How I Rediscovered Reading

How I Rediscovered Reading

There are a few activities I have rediscovered. Reading books is one of them. Perhaps many people of my generation would have done it. There was no choice. I studied in Marathi medium school. Our schools included English language in their curriculum in the 5th Standard, which is when I began learning alphabets. By the time I went to college, where the medium of instruction was English, there was pressure on me to read English books which I did not understand, keeping aside the Marathi books which I loved. The result? I lost interest in reading. Totally!

Four years later I graduated in science. You can write a science exam if you know six or seven verbs. My post-graduation course involved study of law. The language of law puts you off completely. Excessive use of passive voice and unending statements running in several lines kill a reader’s interest. This period in my life coincided with long judgments of Justice Mr Krishna Iyer. They were hailed as great judgments. I was in the awe for his mastery of English language. Was I attracted to read it? It was just about as much attraction doctors’ medicines had for me.

Rediscovering Reading

Then I stumbled upon ‘Readers’ Digest Condensed Books.’ They created interest. My general view that English books were unintelligible was corrected. The interest grew. Then PG Wodehouse entered the scene. It was a booster dose. Then came Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins. I was not familiar with the American slang. I did not understand every sentence. Sometimes context helped me get the meaning, sometimes it just did not matter to me. Completing the book was an achievement for me; glossing over a few unintelligible paragraphs did not matter.

Reading Legal Cases

I entered the corporate world. My work area was industrial relations. In the seventies and eighties you had to be familiar with the laws and case laws. Reading judgments of courts, understanding what they implied was a difficult task for me, but I pursued relentlessly. If you are reading legal cases on a given subject, you have to rely on various digests, like Labour Law Digest, for the research. The Digests had ‘Contents’ section from which I could trace case law on a particular subject. Legal cases are also analysed in ‘commentaries’ on a given law. I learnt that commentaries are used by looking up the ‘Subject Index.’ It meant that for the research on a subject you opened the last page of the commentary first!

This was a revelation for me. I remembered the library at SIES College. There were book cards arranged by subject and also by author. Suddenly the relevance of those lists became clear to me. When I buy a book I look at the Contents. I also look up the Subject index.  

Librarians’ Interest

While I was studying for my master’s degree, my Institute’s library received many books from the Office of Commissioner of Labour. I would go to the Library and pick up books for reading. The Institute library had a unique practice. The Librarian kept a small notebook for each student. When you borrowed a book, she made entry in the notebook. So a glance at the notebook informed you the various books you borrowed – it obviously did not tell whether you read it. The Director would inspect those notebooks and kept tab on what the students were reading! And an occasional ‘you read this XYZ book – tell me what does it say on this subject’ from our Institute’s Director was the most feared nudge!

I attended a 15 day course at The International Training Centre of The ILO, at Turin, Italy. They have a good library. The layout is excellent. The Librarian told me that I could pick up any book of my interest. And then he gave a strange instruction. After picking up a book and flipping through it, I should not place it back on the shelf, but instead, I should place it on a table. He pointed to a table in a corner. I asked the reason. “When I place the books back on the shelves, I make a note of the books which were of interest to you,” he said.

Interesting were the ways of librarians. I guess much later the browsers copied this idea and discovered which sites you visit and which subjects you search.

From Aimless Reading to Reading With Purpose

My job involved extensive travelling. In the late eighties and nineties there were many good book shops at the airports, Mumbai airport too. I used to pick up a book on every trip and complete reading in three or four days. Initially, it was aimless reading. Later I asked other bibliophiles what they were reading. That led me to read VS Naipaul’s ‘A million mutinies now.’ His ‘The Middle Passage.’ And to Colin Wilson’s ‘Mysteries’. And ‘The Criminal History of Mankind.’ When I liked an author, I have read his another book immediately.

Somewhere along I got interested in biographies or autobiographies. I read several. It all began with reading Rajmohan Gandhi’s ‘Understanding The Muslim Mind.’ There is no better biographer in India than Rajmohan Gandhi.

Biographies helped me understand the intricacies of human relations. They chronicle the rise and fall of people aided by effort and luck on both the sides. That introduces us to the tremendous drama in the lives of people. Biographies also help us understand how our ‘all work is autobiographical.’ The biography of PG Wodehouse by Frances Donaldson has captured it well.

Sometimes it was possible to cross connect. I read about why Leela Chitnis (she was a celebrity, heroine in Hindi Movies and the first Indian actress to endorse Lux) and Baburao Pendharkar (Well known actor in Marathi and Hindi cinema) fell apart in the biographies of both Pendharkar as well as Leela Chitnis. Different versions!  

I began by reading books by a given author and then I read several biographies. For many years I kept a record of the books I read each year. It helped me understand how my interests moved from year to year.

Translation Helps Us Understand A Book

I translated an English book in Marathi. The purpose was to have my name (it would be okay to have it as a translator) on a book. That was my long standing desire. It was a short book of a hundred pages; it was a simple uncomplicated story. But it had a powerful message about how to work. Translating appeared a simple job initially, but it was not, not for me at least. There were many sentences which had deep meaning. Sometimes I had to think for hours to pick up the essence of the meaning. Then I had to choose the right Marathi words. It was not an easy but somehow I completed translation.

Translation kept me thinking. My reading of the morning newspaper moved at two levels. I read the news and other stories, of course, but I also searched for words and expressions which would help me in translation.  

I make no claim to the evolved level of the art of translating. It was difficult to translate the acceptance speech of the noble laureate Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich. It is intense in message. The original speech is, I think, in Belarusian language. Her polyphonic style is wonderful to read and a joy to translate. My inadequacies came to the fore as a translator. It stalled me. That apart, the sheer intensity of her message kept me thinking for hours.

I translated a chapter from ‘Healing The Wounds’. This is an unusual book by Dr David Hilfiker. Here is what he says about his article which became a chapter in his book. ‘It’s about the inevitability of making serious mistakes as a physician, the agony it brings to the physician, and our usual inability to deal with it. Although the article received wide coverage in the medical literature, it would be over ten years before other doctors began writing about their mistakes publicly.’ As a doctor he performed curating only to discover that he had killed a live foetus! The incident is shocking but it is less important than the author’s analysis of how expectations perfection in work and inability to discuss mistakes takes the toll. That set me thinking for a long time.

And that is the gift of translations. You understand the book. Svetlana Alexievich writes, in one section, about a woman whose husband rushes at the scene of the Chernobyl atomic power accident and dies. It is in polyphonic style. The woman talks about her husband. When she speaks about the effect of radiation on her unborn child you feel her pain and helplessness.

It is difficult not to get carried away by the pain of the protagonists. You live those scenes during translation because you stay on each para long enough when you are translating. You read and re-read it. The need to capture the emotion sets you thinking about the words which describe them, their similarities and differences. It takes me down the memory lane. It may be a distraction which helps you revisit your experiences. I understood how words can carry powerful messages that hit your heart, and also how words can be poor conductors of messages.

Coming Back To Marathi Books

When English ‘intruded’ my life, I had to move far away from the rich Marathi literature. Two persons helped me rekindle my interest. Suneel Karnik, the celebrated editor of several Marathi books has always gifted me a book or two on every visit to his home. Anand Awadhani, the author of several books on Social transformation, presents a book to me whenever we meet. Marathi books can now be ordered on some websites. I am trying to catch up on the lost time.

Books have been a source of insights. Osho’s books have wealth of insights. Some books like ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and ‘Ek Zad, Don Pakshi’ (Autobiography of Vishram Bedekar) have influenced me; they have helped me respond to many situations in a different way. Fritjof Capra’s book ‘The Tao of Physics’ pointed to the similarity between the language of philosophers and physicists. And ‘Kharekhure Idols’ gives wealth of information about great leaders among us. ‘Prakash-Vata’ which covers the work of Dr Prakash Amte is inspiring. The list is unending.

And friends are asking me to write a book. That is an uphill task. But hopefully, I will do it. Wish me good luck.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”