December 11, 2011

Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part IV

Continuing with my series, this is PART IV of my ongoing attempt to note the books my fellow travellers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back.

Pictures can mislead. And, if a picture as they say is worth a thousand words, then it can mislead in a thousand words as well.

And if the picture is a book’s cover, well, you know what they say about not judging a book by its cover. But let it not stop you from imagining the story even if you aren’t given to judging it by the cover.

And on Mumbai local trains, the books people read on their daily commute in trains is among the more welcome distractions on the journey when Gujarati businessmen are not wrangling with their suppliers in that distinctly Gujju Hindi that rings loud and clear about the train compartment, muting other conversations as they tune in to the insistent one.

So when I glanced up at my fellow passenger who had just about managed to board the Dadar Local, I paused for a moment upon seeing the cover of the book he had fished out of his bag and buried his face in no sooner he had found a seat in the corner by the train window. In no time his face was lost to me behind the book cover.

And I had The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami for company on the rest of my journey. The unmistakable outline of the Indian Parliament building jumped out of the cover. A car lolled about in the street in front of the Parliament building, cleverly constructed out of letters making up the name of the author, R. Chandrasekar, more likely than not, a Tamil Brahmin, possibly a bureaucrat I thought at the moment. Later I learnt he was a former financial analyst.

Towering banks of lights rose from within the Parliament building, lights Indians would associate with cricket stadiums. What were these flash lights doing in the Parliament? Lighting up games Parliamentarians routinely play? Keeping a watch over politicians ‘fixing’ voting a la the infamous JMM episode? Illuminating politicians batting the ball into another’s corner? Watching over the Opposition clean bowl Treasury benches?

What were the lights for? To light up political shenanigans for a public weaned on reality shows with appetite for more? I didn’t really know for sure, but the book cover offered enough fodder to feed the imagination. And the goat in the mix? Unless the goat was the electorate, calmly and routinely led to the slaughter post-elections, time after time.

Not for a moment did the fellow passenger look away from the book, not even when the train stopped at railway stations along the way to take in fresh cascades of commuters barreling into the compartment like a river breaching a dam.

What was a Swami doing in the mix of the Parliament, the Goat, and the Sofa? Sofa? I was reminded of Chandraswami, remember him? The infamous Godman of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s time? The Tantrik?

The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami. Well. I’m yet to read the book. I learnt it revolves around the intersection of Cricket, the Indian Prime Minister, the Pakistani Prime Minister who invites himself to a cricket series being played between the two in India, and a certain Mr. Swami. For the rest, read the book. While I was tempted to tap the reader on the opposite seat for his take on the book, I left him alone to survive the evening journey back home immersed in R. Chandrasekar’s book, an escape into the gathering night while I delved into various possibilities, all afforded by a book cover.

Facebook Page of The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami.

Talking of Pakistan and the Pakistani Prime Minister, I saw Mumbai train commuters take an active interest in Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah, the man who pushed for the partition of India after barely ever participating in the drive for independence from the British in the years leading upto 1947.

Muhammed Ali Jinnah was not the kind to dirty his hand-tailored suits and starched shirts, let alone his Sherwanis and Karakul hats, in the ‘lowly’ task of fighting for independence from the colonial power, it was far easier and convenient to direct the bloodshed of people with his call to Direct Action using the Muslim League than wage a long, hard struggle for freedom from British rule along with the Gandhis and the Nehrus.

I wondered if it was a coincidence that Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah had its spine coloured red, the colour of blood shed in its millions by Jinnah's call for a separate homeland for the Muslims, Pakistan. The bloodletting still continues in the neighbouring country, among their own kind this time around!

Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the Bharatiya Janata Party must have helped pique interest in the tome. For a time, it was not uncommon to find Mumbai train commuters immersed in the book, television debates raising its visibility and contributing to the hype around the already hyped up relations between the two countries.

I miss hearing birds about my travels around Mumbai unless I were to make my way to Byculla to the verdant patch that’s home to a zoo, or to Yeeor Hills, a contiguous part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali aside from a few scattered patches of green in the Bombay of before.

With the exception of pigeons and crows, and the occasional sparrow, there’s little else to show for birds in much of Mumbai. Shrikes, Drongos, Barbets among others are conspicuous by their absence in the concrete jungle the city’s been turned into over the years.

Cumballa Hill is a hill in name only, and it’s no different with other ‘hills’, including Antop. If you’re keen on seeing Hornbills, you’ll have to make your way to Fort, to the Salim Ali Chowk to see the logo of the Bombay Natural History Society, the Great Hornbill. It mostly lives in Mumbai in a logo on the stone wall.

So I was surprised to say the least on finding a middle-aged man seated in the corner by the window poring over an illustrated book of birds, flipping pages, unmindful of the racket at railway stations along the way.

If ever there was an oasis of peace in a train compartment of Mumbai local trains, even if in the pages of a Birding Guide, that moment qualified for it, for the one immersed in the promise of nature and the other delighting in the reader’s interest survive a city largely denuded of its feathered bounty.

From the photographs in the book, it appeared the Birding Guide was geared to introducing the common birds an urban dweller might expect to see if city planners had accounted for and retained green cover in Mumbai.

But then Mumbai is a different kettle of fish, and while its city planners had accounted for it in the beginning, as is evident in the gardens, and parks and other formerly open areas, the caliber of governance in recent years, influenced in no small measure by the suspect quality of people elected to positions of power, has seen a steady deterioration to a point where birds are reduced to living on the pages of a book.

It doesn’t take a detective agency to unearth the causes of decay in governance, living standards, and the grind of the daily commute, certainly not of the caliber of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

It’s not a book I see often in the hands of Mumbai railway commuters. Apparently, it’s a series of episodic novels by Alexander McCall Smith, an author of Scottish origin.

The first time I learnt of the existence of the series was when I saw it in the hands of a bearded fellow commuter on a rainy day in Mumbai who would dutifully carry a long handle umbrella in the manner of the old gentleman carrying an umbrella and looking out to sea on the cover of Sooni Taraporevala’s PARSIS: The Zoroastrians of India; A Photographic Journey.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency had piqued the interest of others in the train compartment as it had mine. It was an uncommon title in a setting where travelers were more used to seeing commuters carry titles by Michael Crichton, Jeffrey Archer, and Sidney Sheldon among others than a title by Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s rare I pass a fortnight by without seeing someone reading Michael Crichton, among my favourites as well.

The elderly gentleman had placed Michael Crichton’s NEXT on the seat beside him. I initially mistook his action to mean he was reserving a seat for a fellow commuter. It wasn’t to be.

As the train pulled out of the station, he snapped out of his short nap and dived into Crichton’s NEXT, a book that apparently originated after Michael Crichton returned to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla in 2005, where he had done postdoctoral work, to attend a conference on Genetics and Law sponsored by the Jefferson Institute. He was surprised and outraged by what he learned about the current laws regarding a range of issues in genetics. He immediately put aside what he had been working on, and began research for the book that became NEXT. He modeled the structure after the genome itself, incorporating fragments of popular culture, and writing a series of stories that sometimes interconnected, and sometimes didn't. The result was a very atypical novel. (Source)

Michael Crichton, The Official Site.

The Da Vinci Code continues to hold its own over the years. The only thing that surprises me when I see yet another traveler on a Mumbai local train immersed in Dan Brown’s book is not why he’s reading it but why he is so late in reading it. A sentiment I kept to myself upon seeing a South Indian commuter with neatly combed hair, a red and ash coloured tika gracing his forehead, engrossed in the Da Vinci Code.

Jeffrey Archer’s Shall We Tell The President has pushed his other bestseller Kane And Abel hard for a place in the reading hearts of Mumbai train commuters.

It’s to the book’s credit that commuters will hang on to handle bars on their long commute to the office and back, sufficiently gripped by the plot to be lost to the world around them, a moment of peace fathomed among the pages of a book to the comforting feel of paper.

Note: Read PART I, PART II, and PART III in my series noting the books my fellow travelers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back, and sometimes on their way elsewhere around the city.

A Request: I would appreciate it very much if you would note/credit and link back here if this post inspired you to do a series or a variation of the series of your own.

Since this is a part of my larger India Reading Project involving books and the reading people, I’ll be counting on the link-back for continued and further participation of new readers.

Related Posts in my India Reading Project Series

1. Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store
2. Indian Copy


Riot Kitty said...

Neat project. I am always curious to see what other people are reading. Years ago, I saw a really scruffy looking guy reading a book called "Natural Birth Control." I can't help thinking the "natural" part was him not getting any!

Amber Star said...

Anil P.,
I've been reading Larry McMurtry all summer and am still trying to finish Lonesome Dove when I can. What with Christmas coming and family, too it is a busy time and little time to just read. I don't have to commute so don't have that precious time to catch up on reading. I love his books, because they are set in Texas. Texas is my home and his, as well. He tells great stories of long ago days....well, long ago to me. Not so much to you and others from countries with very long histories. Texas became a state in 1846, so not so long ago.

Balachandran V said...

Wonderful theme, Anil! Since the last few months I am a weekly commuter between Trivandrum and Alleppey by train; curiously, i have noticed that I am the only one around with a book. I will keep a sharper outlook and let you know.

But tell me, do your subject notice your camera? Do you discuss their reading interest with them?

Abhishek said...

Since 8 months I am continuously traveling in #delhimetro, the case is not different there and I see many people reading different Books.
Though I mainly saw people reading Chetan Bhagat here.
How do you click those pics through your Mobile Camera.
I also run a Blog but too hesitant to click pics in #delhimetro.
I may also go along a post like this, don't worry I will give your post a reference if I ever write on this topic.
Came back after a long time on your blog refreshing as usual : )

Lynn said...

I'm tempted to read The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami - or at least put it on my long list of books awaiting a read.

I love these posts about the books you spot your fellow travelers in life reading. Just lovely.

Red said...

A Plethora of colors, literary and otherwise. I njoyed Archers shall we tell..., Prey and Andromeda Strain didn't kill me either like Bhagat's choice few.

Brown's Code made an ok read but dragged as a movie.

Silly the commuters not object to you photographing them or do they care less?

How do you manage to keep the objects looking oblivious. Me I get so self concious in front of a camera...either I gotta act silly or plaster a fake smile.

So temme?

Anonymous said...

Are you a bird-watcher? You seem to know quite a bit about birds. Incidentally, I have worked with a couple of people representing the Bombay Natural History Society.

niranjana said...

Glad to see this series return! Wondering btw if audiobooks have much currency in India?

Ramakrishnan said...

Your post made very enjoyable reading.It's amazing as to how people are able to concentrate and immerse themselves completely into books in the midst of all the cacophony that goes on in a local train. The likes of the Tamilian gentleman reading Da Vinci Code - perhaps he loves the book so much & is reading it for the N'th time :)
And do you really mean that the Great Hornbill is now actually a thing of the past - extinct & Dead as a Dodo ?
"Swami" could be Subramania Swamy the perennial joker , "Sofas" - the furniture most politicians sit on and do their dark deeds, and the opposition is for ever trying to get at the ruling party's "Goat" !
Have a nice weekend.

austere said...

I think it is a miracle that commuters try to read at all.
All is not lost, not yet. :)

Unknown said...

Good one!It is defntly very interesting to see what others are upto :P
The guy sticking to Jeffery Archer even while standing gave a smile at the end :)
One question though, no one objected on you clicking their pictures like this?

An Iengar Chick said...

Anil: ??

Kamini Dandapani said...

I was extra thrilled to read this post: R. Chandrasekar is my brother, and a proud sister 's bias notwithstanding, I have to say that The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami is a thoroughly enjoyable read!

NRIGirl said...

Great idea for a blogpost! Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

i travel from Pune to Mumbai every day & i see many passengers read marathi books.
didn't you notice thant?