Reading in the times of Coronavirus

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It has been almost eight months since I let myself down the “rabbit hole” just like Alice in Wonderland, the world has turned topsy-turvy however, the books that filled this rabbit hole of mine saved the day for me. I thrived between pages of romances and thrillers, travelled with the characters to myriad places. Sometimes one became an Egyptologist, trying to understand the hieroglyphs found in a tomb of a pharaoh, trying to peel back the years to be a part of an ancient civilisation. There were times when I’d sit on an imaginary chair in a lecture hall where a scientist tried to explain the existence of parallel worlds that we might be living in, simultaneously, as per quantum physics.

After battling my way through the monotony of domestic chores, a pile of dishes or sometimes after dealing with teenage (and at times adult) meltdowns, the momentary escape into the realm of this vast wonderland gave my mind some respite from the onslaught and terror caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. The invisible wings of poesy would come to my rescue, this year I discovered Louise Gluck. Her anthology of poems serenaded their way into my soul … different from the metaphysics of a John Donne or the amazingly painted words of the romantic poets. And when there came a day when I had gotten numb, no ink flowed from my pen, Gluck’s words struck me, “The master said you must write what you see / But what I see does not move me / The master answered-Change what you see.” Probably I needed to change the prism through which I had begun looking at a diseased world. A virus is too microscopic an organism to hand-wrestle its way into the indefatigable mind of a book worm.

Recently the Elysée Palace, where the first lady of France, Brigitte Macron’s office is, was seen to be besieged by a wee bit of domestic disharmony. Madame Macron, a former literature teacher, argued with the president that bookshops should be spared from the lockdown. After all, how could he list bookshops under the category of “non-essential businesses”? Former President, François Hollande also was heard arguing in its favour, “When we no longer have the freedom to move, we must have the freedom to think, to read. It is part of our heritage”.

What really touched the hearts of many bibliophiles in the UAE is the opening of the Sharjah International Book Fair, with all Covid-19 safety and precautionary rules in place. Virtual books could never really allure me, hence I registered myself online for a visit to the book fair. Each slot allowed only 5000 people with a duration of three hours. To touch books, to flip through the pages and to relish the smell of freshly printed books is a pleasure that’s indescribably epic! There were many enthusiastic visitors, in spite of the pandemic; safety rules were adhered to in the strictest of terms and thus we went about browsing through best-sellers without any worries, within a cocoon of assured well-being. The theme of the fair being, “The world reads from Sharjah”, Sharjah being the cultural capital of UAE, has really led from the front in promoting the reading of books and also to a certain extent, in reviving the print industry.

In fact, 2020 has been an eye-opener and a very inspiring teacher for me. I read more, I learnt more. Different genres, various authors and numerous worlds traversed … this unmasked territory unhindered by ‘social distancing’, here I embraced many characters. I cried with them, felt proud of them, celebrated their victories and savoured every word written about them.

I have slept many a night, with my spectacles resting placidly on my face and with the book I was reading in my hands, my finger acting as a book mark. Thus, stepping into a world of slumber, where I might meet Mr. Darcy and wonder at his adorable obstinacy or travel the world with Elizabeth Gilbert or rue over the writings of Simone De Beauvoir or just hear the Madhatter yelling into my ears, “You can let others dream with you. But darling, never let them wake you up.”

— Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @VpNavanita

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