Who could have imagined a book club at the IIT Alumni Centre in Chennai? Who knew that engineers were fond of reading? What kind of books did they read?

I was lucky to get my first teaching job in India as guest faculty at IIT-Madras in 2009 when I returned to Chennai after working in different cities for two decades. Around the same time, a group of IIT-M alumni got together to discuss how they could create a space to meet, socialise, and reconnect with old friends. The vision was to create a world-class alumni centre for IITians, akin to clubs at universities like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. And so, the IIT Alumni Club was created in 2009.

Within a couple of years, the members realised that more than just a club, they had a greater interest in creating an institution that would foster social, business, and technology networking amongst IIT alumni, faculty, and industry. It was decided that the name should reflect those interests, and it was called the IIT Alumni Industry Interaction Centre.

My brother, one of the alumni who had joined early on, asked me to become a member as well. Not only was I unwilling – I was not an alumnus and felt I didn’t belong – I didn’t want to spend money when I was already a member at other clubs with better facilities.

But the alumni centre had a generous fee subsidy for all faculty. Despite this generosity, however, I was reluctant to join.

My tenacious IITian sibling had been asked to increase membership numbers, so he did not give up. Not only did he make a sales pitch to any available family and friends who had studied at the institution, but he also threatened to pay for my membership. So I gave in.

He casually mentioned that I should now volunteer to help people set up programmes at the club, as there was lots of work to be done. I was promptly made a part of the events committee, and we met every week to plan and organise activities for the members.

Creating the club

Within a few months of joining the committee, I suggested we set up a book club. Even though half of the committee was made of book-lovers, they weren’t sure it was such a great idea. One of them said the members would not want to be restricted to someone else’s choice of what to read, while another felt one book a month was too little to read.

Someone said we would never find enough readers, and yet another mentioned that there was already a book club in Chennai. But given my persistence, eventually everyone agreed unanimously to support me.

The existing book club in Chennai was more of a launchpad for new publications – a well-oiled machine with elaborate high teas, where the author of the book presented their book. We wanted a place where members could read and then discuss a book.

Then came the question of members. Would we allow outsiders? We decided that because people were reading less these days, it would be wonderful to include all book lovers of Chennai. As for fees, instead of an annual payment, we decided to charge a nominal fee of Rs 50 per meeting to pay for snacks. (This changed later to members paying for what they ordered.)

Many other questions persisted: How would we hold the meetings? Would there be any rules? Who would decide what to read? Would there be a lead speaker? I was clear that no one person should dominate – we would all take turns to present our views. The theme and the choice of books would be voted for by the members, and we would all have free discussions without any rules.

However, after a couple of bad experiences, where someone recommended a book and then did not show up for the meeting, or the book did not turn out satisfying, we decided that no book would be selected without someone having read it.

So how was a book to be selected? Each of us had a wishlist – every so often, we put all our ideas on the table and voted for a theme. After that, people proposed titles that fit the theme, and, et voilà, we’d pin down our book for the month. The choice was subject to availability and pricing.

Launching the book club

We chose a German word – Bibliothek – as the name for the book club, paying homage to the history of IIT-Madras, which had initially been sponsored by West Germany.

The launch of the book club was scheduled on 17 March 2012, which brought in 16 members and four more digital sign-ups. One of the highlights was a literary quiz, the other being the grand high tea in the garden, where we discussed themes and the book for the next month. The first actual book club meeting took place on a festive day, 14 April 2012, the Tamil New Year’s Day.

To the outsider, this first meeting matched all the stereotypes of a South Indian gathering. Many of the women dressed in Kanchivaram silk saris and jewellery. We were discussing the classic Gulliver’s Travels.

What the observers might have missed is that Tamil New Year’s day was a holy day for many, but having made the commitment (and after a lot of badgering on my account), they had come right after completing their duties at home. Sadly, there were many more who couldn’t attend the first meeting due to family celebrations. Yet, an audience of some fifteen people was considered pretty good for the day and nature of the event.

The evolution of Bibliothek

Month on month, we read, meet and discuss books – barring December and May, owing to festivals and summer holidays. Chennai has several book clubs, but ours remains unique because we focus on reading books ourselves, instead of hosting events for someone else to discuss them with us.

Many find our reading choices too intellectual. Some are hesitant to join an IIT-alumni space, even though we assure them that most of us are neither engineers nor alumni of the institution.

While we have about 150 people on our broadcast list, our regular WhatsApp discussion group has 33 members, about 23 of whom attend the monthly meetings. And yet, I would consider it a success. It gives all of us a lot of joy and meaning when we meet up every month to discuss books.

We have become friends over time, and know one another well enough by now to fight and complain about our respective book choices or insights. We regularly welcome new members, some of whom stay, some leave, some attend occasionally, and some become so regular that they eagerly anticipate the announcement of the book meetings.

There have been numerous occasions when some people don’t approve of the choice of books. This has often led to passionate debates, but thankfully, everybody is willing to compromise and avoid bitterness. Sometimes we don’t like a book, but the subsequent discussion reveals newer insights and ways of understanding it. Everybody gets a chance to speak and express themselves.

The club boasts of a heterogeneous group – engineers, bankers, teachers, publishers, editors, writers, homemakers, business people, students. We’ve been asked often if we read light books. We did, in fact, conduct a series on detective fiction and recommended some light reading, but we generally try to ensure we are reading books out of our usual comfort zones.

One a few occasions, we even broke with the tradition of reading a book and simply discussed what was happening at The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai or at the Jaipur Literature Festival. As a member of the group puts it, “Bibliothek is a warm hug in the form of a book that never fails to comfort me.”

A major reason for our success has been the well-curated list of books, contributed by several of the members. One of the most popular themes involved books from each state of India, translated into English. Those who were from the particular state, or could read the language, read excerpts aloud for the rest.

During the meeting focused on Odisha, one of our members brought his daughter along, and they sang tribal songs. For a book in Telugu, a member’s wife, whose father was a scholar, volunteered to read out excerpts and give us the context.

One of the club’s most memorable sessions was with Bama, a Tamil Dalit author. We had just finished discussing her well-received autobiography, Karukku. Living as she does in a rural area far away from Chennai, she agreed to come by taxi, but wanted to return immediately after the talk.

We learned that she works extensively with government schools on the outskirts of the city. So we went on a book drive. Generous donations enabled us to see Bama off that night after filling up her car with so many boxes of books that there was little space for her and the driver.

We read Evam Indrajit by Badal Sircar, which was mesmerising. Someone suggested we invite Amshan Kumar, who lived in Chennai, to talk about his documentary on Sircar. It was riveting to watch the documentary, and then listen to Kumar’s account of pursuing Sircar all the way to Calcutta, without speaking a word of Bengali or Hindi. Determined, he met Sircar and, in the process, created a document for posterity.

The pandemic effect

The year 2020 began really well for all of us at Bibliothek. We had finished a satisfying theatre run last in 2019 – reading and enacting scenes for the group, and ending with a translation of Kanyasulkam, a classic Telugu drama. It had been a wonderful way to end a year of good reading.

Since January 15 marks the beginning of the four-day festival of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, our event series “Meet the Author” was scheduled after all the festivities. We concluded the festival with a talk by N Kalyan Raman on his acclaimed works of translations from Tamil into English. Having read so many translated works, we were also eager to learn more about the craft of translation and the art of writing.

December is usually a slow season for readers – there are too many events, too many concerts, too many festivals to attend. We’d decided the theme for our 2020 reading list by the end of 2019 – a selection of the best writings from Afghanistan, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet.

The book for February was bestselling Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif’s novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. We enjoyed dissecting Hanif’s book, wondering how he got away with such a book without being arrested, and marvelled at his style and humour…without realising this would be our first and last physical meeting in 2020.

As March arrived, and we got ready to discuss our latest selection from Bhutan, the state of Tamil Nadu declared a lockdown for the last two weeks of the month. Caught in a quandary, we decided to move the discussion online as people were bewildered by the abrupt announcement.

The pandemic has now changed how we meet, and, for many, the experience is not the same anymore. While some of us have been more open to changes, many miss having physical discussions at the centre, the chai-coffee-pakoda time, and the chats before and after the meetings.

Others, unhappy with the level of participation, have pointed out that energy levels are not the same. We cannot interrupt one another and speak up as spontaneously as we could. Restricted to Zoom meetings, we present our opinions in round-robin style, waiting for everyone to finish before starting the discussion. Many members who found the online meetings impersonal and stiff, were reluctant to attend any more. Some continued to attend, while others simply stopped.

Still, several members are glad to have this anchor – the meetings have helped them hold on to the shreds of sanity and old times. The club provided a safe, relaxed break from quotidian household chores – they could use this time to think for themselves and express their opinions. Others, who live at a distance from the centre, are even thrilled that they can be a part of the meetings without having to suffer the long commute.

Our rule of having two volunteers introduce the book, the author, and the background has lapsed over the past few months, but for the first time, we haven’t had to cancel a single meeting in the entire year.

In many ways, this year has been a game-changer. Now people know that even if they travel outside Chennai or the country, they can continue to participate. One member, who was stuck abroad during the lockdown, was able to attend without any of the stress and effort it would have taken her in Chennai. Our small meeting room in Chennai has expanded to the whole world. Any IITian or Bibliothek member from any corner of the globe can join us now.

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