Rosalyn D'Mello: The god of books

Sep 15, 2017, 06:11 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

Think about the last book you read. What led you to it? Was it a friend, a bookstore or some divine grace?

Last week, I landed on Rassundari Devi's 1876 autobiography, Amar Jiban (My Life), recounting her illicit attempts to learn to read. Representation pic/Thinkstock
Last week, I landed on Rassundari Devi's 1876 autobiography, Amar Jiban (My Life), recounting her illicit attempts to learn to read. Representation pic/Thinkstock

As I dangled precariously from the edge of the tiny first-class compartment of a CST-bound fast train, surveying intermittent tree tops that offered relief from the sight of garbage-strewn sidelines, I realised that I believe in the existence of a bibliographical god. There's nothing novel about this epiphany. Many cultures have deities associated with literary or cultural scholarship, Saraswati being a case in point. But what I mean is, I started to wonder if there could be something pre-ordained about the act of reading, whether literary free-will was an illusion of sorts, or was only facilitated through some act of divine grace. Think about the last book you read. What led you to it? Was it a recommendation from a friend or something you stumbled upon in a bookstore? You see, it's different with books, because reading is an activity that's been under threat, thanks to all the many more convenient distractions in which you could be indulging, the activities Chetan Bhagat claims to be in competition with, like playing Candy Crush, or bingeing on series after series on Netflix.

Books do not vie for our attention. They sit quietly in their allotted place and wait, with a patient nervousness, for eager fingers to thumb them open and caress their skin. E-books, too, sit invisibly on their imaginary cyber shelves until they are summoned to appear on your device, until you are compelled enough to allow them to strip themselves one page at a time. For instance, last week, as I lay curled up in bed thanks to my perilous fibroid, I finally found myself plunging into Annie Zaidi's marvellous anthology, Unbound, that brings together in one brick-sized tome 2,000 years of writing by Indian women, despite it having resided in my house since the book's release by Aleph in 2015. My fingers flipped through pages and I landed on an excerpt from the Bengali writer, Rassundari Devi's 1876 autobiography, Amar Jiban (My Life), that recounts her internalised sense of guilt and shame because she illicitly desired to be literate and her many secret attempts at learning to read and write, including tearing off a page from her husband's religious book and one of the leaves on which her son used to practise writing, hiding them in the kitchen and, when she had a free moment between household chores, matching the words on the leaf with those on the page.

Devi was aware that there was something almost criminal about her eagerness to confront head-on the authenticity of the written word, and the fact that this is her story, one she was eventually able to write, makes it all the more powerful. "I could read (religious books) a little bit. But I did not have free time and, more importantly, the fear of getting caught and punished was always looming over me," she writes. Her fear of being caught had the same illicit overtones as Offred in Atwood's dystopic 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, where the punishment for a woman found writing was having her hand cut off, while reading invited the gouging out of eyes.

When I boarded my morning flight on Sunday to head to Mumbai for three weeks, I decided to quickly download Rebecca Solnit's Field Guide to Getting Lost. I was meant to read her more seminal, Men Explain Things to Me (Solnit is credited with introducing the term 'Mansplaining' into feminist consciousness), but was drawn to the field guide instead, since getting lost is my forte, one of my many gifts ensured by my cartographic dyslexia.

I got to the second chapter, titled The Blue of Distance, which I learned is what Solnit calls every alternate chapter, and had this profound sense of déjà vu because on my last flight the other way around I had been reading Maggie Nelsons' Bluets, an exquisitely chiselled ode to the colour blue. The bibliographical god was having its way with me, clearly. A pattern was emerging that was not of my making. "We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing," she writes. One page later, I do a double take when I read her reference to Simone Weil, just like I did three weeks ago, when I found Nelson referring to Weil, and in June, when, at documenta in Athens, I heard Moyra Davey utter her name hours after I'd chanced upon her in a passage by Helene Cixous. It took me back to an evening in Goa, last year, when, after a glass of single malt and freshly baked, buttered poi, I cleared the table and casually opened the newspaper in which the bread had been wrapped. It dated to 2013, and there, gaping at me from the land of lead and headlines, was a photograph of Simone Weil herself accompanying an article by Gopalkrishna Gandhi. "Each thing reflected, transposed in every other thing," Weil once wrote, just before this: "Strictly speaking [coincidence] has a meaning only in relation to the human will."

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to

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