Growing up in India’s hinterlands, we moved from one small town to the other. My father’s transfer-prone job with a mining company meant we had to shuttle between townships and settlements near coal mines scattered across the mineral rich Chotanagpur Plateau. Amidst these changes affecting my young life, a few elements stood steadfast. They helped me remain calm in the face of unexpected events such as shifting houses, the challenges of new schools and making new friends. Their warm centre was my obsession with books.

Nature, books, and guavas

As my family took their nap during hot afternoons in rooms cooled with air-coolers padded by wetted khus, unsupervised me could be found perched on the branch of a mango tree armed with a book and a bowl of guava plucked from one of the many trees dotting the boundary walls of our garden. I would douse these slices in a mixture of salt and red chilli, and wedge the bowl under the nose of a bird’s nest.

For some unknown reason, guavas enhanced my reading pleasure. No other fruit or snack would do. My first memory of eating guava was when my mother read Rapunzel from the Reader’s Digest anthology of The World’s Best Fairy Tales. My love affair with eating guavas while reading books continues to thrive. Many of my childhood books at my parents’ house still have guava juice stains on them, warm memories of the past.

Over the years trees, plants, flowers, and grass became my reading sanctuary. With grass to run on, flowers to pick, and trees to hug, my books and I found the happiest solitude.

Some would argue that reading can be a private as well as a public activity. But for me, it has always been private. I grew up in places where there were no public libraries, only the ones inside schools. Those who read would either read inside their houses or in school libraries. However, a 45-minute library period once a week was not enough for me. Most of the time went into selecting books and then standing in a queue for the librarian to issue the book. I never enjoyed reading within the four walls of a library. Instead, I craved the outdoors, the branches of trees, and delectable guavas.

Moving to Kolkata in the 2000s right after school exposed me to another kind of reading. I read inside crowded buses and noisy hostel dorms. But the constant chatter about dresses, boyfriends, and crushes among hormone-driven girls did not give me a happy reading experience.

It was not until I moved to Mumbai in the late 2000s with a job that offered reasonable pay that I experienced another kind of reading. This was in the form of reading in cafes over nice cups of coffee. Coffee shops had quickly become more than just a place for a brew with a date or a friend. For introverted readers like me the unhurried pace, the notes of espresso, the click of cups on saucers, the fact that one could sit in a crowded place without looking up from one’s book for hours and still know what was going on around them became a huge draw. Despite the intimate atmosphere, the sunset-lover in me craved reading under colours shifting across blue skies.

The birth of Juhu Reads

Only in my thirties did I start experiencing the magic of reading in a public park. That, too, in the megacity of Mumbai. I had not come across many readers reading in public parks and open spaces in the city. Visitors either walked or jogged, or just chatted. But nobody read.

I have no qualms in admitting that I have always been jealous of people who read in public parks, mostly outside India. Lying on mats under the open skies engrossed in a book without a care in the world. Nibbling on snacks in between. A sip of water or coffee from a thermos. I have often imagined doing something similar in India. But the thought sounded unimaginable given the safety aspect of reading in a public park. Until I read about Cubbon Reads, a silent reading community in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park started by Shruti Sah a marketing professional, and Harsh Snehanshu, an entrepreneur.

I knew I wanted to be a part of the Readsmovement when I came across Snehanshu’s Instagram story earlier this year where he announced he was looking for readers interested in curating a silent reading community in Mumbai. Having known him for a decade, first through YourQuote, a writing app he built in 2016, and now Cubbon Reads, I was drawn by his vision and commitment to be associated with this community.

By the time we started discussing logistics in April 2023, Rachna Malhotra, a reader, poet, and fellow writer at YourQuote, had already zeroed in on Kaifi Azmi Park in Juhu as the location for Mumbai’s first silent reading community. And this is how Juhu Reads was born.

Juhu Reads. Photo courtesy: Diya Sengupta.

The silent reading community is unlike a group of people inside a classroom, where relationships are mediated by the consumption of common texts. The Reads’ community can be compared to a group of people meditating together, without communicating with one another. The act of reading itself creates a lovely visual. However, a group of people sitting together and reading different books in a public park has also become a counterculture. It rejects established norms of reading and hence has been questioned by cynics who want to know why we do not read inside libraries or even in our homes.

The reason behind our silent reading communities is to allow introverted readers a chance to join in, without the pressure of having to talk or socialise. The community seeks to retain the personal nature of reading. The guidelines of all our Reads’ chapters state there is no need for awkward pleasantries and to discourage bringing chatty friends to the sessions. The aim is to read silently but be surrounded by a larger reading group, a community involved in a single activity in silence. While quietly reading a book, we may not be communicating with a person physically present next to us, but with the author who is absent or might even be long gone. The reader is never lonely.

With the silent reading movement spreading across the world, I can safely affirm that remarkable things can be done by a series of small things brought together.

A Saturday in the life of a curator

Before Juhu Reads my Saturday evenings were mostly about binge-watching shows on OTT platforms, meeting friends, or catching an occasional movie at the local theatre. The introvert in me would be camouflaged during the five days of the week when I am at my extrovert best as a sustainability strategy consultant holding meetings, making presentations, and talking to clients and colleagues throughout the day.

The Juhu Reads curatorship therefore became my perfect alibi. There is no compulsion for me to socialise anymore or make superficial small talk. Here I can enjoy my book in solitude and reserve my energy for the work week ahead.

It is true that in Kaifi Azmi Park, I have not been able to perch myself on the branch of a tree and read. But I do rest my back against a tree trunk, which is equally liberating. Mostly I derive pleasure from spreading the joys of public reading, watching other readers enjoy their books in silence. This knowledge alone makes my job as the curator of Juhu Reads worthwhile.

As Maya Angelou said, “Every person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

The books of Juhu Reads. Photo courtesy: Diya Sengupta.