SoBo Reads, Bandra Reads, Juhu Reads, SGNP Reads: How the silent reading community in Mumbai is making noise

21 August,2023 11:51 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Flowering at different gardens in Mumbai, the silent reading communities inspired by Cubbon Reads in Bengaluru, are bringing not only the young but also the old to read in open spaces. Sitting quietly devoid of interaction, readers can simply read with like-minded people while enjoying everything that nature has to offer

The ’Bandra Reads’ silent reading community meets at the jogger’s park on Carter Road every Sunday from 8:30 am – 11:30 am. Photo Courtesy: Amie Fazulbhoy

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For a little over the last two months, every weekend, bookworms in Mumbai have been making a beeline to congregate with fellow book lovers and read silently in nature's lap in Colaba, Bandra, Juhu, Borivali, and even Thane. With children as young as three years old to people in their 50s, these meetups don't necessarily require people to interact with each other. All they need to do is show up with mats or bedsheets to sit on, some snacks to munch on, and carry books to read in silence in the presence of a like-minded community and nature. The ‘silent reading community' is not like a typical book club but is turning out to be an alternative space for readers devoid of the regular fanfare of book launches, author talks and pre-book releases too.

What started out of Cubbon Park in Bengaluru as ‘Cubbon Reads' has now taken over the world by inspiring more such ‘silent reading communities' to sprout happily. For those who spend time on Instagram, it is impossible that you may have not come across posts about @CubbonReads, where readers have been coming together over the last few months to sit and read in silence while enjoying nature and everything that it has to provide. The movement has also inspired many in Mumbai, and now the city already boasts of not one but five different communities in different parts, making it more accessible to everybody. The communities called Juhu Reads, Bandra Reads, SGNP Reads, SoBo Reads and Thane Reads have mushroomed silently, and Mumbaikars are already attracted to them like bees to honey with the first one being in Juhu, which has amassed 1,200 followers already.

Taking over Juhu
Being one of the first to start in the city, Juhu Reads was started by co-curators Diya Sengupta and Rachna Malhotra, who happened to be friends of the curators of the Bengaluru-based community. Sengupta shares, "We drew inspiration from ‘Cubbon Reads,' a silent reading community that was started by Shruti Sah and Harsh Snehanshu, a marketing professional and an entrepreneur, respectively, in December 2022 at Cubbon Park in Bengaluru." The reason behind the silent reading community in Juhu, explains Sengupta, is to allow introverted readers a chance to join in, without the pressure of having to talk, and in the process, attempt to retain the personal nature of reading.

"The guidelines of all our ‘reads' chapters are no need for awkward pleasantries and to discourage bringing chatty friends to the sessions. The aim is to read silently but surrounded by a larger reading group, all of whom read silently," adds the 38-year-old city-based sustainability strategy consultant. For Malhotra, it goes beyond the act of just reading. She chimes in, "The purpose is to encourage the habit of reading in people as a community. We believe that this initiative is a way to initiate conversations around the reclamation of public spaces like a park or beaches by citizens."

The first Juhu Reads was held on May 20 at Kaifi Azmi Park in Juhu and the duo have been able to successfully host 14 reading sessions since then, as they meet every Saturday from 5 pm to 7 pm. Sengupta explains, "When we started the community couple of months ago, 25-30 readers turned up every week to read with us. With the arrival of monsoons, the numbers reduced given that many of our readers came from far across the city to Juhu, and commute became difficult for some of them." However now that the rains have subsided, the Mumbaikar says the Juhu community is starting to see an increase in the number of readers including several new entrants.

Such has been the popularity of the community in the neighbourhood, that they get not only children but also elderly people including one couple that has left a lasting impression on them. "They have not missed a single edition since we started. This is despite the gentleman being in a wheelchair. They told us that they look forward to Saturday evenings when they can come to Kaifi Azmi Park and read with us," she adds. Even if readers can't make it, they can simply read at the park, take a picture of the book, and tag ‘Juhu Reads'. The meetup not only includes reading silently, but also a community gathering that often extends to clicking photographs of the books to post online and visiting a coffee shop later to get to know each other or simply discuss books.

However, the novelty of the activity often leads to curious bystanders wondering what is happening, and the Juhu community has had quite a few of them, some good, others bad. "When we were sitting on the amphitheater steps, a man walked up to us and asked us if we were rehearsing for a play. He had never seen a group of people sitting and reading in a public park. When we told him we were a silent reading community, he seemed astounded. He thought we were acting. It is this mindset that we want to change." In another instance, two park guards asked the readers sitting to get off the grass, so that the grass isn't damaged. Ironically, there were joggers jogging all over, others eating and littering all over, the group observed. "Why were readers being singled out then? In our opinion they are not used to seeing people sitting and reading in a public park. At least in India.," shares Sengupta.

The fact that so many readers are coming together, says Malhotra, means they have the desire to be part of a group. "In today's times, although we are equipped with the latest technology to communicate globally for work or leisure, we have more and more people feeling isolated or disconnected from the world, including family and friends. Communities bring a sense of belonging and connection to a group of individuals, also increasing the chances of building new friendships with people who share the same interests as you." With no pressure to communicate, the 53-year-old freelance tutor and personality development trainer says, readers feel safe as no one will intrude. "If they wish to talk, the topic will obviously be books, which is a passion for all. Another fact is that one would feel awkward going to a park and reading alone, but doing so with other readers makes it comfortable and safe, especially for women," she adds.

Bringing it to Bandra
Understandably, even Amie Fazulbhoy came across Cubbon Reads on Instagram, after they went viral. Interestingly, when Fazulbhoy was looking for one in Mumbai, she came across Sengupta and Malhotra's ‘Juhu Reads'. She shares, "I was in Bengaluru myself, and a few of my friends also told me about it. So, when I came back to Mumbai, they were getting viral and adding more chapters around the world including Spain and Poland." However, Juhu wasn't the most ideal option for her, on a Saturday, especially because of the crowd and traffic to deal with along the way. So, she decided to do something about it. From there, it did not take long for her to start one in Bandra at the jogger's park on Carter Road, which takes place every Sunday from 8:30 am - 11:30 am. While they sit in the open when it is not raining, there is a canopy for when it starts raining.

The 29-year-old shares, "We started in the first week of July and the first meetup had 8-9 people. It was raining really heavily like all of us experienced, and still so many people came because I think many were waiting for it to happen in Bandra. The most recent one had 13-14 people who came." Last Sunday was their ninth successful session. Fazulbhoy, who is a Bandra-based lawyer is joined by Anca Florescu Abraham, who is the co-founder of Love Your Parks, among other initiatives city, as her co-curator. Even though it is called ‘Bandra Reads', the Mumbaikar says there are people who come from Wadala, Andheri, Ghatkopar, and Worli too. If and when the number gets big, they plan on splitting the group between Carter Road and Patwardhan Park. "There is no judgment or requirement for any kind of particular genre - it includes anybody who reads any kind of books including fiction or academic subjects - you just come and do your thing. There are also some people who come colour in books, knit too," adds the Mumbaikar, who herself takes a colouring book often.

Ask her if she thinks it is an evolved version of a book club. She says otherwise. Having been a part of book clubs and coordinating them herself, the book lover says, they can often be niche in their approach because everybody reads the same book, and that becomes like a chore, which is not what the silent community reading and that is what it makes it attractive.

Building a community in Borivali
Elsewhere in the city, Borivali-based Amanda D'Souza started SGNP Reads, which takes place at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on every Sunday between 11 am - 1 pm. While Fazulbhoy says the silent aspect of reading makes the activity interesting, D'Souza tops it up with not just a park but a whole lot of nature, that the national park is known for.

The Borivali community sits in SGNP near the river, where there is a garden. Since there are a couple of gazebos there, the 28-year-old says they have been experimenting with them to see which one suits the best. "In the last two sessions, we found one that was at a height, and since it is in the vicinity of a river, it has a really nice view, along with some breeze, and silence, for people to read - and to find that in Mumbai is very rare." Even though it rained in July, there has been a steady number of readers gathering there, some coming from Malad and Goregaon, and even all the way from Ghatkopar too. She says, "I was in Bengaluru when I came across Cubbon Reads after some friends were also going to Cubbon Park to read. So, when I got back to Mumbai, I wanted to start it here in Borivali, but I did not find a co-curator for a long time." However, she eventually found her co-curator in another Borivali resident Sachin Shanbhag, and they haven't looked back ever since then.

While there were lesser people initially, Mumbaikars travelling to Borivali are slowly increasing and today there are between 11-12 people, who come regularly. "The Cubbon Reads curators told us that initially when you are building it, you need a small number because the crucial aspect of the community is the silence, and with a bigger number, it may attract noise, and it may become difficult to control the quiet that we are trying to foster here. So, we are very happy because we are able to interact and discuss what we are reading with each other, grab some snacks or lunch, and have met some people, who have jobs that I would have never known existed in the world," she adds.

The community gets a lot of children coming to read along with their parents, and unwilling to part with their books, even for photographs, as well as teenagers. "I am very proud that we have been able to get people of all ages come together in this community, socialise and interact with each other." A lot of people who come, she says come to the national park, and then join the community. "The feeling of just being quiet in nature, with other people, but you have your solitude - is a rare balance to achieve," the 28-year-old adds.

Calling out to readers in Colaba
While the Juhu, Bandra and Borivali communities are flourishing, the SoBo Reads community is thriving too. Started by three Mumbaikars, who call Colaba their home, it is adding to the ever-growing number of book readers in the city. Hailing from Bengaluru, Pratik Singhvi already knew about Cubbon Reads because he had seen a few of his friends engage with the community, and the fact that it was a novel idea that was non-commercial also caught his interest. Singhvi explains, "It appealed to me for two reasons. It is quiet, everyone to themselves, and having their own time with anything to read. It got people around nature, and we identified something like a similar spot in Mumbai, and decided it is good to happen there." So, Singhvi along with two other co-curators Anushka Chaturvedi and Shaun D'Souza got together to start SoBo Reads (for those familiar, SoBo is the popular abbreviation for South Bombay).

Like Juhu, Bandra and SGNP, even SoBo Reads is held weekly. When they started in late June, they used to earlier do it on Saturdays, they now do it on Sundays from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm at the Bombay Port Trust Gardens in Colaba. "The location came to us like a boon because it is so big that it almost feels like a lung in the middle of Colaba - it has a very nice jogging track, it has the sea close, and canopied by old trees. It is ideal to sit under the tree and read," adds Singhvi. Every reader carries their own mat, beverages or snacks and books and join others. People can come and leave whenever they want. However, silence is the essence and one of the directives in the community.

While they initially got only 4-5 people because it was peak monsoon season, they also had to do it indoors once at the Starbucks near Horniman Circle. Apart from children and adults like the others, they also get a lot of students who join them often. "At one point, we had a fairly older lady, who was generous enough to offer us a space to conduct the reading community," adds Chaturvedi. The sessions end well and with whoever is there till then. "One of our first sessions, it rained really heavily, and we ended up sitting at one of the BPT gardens, for a fairly long time and it was a good day," adds Chaturvedi. While Fazulbhoy believes book clubs may be limiting, Singhvi says they have their own space, but at the end of the day, both think this is a unique experience, which makes it interesting. The community has not only helped Singhvi but Chaturvedi fall back in love with books all over again.

With such a glowing success, it is only fair for the co-founders and co-curators Sah and Snehanshu to be happy with the response. So, when we ask them how it feels to have started a global movement, Sah says, "It is inspiring to see the way the community has been accepted by readers across the world. It is the fellow readers who have made it into a movement, and it is sheerly for the sake of enjoying reading together in the warmth of other human beings. Seeing the combined strength of this movement also debunks the oft-perceived notion of the loss of reading as a leisurely habit in modern times."

Snehanshu adds, "Now, there are over 60 "Reads" chapters affiliated with Cubbon Reads globally - they are spread across Mumbai, Delhi NCR, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Kochi, Goa, Ahmedabad, Vijayawada, Pondicherry, Thrissur, Srinagar, Cuttack, Nagpur, Guwahati, Shillong, Jaipur, Surat, Siliguri, Ranchi, Lucknow and so many more! All metro cities have several editions over the weekend which make them more accessible to readers across the city." Internationally, there are chapters in Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne, London, Dubai, Paris, Johannesburg, Seattle, Boston, New York City, and more. "Most of these chapters are started voluntarily by others who come across Cubbon Reads on their social media feeds. They contact us if there are chapters in their cities, and if there aren't, we guide them how to start one," concludes the Bengaluru-based reader, indicating how people can simply start one in their own neighbourhood, and they will be there to help.

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