In a complicated relationship with a book

In my college years — the 1980s — a folk art object was very popular amongt all us young girls. It was the Dokra Reading Lady. Named after a metal mining tribe in Eastern India, Dokra is a wax casting technique, which produces ridged metal objects you must often have seen — elephants and lions with curly ears, turtles, moles and fish with long woebegone faces, lamps, necklaces, temples. The Reading Lady, a contemporary feeling figure, could be found in different poses: lying on her side, head resting on hand, flopped on her stomach with feet in the air, breastfeeding a baby, or combing her hair with one hand and in the other, holding a book.

Why does a woman lost in a book make people nervous? For the petty power and preposterous rules of the world are suddenly rendered insignificant, when she can fantasise a world of her own. REPRESENTATIONAL PICTURE

Trying to find the origin of the figurine, I spoke to publisher Urvashi Butalia of the feminist press Zubaan, whose logo is this reading woman. She had been told by a craftsman that they came in the wake of the early nation wide rural literacy movements for women, carried out by activist organisations such as BGVS (Bharatiya Gyan Vigyan Samiti). As they joined the literacy groups and caught the book fever, the sight of women lying around reading became common and entered the repire of traditional craftsmen. Others say it was the other way round and the figure was created in order to popularise literacy.

Whatever its origin, the figurine emanates what in Hindi is called talleenta — being rapt, wrapped in a book. The woman is in a private reverie, her daily chores forgotten, her outward reality melting away before a deep inner reality. She is in some sense, in a room of her own, except like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement it is a secret room, that comes when she needs it, and becomes what she needs.

As young women, this object of desire (I remember saving up the R40 it cost over a couple of months), was one of the few things around us that reflected this deep experience we too shared with that tribal woman, of discovering not only the world through reading, but ourselves. Whether we read Shakespeare or Mills and Boons, Srilal Shukla or Upamanyu Chatterjee, Agatha Christie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we left the world around us for a long, solitary journey into our own minds. Engaging in a private relationship with books, we learned to know more strongly our own hesitant feelings and opinions; trying out many personae, we became ourselves — a service art offers. When we emerged from this hypnotic trance, reluctantly pulled out by cries of “lunch is getting cold!” we came out a little changed in ways no one could monitor, judge or prevent.

This sight of women lost in reading seems to make people nervous. My friend A’s husband always seems to demand her attention when she’s lost in her book, the way babies shit only when their mothers relax with a meal. My friend’s mother would always annoy her mother-in-law because, lying down with a story, she would forget everything and burn the rice. Sleeping with the book — it’s a sneaky infidelity, no? The Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University fears that women in the library will cause men to flock there — but is that what really bothers him? I wonder.

Speaking of her inner life, the writer Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “Nobody shall come here on their terms; or haul me off to them on theirs.” Perhaps that’s why a woman lost in a book, makes people nervous. For the petty power and preposterous rules of the world are suddenly rendered insignificant, when she can fantasise a world of her own.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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