When the soul goes into exile

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There are times when the soul needs to go into exile. In all this urban cacophony, through all the mediocrity of the day, the heart suffers and the soul feels trapped in circumstances it has had no hand in the making of. And that is when you understand, or some little voice tells you, that you need to go back to reading. So what is so revealing about reading? Everyone reads, meaning everyone who goes looking for books is an individual who reads.

All of that is very true. The difficulty, though, comes in when the one who reads or loves to read is often overwhelmed by all that pressure of political writing. When there is little of balance between reading and writing, something goes wrong, sometimes horribly. And that precisely is the way I have been feeling in these past few weeks. My bedroom here in Dhaka and my study in London are getting increasingly crammed with books, works that I have been getting hold of in the past half year or so. Whether it is Dhaka or Calcutta or London or Berlin or Shillong, the bibliophile in me has endlessly reared its head to tell me of the newer delights on the shelves in the bookstores. Nothing can be a better massage for the sensibilities than coming away with an armful of books from those stores. Much of your money is gone. But do you care, until the crunch comes?

But then comes the hurdle, one you associate with reading. My job as a journalist has somehow been keeping me away from all the reading, all the focused reading, I would like to do. Indeed, there are all those times when I wish I had been born in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, a gentleman of leisure, able to while away time in pastoral surroundings, lost in an entirety of life reading. But, again, would I really enjoy that? Reading must come with the activism one associates with modernity; and from that point of view I like to think I am a modern individual. By that I mean a person who keeps in touch with a very wide range of reading, all the way from literature to history to biography to science to economics and what have you.

But this huge need to earn a living often takes the form of a dark malady. All too often I carry a book with me on my way to work. With all these traffic congestions clogging up movement on the streets, I feel I am quite well-placed, in that stranded vehicle, to read the book that I carry, to a point where it really does not matter how long it takes me to reach the office. On these steamy streets of Dhaka, I read, despite all that noise blaring away all around, Jagat S. Mehta’s The Tryst Betrayed: Reflections on Democracy and Development. Am I satisfied with that sort of reading? I ask this question because soon the vehicle begins moving again. There are not many pages I can cover as the miles are being killed under the wheels. Even so, the soul in me is somewhat at ease.

There are other places where I read, or could read, apart from my room. Red Shift restaurant in Gulshan was a spot where you could have not only a good conversation and stimulating coffee with your discerning bibliophile of a friend but also browse through the books on its shelves. That was a relatively new endeavour at Red Shift. The books on display were neither new nor old, but there was something of the rare about them. When at one point, over a mug of iced cappuccino, I studied the collection of books there and chanced upon a copy of an old work by Tariq Ali, I knew what I needed to do: lay my claim to the book. Street Fighting Years, which comes with the sub-title An Autobiography of the Sixties, takes you back to some of the most stirring of times in modern history. But there comes, along with Ali’s analyses of the 1960s, a section he calls Preludes, where the focus is on the late 1940s and proceeds all the way up to the late 1960s. Tariq Ali has always been a delight to read, not just for his language but for his convictions as well. His formative years commenced through Marxism. He has remained a Marxist, much to our relief.

I read the Ali work in much the same way that I went through Out of Line, a literary and political biography by Ritu Menon of the writer Nayantara Sahgal. There is always something of the re-energising about reading literature or literary biographies. Reading of Sahgal or of Ted Hughes and perusing Pinter and Suetonius are for me a return to the world of old-fashioned imagination. Long years ago, at college and so unemployed and therefore depressed, I spent a few charming evenings reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection. So many years later, I go back to it, primarily to recreate the ambience in which I first chanced on the work.

But, yes, all this writing is often a huge impediment to reading. Preparing editorials for days on end saps your energy somewhat. All day long, you carefully lay out plans of penning a new poem and reading it out to your friend, but the night proves to be a difficult proposition, an abyss into which you keep plunging. Sleep overtakes you or there is that rather literary history of Berlin which you are tempted to take up in your hands. And all the while, it is the thought of what you will teach in the classroom at university the next morning which keeps the bells ringing in the mind.

And so those books, open at various stages of having been read or still in the bags I brought them home in from the bookstore, wait. What if the heart stops in me before I have read them all?

The soul is in a perturbed state.

  • When the soul goes into exile
  • Issue 21
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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