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Pleasures of reading and writing

In these cantankerous times, when high-pitched and meaningless debate have engulfed public discourse, a narration on pleasures of reading and writing could come as balm to soothe ruffled feathers. Last week, after ages I had the opportunity to hear the legendary professor of Sociology Andre Beteille. He was delivering the National Book Trust foundation day lecture at the India International Centre (IIC).

Beteille, during the course of narration, in his own endearing style recalled the anecdotes of his long academic career including the horrors of learning that the library of Vishwa Bharati, the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore, had only the text books in its stacks. Then he went onto to recall how his professor – M N Srinivas, the man who gave the concept of Sanskritisation, was a voracious letter writer and would even use the margins of the Inland letter cards of India Post to express his ideas and thoughts.

In these times when the children are so occupied with Facebook and Twitter, I have long been contemplating how do get my two progenies hooked to reading and more importantly writing. After much persuasion my 12-year-old son finally agreed to write to us a letter from boarding and we all waited with much expectation. The letter did arrive, written on a sheet torn from a notebook and divided into three neat compartments – one for me, one for mother and the third for the sister. We have replied to him in three different sheets and each sheet is fully utilised but still not the way M N Srinivas would have wanted to do it.

Last weekend, watching Ranveer-Sonakshi starrer Lootera, my daughter during the second half of the film told me that it has been inspired by O Henry’s famous short-story The Last Leaf. She left me happy and immediately after the movie, I wanted to check on her reading habits. ‘Dad, it was part of English text in class VII,’ said the class XI student matter-of-factly. I was at loss of not just words but also feeling on her revelation. While my thoughts about the girl reading classic literature had come crashing down, but I was happy that her school had taken care to ‘teach’ her some good stories.

During the lectures to media classes in past decade, I have always told the wannabe journalists that the best way to equip oneself for journalism was to read. In fact I once recall telling the students of the benefits of reading – it strengthens both knowledge and language. Some of them did take to the habit and have prospered. But then there are also journalists, who have prospered as book reviewers even without reading a single book. Satisfaction to a true journalist can come only if on the basis of his knowledge and information he is able to better his compatriots. Let me narrate for you an incident which really made me proud of being even a pamphlet reader. The agitation by Gujjars in north India was in full swing. I was the lone sympathiser for them on the editorial board of my last newspaper. In the course of news meeting one evening, a colleague sarcastically said, ‘These illiterate louts …’
I had interjected, ‘Sir, given an opportunity, even this community can also give you the best of poets.’ Everybody in the boardroom looked startled as another colleague said, ‘Now you are taking your sympathy for the community a bit too far.’ Confident from my readings, I said, ‘I am sure about what I am stating. One of the best post-Independence poets was from their community.’ Another colleague intervened, ‘Come on give it up.’ Not to be cowed down, I went on, ‘His name was Sahir Ludhianvi.’
The boardroom fell silent, the editor intervened, ‘I think the discussion is moving towards inanity, lets finalise the page 1 stories.’

Next morning the Hindustan Times had an article on the agitation by a reputed historian. It carried a mention of the community of Muslim Gujjars living in the vicinity of Ludhiana. I sent a text message to the editor to have a look at the article. He replied that he had already read it.
In the evening news meeting that day, he said there was truth in what I had narrated and asked me from where did I dig the information out? I went onto narrate the acquisition of precious knowledge with some flourish. ‘Sometime around the turn of the century there was a huge Gujjar Panchayat on the Yamuna banks, where Akshardham temple stands today. Among the literature distributed to those attending and covering the Panchayat was a pamphlet on Gujjar Vidwan (men of letters). It had made a mention about Sahir Ludhianvi,’ I said as everybody else heard in rapt attention. In my boarding school, it was compulsory to write and deposit a letter every Sunday. Some of us even pasted an empty inland letter card and neatly wrote the address on top to befuddle the head boy, who at times checked the letters against an electric bulb to find out if it was empty inside. However, these letters, which I wrote and the ones I received from my mother and father, typed on a Remington portable machine which my father had inherited from his father, gave me some of the best pleasures at
reading and also writing.

I am eagerly looking forward to the reaction of the 12-year-old on receiving a ‘long letter’ from us. Let me see whether he replies on three different sheets, or sticks to the old format of three-compartments in one sheet or altogether gives up the idea of letter writing. He has the much faster and crisper means of communication available to him. It’s another matter that such communications on most occasions are soulless.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post


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