I spend much of my time reading, always have. When I was in elementary school, I even read during recess, sitting alone by the tanbark box, hoping not to be hailed into a monkey-bar race or other gymnastics contest for which I was congenitally unprepared. Nowadays, in addition to my own research and recreation, I spend a lot of time reading with my toddler: Curious George, Oluguti Toluguti, Sam I Am, you name it. A recent favorite is Snoring Shanmugam, about a lion who, counter to expectations, does nothing but eat, sleep, and snore.
Mrinalini delights in the fantastical scenarios on offer in each of these books, from the pictures, to the word play, to the opportunity to engage cognitively in what are, ultimately, serious social dramas. We are mindful of the urgency of developing in M the reading habit and eager for her to cultivate a broad literary sensibility. Often, it feels like the most significant task that we as parents have.
Having known the instructive and transformative pleasures of reading (novels, in particular) for nearly three decades, I know that I will never really have to worry about boredom or loneliness or depression or angst.
Seriously. Never has the right literary work failed to transport me from a plain of malaise to one of potentiality. (Literary is, of course, the operative word here, but you don’t have to read high literature in order to benefit from many of the salubrious effects of steady, slow immersion in a world of prose.)
G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr was a revelation-a novel that played inventively with linguistic and narrative form while thematizing self-improvement in a way that managed to be both ironic and edifying. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s observations of the simultaneous mindfulness and mindlessness of parenting in My Struggle transported me through the first few weeks post-partum. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels-with their attentiveness to the nuances of friendship, artistic aspiration, and what the anthropologists call “moral mutuality”-recently buoyed me through a cruel summer of dissertation revision.
“Binge-watch” may be the official 2015 “word of the year,” but novels, too, are in the news these days. And they should be. In his interview with Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books last month, President Obama admitted that his understanding of citizenship has benefited most from his habit of reading novels. “It has to do with empathy,” he said. “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.”
Obama’s observations were not new; still, it was good to hear them spoken by the President, and heartening given that political discourse all over the world tends to figure things in black and white, from Ben Carson’s comparison of abortion to the murder of slaves, to Narendra Modi’s claims that Ganesha’s physical form evidences an ancient Indian practice of “plastic surgery.” If only, we readers think, the good doctor had read beyond his biology textbooks. If only the good Prime Minister had read something other than Hindutva doctrine.
It’s literally impossible to see yourself if you have no sense of your outside-of what separates you from someone else, of the tangible and intangible boundaries that distinguish individuals who are simultaneously joined at the interface. Similarly, you can’t see the real world for what it is if you have not extended the imaginative faculties required to grapple with the possible worlds of fiction. You either can’t see the grays, or, it seems, you lose touch with reality entirely.
It’s worth recalling that when Arundhati Roy wrote her famous 1998 essay condemning India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran, the essay that re-launched the novelist as an activist, she called it “The End of Imagination.” It was the end of imagination, not the beginning of barbarism, that allowed India to participate in the proliferation of the nuclear bomb.
But back to Snoring Shanmugam: The book begins with a group of animals lamenting Shanmugam’s slothfulness. When a mean, carnivorous lion, Gabbar Singh, threatens to take over as lion king, they realize that Shanmugam’s lazy disposition is preferable to the alternative. In the end, Shanmugam’s snoring scares away Gabbar Singh, and they live happily ever after. On the one hand, Shanmugam flouts identitarian conventions with its harmless lion-protagonist, and the other animals comprise an appropriately diverse microcosm of the social world, from irritable Hutoxi-the-horse, to creative Bahadur-the-elephant, to observant Kamalnayan-the-camel. On the other hand, there’s Gabbar Singh, the threatening outsider, whose name might just mean “lion” (Singh, after all, is derived from the Sanskrit word for lion, “simha”), but also conjures pervasive stereotypes about Punjabi and Sikh masculinity.
Is the book complicit in the othering of Gabbar Singh? Or is this a cautionary tale about prejudice and exclusion?
A lot of children’s books are like this: disappointing in one light, provocative in another. All the Mickey stories are annoyingly gender normative, with Minnie and Daisy “giggling” more than their fair share; but then, there’s the gender ambiguity of Mickey himself. Curious George does any number of socially inappropriate things, with apparently no consequences: what exactly underpins his monkey privilege, never mind his opaque relationship to the Man in the Yellow Hat? Then there’s Eeyore’s depression. Or is it realism?
I don’t ask my toddler, of course. But I read to her daily, in hopes that she will one day be posing the questions.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.