For someone who is always shouting from the rooftops about the glorious, innately performative aspects of India’s oral cultures, whether in ancient or contemporary contexts, and the sheer liberation embedded in un-caged texts, I have always – hypocritically, I suppose – shied away from audio books.
Not because of a Harold Bloomian high-mindedness, though (for Bloom, a literary critic, had said, “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you”). But owing to a chilling sensation that by embracing audio books, I would be, in a fundamental way, betraying my best friends - the ink and paper volumes that remind me, by their ever-multiplying existence, however pell-mell, around my house, of specific memories: days they were reorganised into new bookshelves, nights they kept me up, places they were acquired from, or sensations they are likely to evoke that apposite day when they are finally read.
For all the truth of true love being a matter of metaphysics, much like a lover lying asleep in bed next to you on Sunday mornings, the sheer physicality of the experience, is, often, a major point in their favour.
Early last summer, I started listening to the radio-reading programme Yaadon ka IdiotBox on YouTube (I’m not a radio person. Don’t ask.) where Hindi short stories written by a mandali of writers are read out by the inimitable writer-lyricist-editor-performer Neelesh Mishra over half-hour shows. Sometimes the story is longer and is divided into two or three parts.
As the mercury soared and the days lengthened, Mishra’s impeccable reading soothed my parched body, stretched out on the hot floor, headphones shutting out the world. Perhaps because my Hindi-reading speed is not what it should be, the fact of “being-read-to” became, for a whole fortnight and for the first time since childhood, this wonderfully soothing sea where I bobbed around to the freshness of contemporary Hindi popular fiction. And then, as all phases subside, I returned to usual book-reading. But courtesy Neelesh Mishra, a chink had been fashioned in my armour.
The clinching factor
The final push towards audio-books, however, took place when I read that writer David Sedaris was passionate about them. At one time these were in the form of cassette tapes which went into the erstwhile Walkman – that was when he went about calling himself a “tape-worm”. These days, it appears, the former card-carrying technophobe has even recorded his own books on Audible, Amazon’s audiobook portal!
You must know, at this point, that whatever Sedaris does evokes my automatic and extreme support. Mostly it involves badmouthing technology (“I hate computers,” he once wrote. “My hatred is entrenched and I nourish it daily...I hate them for creating the word org and I hate them for e-mail, which isn’t real mail but a variation of the pointless notes people used to pass in class.”) or buying an insane amounts of unnecessary stuff.
Importantly, this was not the sort of big picture thing – like buying a house in rural Normandy and then refurbishing it, by hand, over a hundred years – where to copy him I’d have to rope in my husband who lives to squash such brilliance. In other words, this was the sort of Sedaris thing I could afford to imitate. And so I did.
I downloaded Audible on my phone, signed up for my first free month of membership, and spent an agonising morning trying to find the perfect book to listen to. And no, of course, I would not risk Sedaris ruining any of his books for me. My choices all involved authors I had never read. So if perchance some narrator ruined the book by sighing too much or simply being annoying, I was still safe.
The first book began slowly, my mind often wandered, and I was to ready to give it all up as a bad idea, really, until, of course, a tipping point arrived. (The book, The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, turned out to be quite brilliant).
A week later, I was hooked. I began to blow up large sums on Audible.com – the books one wants are all pretty expensive, mind you – and manically competed with myself over the badges (wait, we’ll come to the badges in time). Over the months, it settled into a form of adult lullaby – listening to the chapters of a book before going off to sleep each night.
Thinking it through during the silences, I discovered five factors that converted me to audio books.
5: Comfort food
You know how after binge-watching a show (13 Reasons Why being the latest) you crave a book in the exact same manner you crave a meal of nice home-made dal-bhaat-alu bhaja after a fancy holiday abroad? But your eyes are shot after the marathon two-day mania and your head is throbbing from having had to keep up with the insane twists and turns.
Enter the audio book.
After a long bath, during which you promise to yourself you will deactivate Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video – hell, your very internet connection! – you can slip into bed with a children’s novel from the 1970s, without vampires or dystopian mind-games, and feel the I-will-die-if-I-have-to-keep-up-with-any-more-American-Presidents sensation sloughing off softly.
Recommended reading: Dinky Hocker Shooting Smack by ME Kerr. Narrated by Aaron Landon.
5: You’ll finally get to the classics
You know that strange buzzing generated in your brain by all those competing lists – “Books I Ought to Read”, “Book I Claim I Read Years Ago”, “Books I Think I Might Have Bought But Lost Before Reading” and, most of all, “Books The Boss Wants me to Read”? (I cannot lie, I have compiled such lists.) It is audio books to the rescue.
Whether a Victorian classic or a novel of ideas, or, let’s confess, War and Peace, the introduction of another voice into that most private of all acts – reading – might just introduce the right amount of sex appeal to complete your literary education.
Recommended Reading: The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Read by Constantine Gregory.
3: Outrage break
Holidays, home renovations, food porn, cute cats and politics (whichever side of the fence you are on) – you’ve run the entire gauntlet, and your own social media persona now nauseates you. Start a trend. Get all het up about the unfortunate audio books scene in the bhashas.
Given that so many Indians speak and understand a multitude of languages that they might not write or read in, and given how younger generations are bottle-fed by their mother tongue and not breast-fed, it is hard to believe that audio books in the Indian languages have not caught on like wildfire. Pester your entrepreneur friends to come up with an idea, your techie friends to devise apps, and your educator friends to implement it in classrooms, especially those classrooms where younger children are still struggling to read but are sure to respond to the primeval Scheherzade moment: what happened after that?
If nothing, at least you’ll get some new followers on Twitter.
(Recommended Reading: About this fantastic project on Indian audio books for the visually challenged as well as those who cannot read by Esha – People for the Blind, a Gurgaon-based NGO.)
2: Metro cool
You can be the most smug, most cultured vulture on public transport, as you listen to a book (say, The Great Gatsby, see above) while youngsters around you chatter mindlessly about Tinder. You admittedly had to rewind a bit since their loud conversation had got (sociologically) interesting. The yuppies, of course, are busy Whatsapping, and the older lot sleep on one other’s shoulders.
[Recommended Reading: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read by Frank Muller.]
Most important, if you are an unfortunate sort whose partner/ bed-sharer invariably mutters bitter somethings about your reading in bed at night while they are trying to sleep, then the audiobook can be the perfect marital counsellor to soothe your spats. You can guilt said offender into buying you the fanciest ear phones available, and with those, you can spend a few happy hours submerged in a favourite book while the significant other burbles in a dream.
And if, like me, Audible is your medium, then you will win three fancy badges (all virtual, of course) next morning, that will have you dance around dementedly in the room, after you’ve woken up late. Night Owl (you’ve listened to a book for at least 4 hours at night), Marathoner (you’ve listened for at least two hours straight), and Daily Dipper (you’ve listened to books for at least seven days straight!): these are the badges I have won already. The one that I am looking out for, though, is Mount Everest. This epic award is given away when you listen to something for an entire day!
Recommended Reading: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Written and read by Issa Rae.
Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and a nearly abandoned PhD thesis. She ekes out a hardscrabble existence writing only to blow it all up on various forms of books – physical, e-books and, now, apparently, audio books.