reading trends

In Bengaluru, reading groups (some of them underground) are using books to live outside the machine

Strangers are joining hands for causes after being brought together by an interest in books.

If you happen to live and work in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar, as I do, the multisensory cacophony of a tech conference is bound to creep up on you at some point. A few years ago, I was invited to one, a prospect that inspired little enthusiasm in me until I learnt of an open bar. The venue, an establishment that has proved to be a casualty in the cut-throat, transient F & B landscape of 100 Feet Road, was teeming with young, largely male, self-styled prophets who were, remarkably, not sweaty. Their acts of divination would be transmitted through a medium that any reasonable society would have phased out as soon as they encountered it – the powerpoint presentation.

Among others things, the hordes were united in their belief that humanity has progressed thus far to “ideate”, that there is no specific formula to going viral, and that big data is looming around the corner, readying to impose its hegemony in a manner that will make the Big Four seem like door-to-door salesmen. The clincher for me was one such electric evangelist mouthing off into the mic the words melded on the projector: “Content Is King!” – a statement that elicited from me a lifelong commitment to defending these words of Wittgenstein’s.

Leaving the conference room, I experienced something of an out of body experience where I witnessed myself screaming inarticulately into a hopeless vacuum. In one vapid dictum, it seemed to me that the Culture Industry had decided to sound the death knell on the world of letters in the age of technology, bringing to full fruition the world Adorno and Horkheimer foretold where one had “the freedom to choose what is always the same” – in this case, the vacant and amoral monarchy of clicks.

The vanishing library

Ulsoor’s bazaar street is a whole world removed from the universe that technocrats of the modern age inhabit. It houses one of Bengaluru’s oldest temples and #content over here comes by way of road signs with interesting anachronisms like “Milk Man Road” or “Car Street”, the latter being completely unnavigable for SUVs. I was informed by a few reliable sources that the oldest Tamil library in Bengaluru and its owner Chellappa could be found somewhere in the maze of its bylanes.

A man in a neatly ironed check shirt and a veshti approached me as I was asking a bemused shopkeeper for directions. “You won’t find Tamil libraries if you speak in Kannada,” he informed me, and proceeded in Tamil. “It’s an old place where you’ll have to search for books in darkness, but he has very good books. I’ll direct you there though I’m not sure if he is still open these days”.

I made my way around the edges of the Someshwara temple, through two small gullies, and found myself in front of an old, abandoned chapel-like structure. The sign bearing the name of the building had been painted over in black, so I asked the tailor opposite if I was indeed at the right place. “It’s been six months since he closed. Some issue over the land and the lease.”

But the books had to have been transferred somewhere? A neighbour piped up. “The books are probably with him, but I’m not sure where he lives.” Another neighbour furnished me with two addresses, but alas, the search for Chellappa ended up being a wild goose chase that lasted a week. It struck me at that point that Bengaluru is a city that is at once haunted by its past and by the idea of a future – the promise of the IT boom unravelling at a great urban cost – for what is the use of the Internet of Things when you’re sentenced to purgatory at Silk Board signal?

From wizardry to social awareness

Krupa Hebbar, the chapter organiser of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) in Bengaluru does believe that literature and reading communities have the power to change the world we live in “Discussion over literature can definitely lead to change in the real world,” she averred. “A great example of this is the global HPA’s Fandom Forward campaign. This is a collection of resources put together by the HPA’s resource development team, which connects the stories in different fandoms to important issues in the real world, enabling people to understand even difficult social concepts in a fun and easy way. Literature quite often mimics the real world. Even if the world in question is completely different (like the wizarding world in Harry Potter), the problems that people face – racism, sexism, classism, the impact of war – are universal, so we can always use literature as a lens through which we can understand the world better.”

The Bengaluru chapter of the HPA was inaugurated in 2016. “The Harry Potter Alliance is a global non-profit that turns fandom into activism, and we both thought that was a really cool concept,” Hebbar continued. “Since there was no chapter in our city and the HPA provides free leadership and organiser training for people willing to start a chapter, we decided we could start one!”

But don’t communities and subcultures like these require a physical space? The events so far have all been conducted at Two Friends Cauldron. As Hebbar says, “Since it’s a wizard-themed café, the demographics intersect. We’ve had wildly varying events – just a handful showed up at some, as many as a hundred at others.

And what are these events? Explains Hebbar, “We had a fundraiser in August which was a huge success, and we’re currently doing a month of charms classes at Two Friends Cauldron. This is a part of our #WithoutHermione campaign, where we’re using music, quizzes, cosplay and so on to draw people in, and then discuss education for girls and raise awareness about the issue.”

But how is a subculture like this able to sustain itself? Does Bengaluru have enough readers willing to take a step beyond their books and engage in activism? “Considering the number of people I’ve seen at bookstores and at our events, Bangalore is definitely a city that reads,” says Hebbar. “All of our members love reading, and being a Harry Potter fan is not a requirement!”

Coming out to read

“I think when we ask questions like ‘Is Bangalore a city that reads?’ we need to think about people who are illiterate, or economically disadvantaged or unable to devote time to reading,” observes Rohini Venkatesh Malur, the founder of Queer Reads Bengaluru. “So, while there are lots of people in Bangalore who can and do read for pleasure, I don’t know if I would say we are a city that reads.” Queer Reads has an active online community, some of whom meet up every one or two months, to discuss books with LGBTIAQ themes.

“The last two books we read were Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendhra, and Close, Too Close, a collection of queer erotica from Tranquebar.” says Malur. Unlike the HPA, Malur’s reading community grew out of her activism. “I was in a queer support group meeting, and we were talking about how we sometimes wanted to do fun things with queer people and not just do heavy support group things. I said I’d love to have a reading group – there isn’t that much queer literature, and if you’re just starting to read or aren’t looking in the right places you might not even know what books are out there that are about people like you.”

Most of the members are part of the community. “So in some senses we are not reading to learn but instead we’re reading to see ourselves reflected,” says Malur. The group also reads books about communities marginalised by socio-economic disadvantages. “So, if we read The Truth About Me by A Revathi, we learn about trans women and their lives that we would not otherwise know. We also see her non compromising stance on living with self respect, dignity and self-sovereignty.”

Conducting a discourse around literature leads to new avenues. “There are surprising insights that can come out from talking about a book in a group,” explains Malur. “So you kind of expand the book between you.” It doesn’t hurt that the community serves as a safe space for its members “While book clubs aren’t the fulcrum of activism, we do talk about our lives and how we protect ourselves,” Malur says. “For people who are closeted, this is an opportunity to meet others like themselves.”

Today, it is difficult not to be haunted by this line from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. “One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.” Cultural evolution in our modern times, as Frederic Jameson noted, is a strange mix of disaster and progress. However, this has empowered some communities that have thus far been caught under the wheels of an unjust society to seek out spaces, both virtual and physical, even if it’s only for half an hour, to discuss the literatures that matter to them.

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