the others reassured her, “If Rumi loves you, he’ll come back”. And some months later, Rumi did.
United in our love for reading, we bonded fabulously. Hearing different perspectives, diverging opinions, varying likes and dislikes about aspects of the books opened my own mind so much. And when we met we did what women do. We talked, we gossiped, we laughed. A lot of the time we digressed from what we were there for, but who cared! During that hour or two, we were just free of all the bindings in our lives. Even without knowing anything about the turmoil in my personal life, those girls acted as unintentional therapists for me.
During those months, I read like a maniac. I devoured all the books we chose and more – I must have read close to 40 books in 6 months. Somehow many of the books we picked had female protagonists – My Feudal Lord, Palace of Illusions, Girl You Left Behind, Nefertiti, Sarah’s Key, to name a few. This was completely unintentional. But those books all spoke to me. All of them had parts and passages that I felt were written exclusively for me. Like the authors had a sort of insight at the time they poured their words onto paper that years later a broken woman would read them and feel better.
I couldn’t agree more with Jerry Pinto when he wrote in Em and the Big Hoom that “I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there was no fixed syllabus.”
And commiserated with Tatiana de Rosnay when she rued in Sarah’s Key – “How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same, she wondered.”
Not to say I liked all the books, but that is irrelevant. What matters is what they did for me.
Particularly Palace of Illusions – the saga of the enigmatic Draupadi; the story of a heroine who mythology has mostly relegated to the background. This book spoke in her voice. It brought the fiery, volcanic woman to life for me. It gave voice to her suffering, her humiliation, her need for vengeance. And best of all, it didn’t portray her as some hapless victim. I could relate to her so much. She was vengeful, stubborn, rebellious – she manipulated situations, fought her mother-in-law to have more power over her husbands, she was prone to jealousy, pettiness and harbored adulterous thoughts for Karna despite being married to the five Pandavas. Draupadi had her imperfections and shortcomings, her whims which contributed to bringing about the bloodiest war in history. I read this book many times. Devoured it. Loved it. I understood her, empathized with her, cried for her. She was a character who created her own destiny, no matter how broken it left her in the end.
It was a form of therapy, in the- most unexpected of ways. By reading light fiction, rather than the self-help books people would recommend had they known of my personal issues, I actually became calmer within myself. I regained clarity, perspective and self-belief.
While I don’t know if we’ll be able to sustain this club for long or not (it is tough to take time out, meet, agree on books, then all manage to read them in a pre-set time span), it uplifted me when I most needed it. Without even knowing it, the girls, and the various women protagonists in the books we read walked that rough road with me, propped me up when I felt too weak to go on, and showed me, to quote Panchali, that “I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable–but I always was so, only I never knew it!”