There are no bookshops in Rampur. There are, of course, shops that sell schoolbooks and academic texts. I am often accosted at the famous Raza Library with questions about my academic status and plans from absolute strangers. My inquisitors, with their small-town familiarity, are mostly men who advise me to do a PhD. A four-year-old book club in this land of purposeful readers is generally regarded as an idiosyncrasy. “Shauq” is what defines our club in Rampur parlance, embedded with layers of privilege and eccentricity.

Rampur has a glorious literary past. Several Nawabs and their wives were poets and writers. Their tutors were poets of renown like Mirza Ghalib, Ameer Minai, and Daagh Dehlvi. The “Rampur school of poetry”, established by Dehlvi, is acclaimed by literary historians for its robust and elementary style. It includes many contemporary fiction writers who write in Urdu and Hindi – the languages preferred by the local reading public.

Kanwal Bharti, a brilliant young Dalit writer, and several other wonderful Urdu poets are associated with it. Most writers get their works self-published or through the Raza Library. I have attended seminars on the Rampur writers of yore and book launches at the library. The hall is filled with people, predominantly males, of a certain age. The educated Rampur geriatric male does indulge in reading for pleasure.

The sense of a beginning

My first book, a work of young adult fiction, was published by Juggernaut Books on their online platform in 2015, after which I quit my 16-year career as a senior school teacher cum administrator to become a full-time writer. As the initial euphoria waned, I suffered from withdrawal pangs of the youthful school atmosphere and crippling self-doubt. The writing desk was a lonely space.

So, I reached out to some acquaintances through small-town ties – some of us had studied around the same time in Aligarh – and floated the idea of a book club. We had barely met during the initial years after we had married and settled down in Rampur.

Sameena, who was an educationist, ran one of the largest schools in Rampur with her husband, still as driven as during the college days. Sara was a teacher in despair over the education system. Raspal, who was a farmer with a doctorate in English literature, had taught with me for a while in Nainital before she returned to manage Benazir farms with her husband.

Farah was a dentist and Paikar, a teacher, both of them true-blue Rampuris even though they had spent the better part of their lives in boarding schools and colleges before settling in Rampur. Arshiya was our resident firebrand, passionately taking up social causes and Nupur was our lively socialite. Most of us lived in the civil lines area outside the old city and held a supercilious attitude towards “Rampuris”.

On the steps of the Raza Library

The first meeting, held on a sweltering June evening in my drawing room, had six excited ladies armed with googled knowledge on how to set up a book club – two teachers, a dentist, a farmer, and I, who still couldn’t say “I’m a writer.” We had a slice of time between balancing our families and career. Over the next few meetings, we started reading JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling and fell in love with the Cormoran Strike series.

We met in drawing rooms or Raspal’s farm nearly every month over tea. The menu was kept simple even though we were foodies to avoid any distractions. Our husbands – those of us who had them – cast an indulgent eye over our “Ladies Tea Club”, stopping short of the much-detested term “kitty party”. After the initial catching up, we never spoke of husbands, children or MILs (mothers-in-law) – this time was for us, the books we read, and what we thought of the world around us.

We had different reading tastes – historical fiction, poetry, philosophy, non-fiction, and tried to take up all genres. We tried reading different books simultaneously and discussed our reads; but our plans worked best when we focused on one author’s body of work. The meeting usually began with a reading by a member, who would talk about the storyline and then discussion would ensue. Plans were made but we rarely stuck to it.

Our reading habit had been the first casualty of our “adulting” but we got back to it now. The lack of a bookstore made things tough but we relied on Amazon to deliver books on time. Sameena and I shifted to the Kindle for convenience, though we still loved physical books. Farah would get so obsessed with her reading that she would close her clinic, and stay up the entire night until she finished the book. There were the keen readers, the too-busy-to-read members who confessed to googling the storyline of the book under discussion and some who just came to listen in to the book talk.

Males ahoy!

Rahul, a designer and a common friend, joined us next with his wife, Shibani, and we stopped being a ladies-only club. As we eased into Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, William Dalrymple, and Kamila Shamsie, I, the only writer in the group, started reaching out to these literary stars on Twitter, attending literature festivals and book launches. We read Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Khushwant Singh’s Delhi concurrently, compared the two, and decided we connected more with Dalrymple.

We celebrated Shamsie’s inclusion in the Booker longlist – her grandmother was from Rampur – and put up a picture of us reading Home Fire on Twitter. The responses from the writers on social media were read out at our meetings. Though none of the members made it to the lit fests with me, they were thrilled to connect vicariously to the literary scene. I finally felt confident enough to introduce myself as a writer. I was struggling with my second book at the time, another YA fiction, and browsing at the Raza Library.

Reading Kamila Shamsie's 'Home Fire'.

We also had members-in-faith, who wanted to, but couldn’t attend our meetings for fear that the Rampur Book Club would find itself in the political spotlight. We were living in Azamland during a suffocating time. Every organisation was under the scanner. Mehmood’s twin brother, also a doctor, had dared to politically challenge Azam Khan. The family bore the brunt of the rivalry and he was once even arrested instead of his brother. Raspal’s family had fought and saved their farmland from being acquired for a university project. We all wanted to avoid unnecessary attention.

When the government changed, Mehmood and his wife Sofia joined us. We welcomed our first history buff who had famously carried his books to Hajj. While the pious did extra nightly prayers, he sat reading. Our book club had expanded to include more like-minded people. We were still a small group of 14, who were comfortable with each other, and went out for movies and lunches outside the book club events.

Meanwhile, I was deep into my research on Rampur and had started writing on culture and cuisine. The instantaneity of publishing articles eased my writer’s block, though it needed a completely different set of muscles to write a well-researched personal essay. Taran, my cousin and literary mentor, who was adept at the genre, helped me through it and connected me to the publishing world. My book club friends read and shared the articles, happy at my success.

We enjoyed poetry readings too – both English and Urdu poetry were read and discussed. Readings of Rumi and Gulzar struck a chord and the discussion brought up buried feelings and our frustrations with political realities. Sara, who was from an army background, defended the army’s role in Kashmir when we read Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness. We explored Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan through books. Nupur and Shibani loved Kevin Kwan and mythological retellings. We left the meetings with our minds buzzing and widening with new ideas.

The book club inadvertently became deeply entwined with our personal journeys. It was a mature phase in our lives – the clamour of child-rearing had receded in its immediacy and our relationship status, or lack of it, was an accepted reality. Initially, I felt I derived more from our meetings but gradually we were turning towards each other and books to make sense of everything around and within. “You talk little of books and more of everything else,” the husbands would exclaim.

Heritage walks

Accompanied by my husband or a trusted old-timer, I had started exploring the old city for my new book, The Begum and the Dastan. The acceptability of an unaccompanied, unveiled woman walking aimlessly in the conservative Rampur city area was reserved for reporters or pardesis. I chased my story of the begums of Rampur through the gullies, listening to stories of their lives from their relatives.

Where did the begums live? What were their lives like? Where exactly was the infamous “lal purda” of the harem beyond which no male above four years of age could enter? What happened to the young princes once they grew up? There was barely any writing on the lives of women; the begums had disappeared from the pages of history and found mention only if they had produced an offspring.

I read the official and unofficial histories and recorded the oral histories, traced the steps of the Nawab from the Machhi Bhavan Palace to the Durbar Hall, and into the harem. The old pathways had been blocked and restructured, the royal bedrooms had become classrooms, and prosaic structures invaded the grand Indo-Saracenic buildings.

I pilgrimaged through the palaces of the nikah begums (legal wives), the shared living spaces of the temporary wives, and the barrack-like rooms for the concubines – it was fascinating and I wanted to share it all with my book club mates. Taran would pull me back and try to drive my focus back to the novel I was obsessively writing and re-writing.

Walking the Khasbagh Palace grounds

The activities of the book club now expanded to heritage walks. Mehmood and I enthusiastically led the way, narrating snippets of Rampur history and amusing anecdotes. The club members, who had lived on the edge of Rampur for most of their adult lives, were enthralled. Everyone had visited the grand Raza Library and showed it off to guests.

We revisited it with historical commentary, spent Sunday afternoons exploring the lanes of the Rampur Qila area, and walked through the sprawling Khasbagh Palace, which was locked up and eaten away by litigation between the members of the royal family. Every walk made us hanker for more. There was so much to know about this little crumbling town. Finally, the husbands joined us, eager to share their memories and explore with us.

To allow more time for discussions, the meetings now included the non-reading husbands over potluck dinners. They unabashedly tagged along for the food and ungratefully referred to our initiative as a food club. We sat them in a “boys room” while we talked books, calling them out for dinner and scoffing at their book-challenged lives. Thankfully, we had two evolved members of the Rampuri male genus or I would have given up on the species.

I gave my husband a Kindle as a gift, telling him his Rohilla Pathan ancestors had owned libraries. The Khan got back to reading but at his own pace and choice. Around this time, I had also started translating recipes from Persian manuscripts for a project on the “Forgotten Foods” of Rampur. I got valuable feedback on my culinary efforts from the book club members.

The club was slowly and surely changing us. Raspal returned to writing poetry; Sara finally gave up her job and started working on her dream school; Paikar accepted her new role of leading the family-owned school; and I made friends with the blank page. We stopped living on the edges of Rampur and emerged from the insider-outsider conundrum.

CAA, riots, and Covid-19

With members from all religions in the club, we had stepped lightly around contentious issues until the CAA protests and the subsequent Delhi riots took place. I called for a meeting, longing for the comfort of our sessions. One of the members replied, “You all are my friends, but I can’t sit reading books, eating and ignore real issues.”

There was silence on our WhatsApp group after she left.

That became a moment of introspection for us: Could we afford to live in our bubbles; when had our book club become self-adulatory; but why should the book club become a platform for such discussions? It was sad to see a founder-member leave with such angst, but we decided we couldn’t let religion-laced politics creep into our club. What we had fostered together was too precious to lose.

Before we could emerge from the existential crisis and meet, Covid-19 struck and made us all aware of our vulnerability. We became fanatic about staying safe, sent our domestic workers home, and settled to a more demanding home life. I was in the midst of the final edits of The Begum and the Dastan, slashing away at my darlings, and taking Taran’s comments with (as she advised) fistfuls of salt.

We tried to calm our anxieties and learned to avoid the daily deaths tickering on our screens. Dalrymple’s latest book, The Anarchy was the latest read during the lockdown. I had met him with Taran at the Jaipur Literature Festival and had invited him to Rampur for a reading at the book club and kebabs. “One Day!” he wrote as the lockdown stilled our plans and asked me for the Rampur qorma recipe. I told him I was very jealous of his meat supplies. He was at his goat farm.

The online book club

Only Sameena was able to finish the book as most of us were too distracted and preoccupied. Still, we decided to meet over Zoom. Getting together was critical. Our first virtual meeting was not a resounding success but it was great to reconnect, talk books, and inevitably, talk about the pandemic. Our next read was the deeply moving Ten Minutes and Thirty Eight Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafaq. We returned to Zoom, more adept at “Zooming”, and had a rewarding discussion.

We are rendezvousing next at Raspal’s farm with Avni Doshi’s The Girl in White Cotton. Surely we will be safe there, out in the open with the mandatory masks. We hope to follow the Booker list over the next few months as usual. Just the idea of planning a meeting and continuing our meanderings through the city and into books is comforting.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.