For bibliophiles like me, the pandemic seemed opportune. The entire scenario was almost identical to an earlier episode of Twilight Zone in which a bank clerk living a monochromatic, work-a-day life finally gets “Time Enough At Last” to read all the books he wished (or so he thought) as a result of an H-bomb attack. Fortunately, my circumstances differed from that ill-fated character and so, during the Covid Pandemic, I decided to reignite my passion for reading.
Before I go any further, I feel obligated to inform you that I shall avoid describing the diminishing library culture of our country, because that is a topic other writers have lamented to no effect. I also do not wish to burden this piece with dull statistics or heavy adjectival phrases to place emphasis on the significance of literacy and literary programs, as well as the factors that caused it. Instead, I want to share with you the joys and all the adventures I have been experiencing as a born-again bibliophile.
The world. as we know it, had come to an abrupt halt. We were attacked by an unseen entity so deadly and contagious that social distancing and staying home was not merely an option but the only way to survive. In the initial days of lockdown, I did miss the outside world, my work, my friends and acquaintances and large gatherings. However, this feeling of boredom did not last long because the first book I grabbed onto was The Cosmos by Dr Carl Sagan. In one of the chapters in this seminal work, he praises books and writers in these words:
“It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
Wise words indeed. Although I was not able to meet people outside, but I socialized with books. The conversations with authors of foregone eras never made me feel isolated or lonely. I was there, when the “fireman-turned-sour” Guy Montag of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 thought to himself what a pleasure it was to burn books and then I was also seated right beside him when he read his first book and began his remarkable transformation. I revisited Gregor Samsa, thanks to Kafka, and cried my heart out on the poor man’s tragic metamorphosis. That sadness was replaced with endless laughter as I sat in the delightful company of the unforgettable characters Shaitan, Moody Jones, Buddy, Maqsood Ghora, Razia and Lanky aka Shafeeq ur Rehman. His contribution to Urdu humour and satire is undoubtedly priceless and his books Himaqatain, Mazeed Himaqatain, Kirnain proved to be life savers especially during the lockdown. I accompanied Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking on her extraordinary adventures. The character of this brave little girl with a golden heart who broke all stereotypes was created by Lindgren during the devastating times of World War II.
Isaac Asimov’s robots made me question whether we should revise and add more to the existing laws of robotics for a better and improved man-machine relationship (or friendship?). On the other hand, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles transported me to the Red Planet with the ill-fated exploration teams sent from Earth. In Sultana’s Dream by Rokaya Sakhawat Begum, I found myself vacationing in Ladyland, an alternate reality (or perhaps a feminist utopia), where women ruled the world and they used scientific inventions and modern technology only for the betterment of society. What an incredible world that would be to live in.
I have to confess that I dedicated an unreasonable amount of my lockdown time to reading and admiring the works of the great Russian master storyteller Anton Chekhov. But it was indeed time well spent. The magical world of Arabian Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla) wherein stories framed within other stories is something I rediscovered during the Pandemic. The fantastic tales of terror, humour, mystery, lust, adventure and genies as well as otherworldly creatures narrated by Scheherazade are her way of staying alive in the face of danger; and in a strange and whimsical way, these stories became my source of strength during this surreal time while the deadly Covid virus lurked around us.
I also could not help but notice that The Masque of Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe is parallel to the present-day Pandemic and has a clear warning for the deniers and haters of science and COVID-19.
Despite all the different restrictions and continual lockdowns, I have had the unique privilege of enjoying the wonderful companionship of books. There is never a dull moment as I have been socializing with the creme de la creme of literature and poetry! I am in safe hands of a loyal friend i.e., a book.
The writer is a researcher and documentary maker.