‘A story being told can never be as great as the story being lived’

Illustration: Samia Singh

ALL MY life, I’ve loved to read. There was a time when I would read three books simultaneously — one in bed, one in the bathroom and one in the car at red lights.

My journey began when I was in third grade (at the time, we lived in Washington, D.C.) I was surrounded by books at school, at the library, at home. At first, my heroes were lovely, hapless princesses — Cinderella and Snow White. Then I borrowed a Pippi Longstocking book from the public library. Soon, I was transformed into a tree-climbing, irreverent brat — modelled after the red-headed Pippi of super-human strength. A year later, I moved back to India, but the irreverence and the reading stuck.

In college, Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil made a tremendous impression on me. After I read it, I put down the book, my fingers trembling, and stared into space. Like the repentant Kitty, I swore that I would bring up my daughter, when I had one, to be a strong, free-thinking, idealistic feminist. (I do not have a daughter but I am trying to bring up two sons to be strong, free-thinking, idealistic and feminist). In addition to favourites like War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, I began to devour romance novels. Greek Tycoons and American Cowboys — I thought I should marry one of those dashing, romantic heroes from faraway lands. I did, except my husband’s hometown was less than 150 km from mine. He too is a reader and we engage in a happy exchange of books. After marriage, we moved to Chicago and I read, almost entirely, books by Indian writers — among them Vikram Seth’s delicious A Suitable Boy and the poignant Swimming Lessons by Rohinton Mistry. The more I read, the more I yearned for India.

Then I had my children and my world split — like a crack along an unsuspected seismic fault. I quit my job, but was still harried for time. While I had no time to read for myself, I would read to my super-active older son, often for hours, as much as a respite for myself as for his enjoyment. He would sit still and listen intently like Yoda from Star Wars. My younger son did not take to reading right away. But when he turned seven, he started one of his brother’s books — a Magic Tree House. Soon, he finished the whole series. To my delight, he moved onto another, and another, until he too had entire bookshelves of ‘finished’ books. Our bookshelves exploded, but now with children’s books.

Eventually, we moved back to Hyderabad. It was on a crisp winter morning in the balcony of our house that I found myself drinking piping hot chai. A gentle breeze was blowing and bougainvilleas swayed in the dappled sunlight of my garden. I was reading a book about a woman sitting in her garden on a summer evening, drinking a cup of green tea. How beautiful the moment seemed! Reading about it was so much more vivid, so much better than the reality and I was momentarily disoriented. I realised that I had lost the skill of savouring the moment fully, and could grasp experiences only through second-hand retellings in books. Reading expands the mind with new perspectives, nurtures the imagination and strengthens the spirit. But it can also take away from the everyday moments of living.

Now, it’s one book at a time, which is savoured like a bite of rich dark chocolate. I read with humility (how daring of the intrepid writer to bare her soul), and awe (how wonderful to create, and brave a writer’s difficult life). One must read a book carefully realising that the story being told can never be as great as the story being lived.

Once a week I read to eight girls in an orphanage. It is greatly rewarding, especially when, Mamta, 5, and Bindu, 6, their eyes shining, urge me to read again, read some more, and this book, and that. I know that they are set, like my own children, on their private journeys of reading. I am filled with gratitude for the simple joy of books.

Kavitha Buggana is 41. She is an aspiring writer and lives in Hyderabad


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