Among my early memories of solitude are afternoons spent as a teenager in my family home in Aligarh. In the high-ceiling rooms, while the grown-ups were lost to their siestas, I would open the wooden windows that had been shut against the blazing heat just a crack and follow words on yellowing pages with this sliver of light. I made my way through stacks of books in this way, including the historical romances of Georgette Heyer. Often set in Regency-era London, these novels revolved around the lives of the wealthy upper classes – society’s ton.

It was a world of leisure, populated by broad-shouldered gentlemen who spoke in lazy drawls and ladies who dreamed of love over a marriage of convenience. It was also a place so sharply defined by rigid rules governing manners and propriety, that even as it offered a seductive escape from my sheltered small-town life, it felt oddly easy to relate to.

Heyer’s novels have similar plots and are written with a light touch, which means that they are often dismissed as trivial novels or guilty pleasures. But much like the works of PG Wodehouse, the other masterful writer I encountered in the bookstacks, I was drawn to the sheer fun of reading about the world she conjured up. Her heroines were feisty, her dialogue witty, and none of the dilemmas too dire. The characters move through settings rich with meticulously researched historical details, from the variety of snuff to the layout of a garden, to the scandals rocking polite society.

But unlike Wodehouse, Heyer was not read by any of the men I knew. Her books, with their fading illustrated covers, were the shared inheritance of the women in my family – from my aunts, who had originally bought the volumes I pored over, to my older cousins, who led me to their favourite titles, like Cotillion, Friday’s Child and The Masqueraders.

Which meant that we were a group of adolescents in pre-liberalisation India intensely familiar with the rituals of fashionable nineteenth- century London. We knew, for instance, that debutantes wore muslins to balls. We could tell a Dandy from a Corinthian (both men of fashion), understood the rules of duelling and knew the modish time to go riding in Hyde Park. All this, while hardly leaving our home, let alone the city.

Over the years, I revisited these romances as reliable comfort reads, revelling in their familiarity even as their flaws became more apparent. I have found myself thinking of them during this lockdown as a way of thinking about solitude. Perhaps because it was in their company that I learned to enjoy being on my own. They are reminders of the keen happiness I felt in having unread books and empty hours at my disposal. Of the realisation that books are excellent companions as well as reliable vehicles for escape. And that solitude, so often shunned, could also be something pleasurable, to be sought out rather than avoided.

Taran Khan is the author of Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul.

Read the other articles in the Art of Solitude series here.