How The Young in India Read: From Paper to Cyberspace

By Prachi Sharma

I often wonder if I would have been the person that I am today had it not been for the books that I read in my most impressionable young years. Is it not true that what we consume, whether it is literature, television, or cinema, has an overbearing effect on our psyche, often unbeknown to us? Our generation, particularly, has grown up alongside the internet. How has this influenced our reading habits and preferences? How do we combat the threat of fake news and misinformation which we face so often? How do we prevent or deal with this sense of utter confusion in times of propaganda? I propose that the answer lies in fostering a habit of patience and close reading. Even more so, in our children.

Reading as adults is a great deal different from reading as kids. Books help us find answers which adults wouldn’t give us. As a kid, I didn’t find my way into the book world very easily and I suspect that it is this unfulfilled longing that makes me present my little nieces with books very often. They can’t help but wonder why I won’t give them something else, like toys! We negotiate. 

Through the pandemic, my dear nieces have been my most frequent visitors. The other day, when this 10-year old dropped by, seeing a map of the subcontinent on my desk, she flaunted, “This is Himachal… Gujarat…” her fingers traversing through the India-Pakistan border, “and this is our enemy!” 

Looking at her, surprised, I asked why she thought this was the enemy. Her young mind had picked up this narrative from television, news, movies, and adults. This made me wonder what we put the minds of our young innocent kids through by feeding into their heads irrational hate and a sense of division. I went on a reflection of my own. When did I start questioning these metanarratives? It didn’t happen overnight but my journey as a reader led me to ask questions. Reading good literature, it seems, helps us think. 

My tryst with books: 

My home did not have bookshelves. We were a family of cinema-goers, not readers. Most schools in India barely inculcate a culture of reading. Forty minutes a week, we would be ‘allowed’ to take a round in the library. Pick only one book and sit with it. When the little me picked a huge Dan Brown title, I was attracted to the cover. Comprehending nothing, distraught, I stared into space and the bell rang. 

My explorations truly began when I was jealous of another kid who was a voracious reader. One time, I saw him carrying a book. The uncovered part of the spine read: ‘The Famous F’. After desperate googling on my family computer, I figured that someone called Enid Blyton was really popular among the kids. I got all editions of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. The summer was swamped!

While transiting into a young adult, when stories about a bunch of kids and their shenanigans did not interest me anymore, I started thirsting for more books. 

The year is 2013. The world has entered the age of e-commerce and apparently, Amazon sells everything. In the books section, the likes of Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat, Preeti Shenoy are the bestsellers. The next few years are spent reading relatable stories written in simple language without the literary mumbo-jumbo. Bhagat’s characters are forming friendships, getting into relationships, and making sense of their lives. Preeti Shenoy’s protagonist is struggling with mental health and I have a window to her mind. Eventually, these titles occupy the hands of school-goers. Timid girls, hoping that college life would bring them freedom and find comfort in familiar-looking characters. Besides, we are reading a handful of classics from our syllabus. It is like sinking in a literary whirlpool where all kinds of books exist together. 

Only later when I went to college, books started existing in a hierarchy of ‘classic’ and ‘popular’. What I read decided how much of an intellectual I became. Popular titles, from an obsession, turned into a bitter taste on the tip of our highly civilized tongues.

But we must ask, why do we hate the non-classic so much? Don’t their characters look like us? The privileged urban elite. Our relationships are like theirs. Our everyday problems (which are really non-problems) are like theirs. Do we really just hate ourselves? Beyond the sphere of valid literary critique, isn’t our superficial disdain for the ‘popular’ just a way of masking our own lives from the expectations that we have of it? We all want to be classics, aesthetic sepia portraits of a moment in time but we are not. Perhaps, our distaste of the ‘cheap, easy, simple-looking’ literature is an escape from some aspect of our reality. 

The advent of digital age and reading habits:

While this hierarchy strengthened, it was also during college that for us, the ‘literary’ met with the ‘social’ and the ‘political’. From offline to online, the urban kids had become the literal ‘digital natives’. Line between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ further faded with the onset of the pandemic. 

Our reading habits in the Internet age have been an odd mix of paper and pixel. While the paper was my first introduction to the written word, the internet played a huge role in fuelling my access to diverse literature. We came to know of many ‘writer-sensations’ and ‘celebrity-authors’ before their books. We got Bookstagram, free PDFs, and eBooks. Publishers, authors, and bookshops started coming online. There was something for everyone.

Social media flourished as a space for activism. Voices of activists from the ground were now being amplified. They were listing essential reads which should have been in our school curriculums. We got access to alternative, violent histories hidden behind overriding narratives and rediscovered writers who were long forgotten. 

The internet, I believe, gave my reading a way forward and side-by-side, the (slowly) decolonizing literature departments embarked on interdisciplinary studies. Eventually, I started identifying problems with books that I had once enjoyed – most bestseller titles on Amazon told only the stories of the privileged and the elite, reinforcing problematic stereotypes. Hence, I started to see problems with myself and began a process of reformation.

Azra Haq’s hands for my niece

When my niece called Pakistan “the enemy!” It was a book that came to our rescue and carried us through a difficult conversation. I picked up a brand new copy of Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation from my shelf and invited her to look at it with me. When she saw Azra Haq’s hands (which looked very much like her own grandmother’s) holding a set of pearls, she couldn’t believe that Azra was a Pakistani. Who did she even think a ‘Pakistani’ was? If anything, a Pakistani was suddenly familiar. Familiar and alike. “So the country changed?” To her young mind, it was unfathomable that borders could move. I had probably given her too much to think and it was fine for now. She keeps coming back to my shelf to look at another one of Remnants’ people, every now and then. The seed has been sown, right?

It is safe to say that books made me who I am, as much as people and experiences. Although other forms of mass media like cinema and television enjoy their own place, it is only through reading that we learn to patiently spend time with information. In a movie, for instance, the music and the visuals among other elements rule above all else, leaving our thoughts at the moment unacknowledged. Reading is like having a one-on-one conversation with the author. It gives us time to reflect, to agree, or disagree and it allows us to sit on one sentence for as long as we want. 

Prachi Sharma is a writer based in Delhi. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree in Literature and exploring the publishing industry on the side. Her academic work has recently appeared in an anthology by Routledge. Previously, she has also written for Feminism in India and Livewire about issues of social justice and ramblings on everyday life. Reach out to her on Instagram where she is her most candid self. 

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