...and then

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Get that reading habit back.

About a year or more ago, my son, newly turned 5 then, and I were talking about reading. Now, for a while I had limited my reading to online or on device. So as I tried to avoid preaching while extolling the virtues of reading, he said to me, "But Amma, I never see you reading a book." He was right, in a sense. My reading had reduced drastically; from reading a book a week, I was down to one book in three months. His comment woke me up and told me I was letting my reduced attention span become worse by reading with the internet on all the time, or choosing to read shorter stuff, some days only headlines, without wanting to get to the details.

This had become a dangerous habit and it took me some time to get to a point where I could stick with a book. Thankfully, I've read a few this year, although far from the target I set for myself.

On an average, I meet at least one person in a week who tells me they just don't have the time to read. A lot of them don't use the time-to-read excuse anymore because it is really easy to counter. What is more tough to argue with is reduced attention spans. Everyone casually refers to their social ADD (though I wish they wouldn't use that term. ADD is pretty darned debilitating.) and says they can't stick to a book. No focus and reduced attention spans? That I totally get.

So from my own experience of getting back to reading, I wondered why we stop reading and what it takes us to get back. To answer both those questions, I knew I had to ask myself why we started reading. I began to read because I was thirsty to explore the knowledge I had been given in school. I became a reader because the first book I was presented with my name inscribed on it was Oliver Twist, a Ladybird Kids Classic, Abridged Version. The book was utterly and truly beautiful. The typeface, the illustration, the colours, the way the book felt (glossy and hardbacked), the ridge on either side of the spine. And my mother's beautiful penmanship inscribing the first few pages. Just beautiful. I am pretty sure I had books before that but none that felt so distinctly mine. Before that, all books were shared and were mostly books from which my parents would read to us. It was with this book at 8 years or so, that I obsessively started reading and hoarding. The world of Oliver Twist offered words for emotions I couldn't identify. I met people I would never meet in this lifetime. I saw clothes, streets and names that I hadn't seen till then. After that, school was an obstacle bang in the way of my reading life. Soon, I was done with pulp fiction by the time I was 15; I started reading literary fiction, rarely going back to paperbacks or what are now called "bestsellers".

Reading left me with a high like a good, hard swim; like the morning after a night of great sex, like the high of nice little joint -- these are all transformative experiences for me. There's a physical difference, not just a change, in my environment within and without. You see, the joys of reading are insidious, subtle. There's no instant gratification; there is no place for you to sound smart and seek validation as you comment publicly on anything, and no joy that comes with being thought of as wry and clever. The joys of reading are slow and stealthy. They don't quite appear till you're half way through the book and by then it would be a shame to abandon reading. And then it flowers, the joy of reading a good book. It starts from your eyes and enters all the way to your overtired brain, spreads to your forehead like a happy allergy, all the way down your neck and then rapidly, like a fever, dripping till the ends of your extremeties. And then, suddenly, like a wave in a glass aquarium, all of the gushing is contained. Reading doesn't make you jump for joy or dance with madness (it does but you don't do it because you are too busy reading). When this joy is suddenly contained at the tips of your fingers and the points of your toes, it lashes back; joy and rapture come back in waves all over you, right back to your head and eyes, even as you read more that's giving you joy. This back and forth of waves causes you to fall in love with characters without whom you're legitimately lonely for a day or two after you've finished the book. It causes a covetousness for words that leave you richer, and yet, bereft. It causes a greed and inquisitiveness for the writer; who is she? does he wear pyjamas to bed or sleep in the nude? does she always look perfect or does she have bad eyesight? All kinds of relationships are built with a book when you're in its throes. Watch and you'll see.

It's easy to give up reading because it is what you do when you have spare time. Once formal education is done with, very few people set aside especial time to read. Of course, then, reading suffers. It's also an easy habit to get out of, and the highs, like I said earlier, are slow. None of the instant gratification of being online.

If you've given up reading, or have never read, and are trying to get back on track, start with a book of short stories. They help you get your attention's impetuous flights back under control and keep you focused on reading for short periods of time; much like focusing on small tasks in order to achieve the bigger task of a work day.

Set aside time to read. Don't think you'll read on the bus, or when you're in the loo, or when you wait for someone. Those times are easy to demolish by other distraction. Set aside 15 minutes to half an hour, to begin with, to read. It really helps if you can do it at the same time every day. I try to read before bed, and for about an hour after I send my kids to school.

Always carry a book. Always. And no time to do it like now because ebooks.

Keep a book list, preferably in one place. And if you like to see proof of your achievement, tick them off every time you finish reading the ones on your list. I email myself new book recommendations or the ones that I wish to read.

Needless to say, turn notifications off and be mindful. Because even if you turn them off, you tend to check your phone because you get all fidgety and jittery without it. So, mindfulness will help you come back to reading before you go down the twitter rabbit hole till 2 a.m.

Everything becomes better about you, by the way, when you go back to reading. Your mind is stiller, and you might ask why is the mind being still a good thing. I assure you, a still mind is a creative mind. The things you think about become better and bigger. No longer are you worried too much about the small things that you occupy yourself with, and you know they're small things. You ponder larger questions, superimpose them on your life, or the lives of others, discover the sameness of humanity and soon, you start to actually think harder, in a more real way. You will eventually end up being and sounding smarter but that's hardly a priority in the scheme of things. I mean who wants to sound smarter when you could be mooning over Psmith?

Sumana Mukherjee tweeted this link on how reading is the only transcendental experience left in the world that we inhabit today. And I couldn't agree more with this splendid piece. 

This is a list that helped me ease back into my reading. I have added a few that I didn't read during this time but ones I think will totally do the trick. The trick, then, is to get back into the habit, because that's what it is. Once your brain is rewired to making this a habit, then the sailing is usually smooth.

1. Bhima: Lone Warrior by M T Vasudevan Nair. 
This book is a translation of the Malayalam Randamoozham . I recommend it heartily for various reasons but mostly because it is the familiar. You know most of the references and stories, you know all the characters, you know the eventual fate of the characters. What you don't know is what the alternative perspectives give you. Other reasons to read this book are: Terribly easy read and yet with the gravitas of a complex novel; a story that's engaging emotionally and intellectually; story telling that is a masterclass in the craft.

2. Any of the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling.
I went back to think of why it was so difficult to get back to reading and what it is that will keep someone engaged. I realised it was pure, sparkling, gripping joy that kept me reading. And trying to start with a difficult book that you've heard so much about is the wrong way to derive that joy. Start with firing the emotions that you felt as a kid when you read books that grip you. Harry Potter does that wonderfully. Once you can sit down and read for an extended period of time, read tougher, nicer, meatier, more meaningful books.

3. My Name is Radha by Saadat Hasan Ali Manto.
In actuality, you can pick up any book by Manto and find yourself back to reading. Manto writes with a sort of insight that defies the simplicity he presents his work with. This anthology is essential Manto; between its pages are many women, Bollywood, Bombay, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar, pimps, prayers and poignancy. None of them decipherable, none of them so different from you and me.

4. Roots by Alex Haley
This is a book that finds its place in almost any book list for which you ask me a response. Non-fiction, terrifically written and deeply, intensely moving, Roots changed my world view forever. It changed the way I looked at human beings, our politics and our innate natures. It reads really, really easy for a non-fiction book.

5. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
This book gave rise to one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. A monster so insidious and lethal that it kind of terrifies you how much you resemble him. Martin Amis's prose is, for the lack of a better word, just plain stunning. His writing unafraid and while some might think this book is ambitious, I assure you it isn't. It's worth every 15 minutes that you spend in the first week of your return to reading.

Here on, I am just going to give name and type without commentary. These are all easy books to read and yet meaningful, rich and gripping. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

6. Fascinations by William Boyd (Short story)
7. Blue Beard's Egg by Margaret Atwood (SS)
8. Girls at War by Chinua Achibe (SS)
9. Kiss, Kiss by Roald Dahl (SS)
10. Burning your Boats by Angela Carter (SS)
11. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (SS)
12. Open by Andre Agassi 
13. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
14. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
15. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
16. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
17. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
18. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
19. The Fig Tree by Aubrey Menen
20. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan (yes, there are people who haven't read it!)
21. The Boy Who Talked to Trees by Yashwant Chittal
22. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (SS)
23. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
24. Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. The Psmith Omnibus by PG Wodehouse. 

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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

On not being the "right" size.

Bedtimes are quiet vulnerable moments, more so if you're little. The secrets, no longer able to roil in tiny tummies, make themselves heard. Two nights ago, after lullabies and stories were done, Shyama mentions that exercise causes weight loss; I agree, groaning inwardly at the thought of her asking me to lose weight. I ask her what made her think of it. She says she wants to start exercising and lose weight. I ask her again why she’d like to do that. Because the kids in class call me fat, she says.
Now, I never know if I am parenting correctly. There’s almost never a counterpoint to my method and behavior as a parent and I almost always wing it, erasing doubts on the run nice and gentle, quite like an avalanche demolishing pines on a slope. Because there’s no time to consider when you’re parenting little kids, and especially if you’re the only one who parents regularly. They demand and you better show up, or miss the moment and scar them for life. But at this moment, all my anxieties came rushing back and collided pretty hard with my parenting.

Growing up, I was an average-sized kid, not fat, but definitely not skinny.  And much like Shyama, I was surrounded by kids who were the latter. Teenage brought with it some weight, sure. So while I don’t remember being teased by kids around me about being fat (although, in class nine, a teacher burnt me for life by calling me “fatty”. You’d think an adult would know better) I do know that not being the size everyone else was made me feel infinitely less. It didn’t help that people close to me started pointing out that I was fat, even though I think back now and I know I wasn’t.  I grew up thinking I was fat. I think about the girl I was and I think of all the things I stopped myself from doing because I wasn’t the right size, and I wish I had known better. I was excruciatingly shy and felt foolish every time I uttered a word. And I blamed it all on the size I was. Nothing has been more shackling to me than feeling fat.

At 35, I am a lot more comfortable with my body but my anxieties haven’t left me. Sure, I wear whatever I want and am comfortable enough to look at my unclothed body in the mirror without hating it, sometimes I even like it. But I also cover up a lot. When I meet new people, when I want to make a certain kind of joke, when the situation is more intimate and demands a certain physical vulnerability, I freeze up. I am so little of myself. I wonder if I look ugly to the other person and I hope my flaws will be taken care of by my dazzling company. I kid, of course. But, jokes apart, this is one of the two things from my childhood that I haven’t been able to overcome. And to hear Shyama might begin on that hellish, corrosive journey paralyses me. Especially since she isn’t a fat kid. Just like I wasn’t. But I didn’t believe that of myself. And I am hoping she will be different and believe it when I tell her she isn’t fat.

At that moment, with anxiety rioting inside me, distress at the future of this lovely child suffering at the hands of the insanity of an ideal size, I didn’t have any solutions. Anger was foremost. I told her she was just right and shouldn’t listen to teasing. Next I asked her who it was in particular that teased her. “Everyone except K,” she says, mentioning the one girl as tall as her. Shyama and this girl are the tallest kids in class at 4’4”. I am glad she said that because I used that to tell her that maybe the rest just wanted to be tall like her and because K was already tall enough, she didn’t feel the need to tease Shyama. That seemed to satisfy her a bit. I tried not to preach but I did tell her that she was getting *plenty* exercise in school and that she was healthy, happy and running around, and had a bright bright soul; that’s all that mattered. I then told her to go to sleep and that we would talk about this in more detail tomorrow.

As soon as she was asleep, I reached out to two friends, both parents. I had no idea how to deal with this. While it wasn’t bullying and Shyama is no shrinking violet, my concern was negative body image issues. One friend instantly put me at ease by telling me of her own experience. She said something so wonderfully, sweetly vulnerable and true.  All the time, I was cool inside but didn’t feel it outside because I wasn’t the right size, she said. And it rung true. Another friend suggested I tone down the import of it by not giving it too much attention so Shyama gets the message that size isn’t important.

But tomorrow morning came bright and early and before she had brushed her teeth, Shyama said, Amma, you said we’d talk about something in the morning. I hadn’t forgotten, I told her. We bathed, breakfasted and buzzed off to the bus stop. Only this time, I had Shyama sit in the front next to me. I know she felt special; she stuck her tongue out her brother in the back. I asked her again, this time calmer, what her concerns were. She said I feel bad when I am called fat. We went over the ‘you’re not fat, you’re healthy’ routine, once more. Then I asked her if she believed she was fat. “Sometimes. But mostly I have great muscles,” she said. I then told her if she feels the need for a comeback, in a situation that she can’t handle,  she can always be kind and yet be teasing of her friends. “Go give them a shoulder hug and say ‘Hi Shorty!’” She giggled and said, “I’d never do that! It’d make them feel bad, amma.” The next best thing I could come up with took a while because I was too busy clearing the painful lump in my throat. If she wouldn’t turn it on them, I decided to let her risk being a bit haughty and say, “I am not fat, I am perfect.” Nothing gets people’s goat than someone thinking well of themselves. She gives me a big, heart-shatteringly innocent grin and says, “YES! I am perfect.”

I still have no solutions; I hope we will find our way together, she and I. I hope she won't let this nonsense that kids come up with affect her as searingly as it did me. Speaking of, how are these kids at *seven*  years of age picking this shit up? What kind of conversations happen at home for fat to be an issue when all you should be worried about this spending all your time at play? I will admit to cartoons ALL ganging up on fat people and making them figures of ridicule. But I would think steadying influences at home would teach kids that's not done. 

There are three things that guide me when I deal with this.
1. I want her to genuinely know size, not just hers, anyone's doesn't matter.
2. That there are loads of other things apart from body and size that she can and needs to spend time wondering about.
3. That she is healthy is the most important thing. After my initial confusion cleared, I decided to write her a story that will subtly talk about size without talking down to her. I have no idea what the story is going to be but it is what she loves more than anything else in the world, so maybe it will speak to her. Two friends suggested I show her achievers, just sort of slip it in, who are different in size so that she knows it doesn't need to hold her back, in case she ever comes to a point where she starts to believe her size needs to stop her. But the best advice came in the form of this: http://idiva.com/opinion-iparenting/dont-call-me-fatty/24222

Shyama came back from school yesterday and told me not many people teased her. And that she thought about it and didn’t want to tell them she was perfect. She wanted to tell them, “I am perfect the way I am and you are also perfect.”

Maybe I don’t have to worry after all.


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