The book lover’s commute.
[Text by Divya Babu; photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
I open William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. I look around and try to reposition my elbows in the best way possible.
It's peak hour on the Delhi Metro and I'm standing in the ladies compartment. My hour-long commute starts from Huda City Centre in Gurgaon and ends at Barakhamba Road in Central Delhi, and my book has more than 500 pages.
It was an autographed copy that I bought a few days ago at an elaborate book launch at the British Council in Connaught Place. I spend three minutes trying to decipher what William Dalrymple has inscribed for me on the title page. I'm distracted. The lady next to me has beads of sweat on her faint moustache. A visibly pregnant woman is standing right in front of two excited young girls who have occupied the seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant. They ignore her and continue their chatter.
It's winter but everyone is sweating. The train is heated and the commuters are all in warm clothes. I turn back to my book. It's written in Dalrymple's comfortable storytelling style that does not make history intimidating. I wade into the first few pages. It's a large hardcover but I'm used to holding books while standing on the train.
Somebody farts. Everybody winces (I'm guessing the guilty party does, too, to protect her identity). Suddenly the book feels too heavy. I peer into the book the young girl next to me is reading. She looks sharp in her black-rimmed glasses and slick ponytail. She is reading Ravinder Singh. I find at least three more people reading various books by this author. Clearly, he is the most important male in this ladies compartment.
It's getting hotter. I close my book and attempt to cram it back into my bag. It's too crowded and I can’t turn myself around to open the bag. I hold the book all the way to my destination.
I'm carrying Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. I find the first few chapters strange. The characters don't engage me. The story isn't going anywhere. The train stops at Central Secretariat and a swarm of people enter the coach. Someone knocks down my Museum. She doesn't apologize. I frown.
On reaching the office, a colleague offers me a volume of Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time, only if I agree to dump the "pretentious rubbish" that is The Museum of Innocence. Proust is not as tough as you may think, he says. He promises that it's full of humour, sex and scandal. I fall for his pitch. I scoop up Proust for my ride home and dump Pamuk in my office drawer.
It's late but the Metro is still packed. I start Proust and it is as promised. I'm slowly pulled into Combray. I'm waiting eagerly for the famous Madeleine incident. Suddenly there is some commotion in front of me. A girl has fainted. "Don't crowd around her," someone yells. Everyone crowds around her. I remember that I have juice in my bag. I stuff Proust back in and fish out the juice to offer to her. The girl next to me looks suspicious. She is eyeing my bag. I clutch it close to me and forget all about Proust.
I'm pregnant. The Metro is still crowded. I'm carrying Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Lowland along with the new life inside me. It's not easy to balance the book and myself while standing anymore. The various smells offend me. Cheap deodorant. Sweat. Talcum powder. Feet. Aloo paranthas. More sweat. I can't get beyond a page of The Lowland. I read the first page three times. The words are flying off in various directions.
I need a seat. I tell the girl in front of me that I'm pregnant and I need to sit down. I sit and try and open the book again. The green cover makes me feel queasy. I look around and see more Ravinder Singhs and also some Chetan Bhagats.
I place my book on my lap and close my eyes. I can hear a small boy's tantrums. Two teenagers are having a high-pitched discussion about a boy named Javed. Someone is talking on the phone about her recent trip to Germany and how she could find nothing vegetarian to eat. I fall asleep. Jhumpa remains unfinished.
At least she tried