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Vikram Johri: The politics of reading

It is important to approach fiction with a generous mind, with a sense of the softly possible, for it to bring you the greatest fruits

Vikram Johri 

I started reading rather late. As a child I put myself through the usual paces – Tinkle and Archie comics – but longer reads, The Hardy Boys or Enid Blyton for instance, weren’t a common occurrence. Our house wasn’t much of a literary place, though my father was a devoted reader of weeklies and Reader’s Digest.

My first real engagement with books happened in college. Doing engineering at one of India’s myriad colleges, barring the Indian Institutes of Technology, is something of a farce. It’s perfectly possible to clear your exams by cramming “guides” a week before the test; I sincerely believe that the guy who comes home to repair the TV is a better electronics engineer than me. Anyway, I devoted my free time to curling up in bed with a book in my hand. This was time I discovered the joys of Virginia Woolf, Alan Hollinghurst, Henry James and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The pleasure of Sarah Waters’ atmospheric Victorian books was so definite that I remember even taking them to the bathroom when I needed to go. This was entirely new for me: every page held the promise of some magic handed to me in neat little packets.

That was my first reading cycle. It was entirely unstructured. I was still developing political affiliations; like most youngsters, leftist ideology held a certain sway over me. Without probing too much, I instinctively felt for the rights of women, the subaltern and the marginalised. This was the natural progression from what had been an innocuous lack of reflection. My politics stemmed from my gut.

After I became a journalist, I began to read a different set of writers. V S Naipaul, Graham Greene and Milan Kundera opened my eyes to “news” ways of seeing. I moved from estimating ideologies to estimating individuals. Feminism, racism and the environmental movement continued to hold an emotional charge, but I was more willing now to listen to the story and accommodate doubt. In other words, I became less militant about ideology and more accepting of narrative.

This, my second reading cycle, was coterminous with an ideological shift. Big government, the ambivalent climate change debate, and terrorism all focused my mind on the need to relook at my beliefs. The transformation was slow but definitive. It was also more full-bodied in that it encouraged me to hold disparate views culled from different ideologies without bracketing myself within a framework. I realised that I was left-leaning on certain issues (gay marriage) but right-leaning on others (big government). I started calling myself a libertarian.

My reading also changed, and not just in the texts I read but also in how I approached them. I became cautious of following blindly what the writer pointed towards. I wanted to bring my imprint to the reading. In other words, I turned into an active reader from a passive one. I looked for red flags in whatever I was reading to alert myself to any propaganda, ideology or back-channel theorising. This enabled me to become a better judge of what I would and would not like. For instance, I learnt that among newspapers, I could read the Financial Times’ op-ed page without worrying for the health of my mind.

But my point is this: I miss the innocent joy that my earlier reading brought me. Especially fiction. It is important to approach fiction with a generous mind, with a sense of the softly possible, for it to bring you the greatest fruits. In his essay “What is Literature?” Jean-Paul Sartre explains my dilemma from the point of view of the writer: “In reading, one foresees; one waits. He foresees the end of the sentence, the following sentence, the next page. He waits for them to confirm or disappoint his foresights. Reading is composed of a host of hypotheses, followed by awakenings, of hopes and deceptions. Readers are always ahead of the sentence they are reading in a merely probable future which partly collapses and partly comes together in proportion as they progress, which withdraws from one page to the next and forms the moving horizon of the literary object.” That’s exactly it. While Sartre comments on the writer’s craft, I find it applies to my reading equally well. My politics, my polemics and my argumentation are prefiguring my reading, hampering my enjoyment of literature.

First Published: Sat, December 01 2012. 00:04 IST