Among the sea of Amish’s Shiva Trilogy, Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, and Ravinder Singh’s latest (the names all sound the same to me), on the Delhi Metro, almost every time I take the Metro I find at least one female passenger reading something that makes me want to strike up a conversation with her. The reason I specify "female passengers" is partly because I usually walk the extra length of the platform to climb into the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro instead of jumping into the first available coach. But there is another reason - even on those (multiple) opportunities that I have been in a general compartment, I have never found fellow male passengers reading anything but newspapers and guidebooks, what we grew up calling "kunjis" in our city. That is not counting the foreigners who are often armed with copies of Shantaram and dear, dear Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity.
So back to my avidly reading fellow women passengers - whom I encounter at least once every time I take the Metro, which is on an average three times a week, and usually these include multiple sub-journeys from the south of the city to the north and back again. You ask why I am spending so much time trying to ascertain the numbers of these avidly reading women I so happily keep finding in my city? Well, that’s the publisher in me - never can let go of a ripe opportunity to gauge the volume of quality readership.
Perhaps, the most thrilling moment in the past few years of taking the Delhi Metro was when I was distracted, and not particularly happily, by an account of a college student to her friend about her boyfriend’s movie choices which she always gave into. Now these were choices which made me want to give her some advice about her "choice" of man. Imagine my delight then, when after bidding goodbye to her friend, the same girl reached inside her bag and pulled out a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita! I was sure then that she was in safe hands. I was almost as happy another time when a young girl got on, sat down beside me, and opened a copy of Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. She thought me odd though when I gushed to her saying I was so happy she was reading this book even though I hadn’t managed to finish it. I am sure she was happy to be rid of me when I got down at the next station.
Another time, a slip of a girl in a checked shirt and jeans with a Climaproof rucksack and purple sneakers remained so deeply engrossed in her copy of Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul that she missed her station. Indeed, my fellow passengers read with varying concentration levels - most look up occasionally to glance at their reflection in the dark windows, or to have a quick look around. There are a few though who are one with their books. On a trip from Green Park to Kashmere Gate, I was drawn not to a copassenger’s book (because I could not see the cover clearly), but the concentration with which she was reading it. It was that oneness with the book that one gets after having feverishly read 50 pages without looking up, you have forgotten where you are, what time of the day it is, or what you have to do next; what remains is on the pages of the book in your hand.
So this time, I just had to find out what she was reading, which was easier said than done considering she was sitting at an angle on the same side of the compartment as myself which made it impossible for me to get a good view of the cover, no matter how much I bent over. After a while I realised that other passengers were looking strangely at me, so I gave up the exercise. Fortunately though like me, she got out at Kashmere Gate and as we milled out on the station platform, she held the book closed in one hand for a few seconds and I saw that it was Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Back on the platform, she reopened the book and walked leisurely towards the exit reading the whole time through the crowd and the noise.