I had a strange reluctance to write this piece. Travelling and reading. Two most intensely personal, exhaustingly selfish pursuits. One never knows whether one can really put down what happens when the two fuse (do they, can they?) and worse, one has no clue whether the person who cares to read what is put down will connect somewhere, if at all.

Two things have to be made clear here. By travelling I don’t mean taking the four-day bus tour of the Golden Triangle. By reading I don’t mean the flight safety booklet or that ‘Stardust’ you picked up at Warangal junction just because the train had stopped for longer than you liked.

And I definitely don’t mean travelling with aunts and uncles and a brood of kids. I agree, there is a lot of reading to be done here outside of a book. Which brings us to a boring aside of a confession. I cannot read a book while I travel; that is while I am actually moving from place A to place B. I am the kind who reads after reaching. When there is movement, there can only be music. But I do carry a book with me. It gives me a strange sense of security. When there is any unease, I can duck and hide into it. A book is your very own tortoise shell. Always handy. 

But there are millions who do. First up on my mind is a friend who matter-of-factly said she reads even while she walks (to her college that is) as if that was the most natural thing to do. “It passes time and if the road is mapped out in your head and does not have too many bumps, it is comforting.” Those were her exact words. And she has even read Alice in Wonderland while walking! Just think, I would have definitely stumbled into a rabbit hole myself if I ever attempted this.

There are those who buy Lonely Planets by its weight and swot it by heart by the time they reach Prague or Tokyo. And there are the kinds who believe that when they are travelling, they should read travel literature. Which is quite stupid if you ask me. Most travel literature is wonderfully happy experiences, full of joyous endings, amazing discoveries, written in descriptive splendour. You will only end up feeling miserable and envious because you lost your way in a smelly dingy alley in London while your exuberant writer had effusively described London as being infested with magical rabbit paths or when you clearly don’t feel as spiritual as the author when the Ganga comes into sight in Varanasi.

If you ask me, I would rather read fiction set in the place I am going to. I wish I had read Alexandar McCall Smith’s brilliantly evocative mystery series — ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’ before visiting Edinburgh; or one of Kurt Wallander mysteries that are getting so popular in India before stepping into Stockholm. I have read William Darlymple’s City of Djinns twice in the hope of falling in love with Delhi the next time I go. I haven’t. Yet. And there are so many books set in London and New York that most book lovers feel eerily at home in these cities.

There is another way to do this. Go travelling in search of things to read. There is nothing more pleasurable than finding yourself in a new city, a map sitting snugly in your pocket, mind open, bright sunshine and the prospect of browsing through second hand bookstores in the hope of serendipity.

That is why travelling is reading and reading is travelling.
Have you noticed the irrational warmth that eccentric bookworms feel for one another? Or that flash of grudging liking that solitary travellers convey, and to be sentimentally literary here, “when they pass each other in the night”?

All are signs of acknowledgement — of indulgence; of a primordial love for the self and funnily enough, a kind of convivial tolerance for humanity. These two magnificent pursuits are always merging, in a hazy, hard-to-define way. Travelling is reading the world and yourself and reading is travelling around the world and into yourself. But for this to really occur, you should be willing to love yourself fiercely and love humanity equally strongly. Both need what an author whose name I now forget calls ‘imaginative generosity of the heart’; both are curiously passive activities that require all your heart and soul and energy and passion to make them worthwhile.

Unfortunately, this cannot be explained further. For one, I have not understood it completely and I hope I never will. For those who understand, explanations are unnecessary. Bon Voyage!

Published in Sunday Herald on 14.02.10
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/52439/book-rack.html
 
 
The cover never did excite me. Neither did the title. For a 12-year-old drunk on Ned and Nancy, Fatty, Bets, Buster and the like, these were important criteria. But then, that was when my school was right opposite what was then actually a fine library for children. The city central library opposite National High School. Now it is dead and buried. I carry the burden of its bitter-sweet memories. 


The book, like many other things, stared its way into my life. The cover was brownish with a black and white photo of a smiling Anne and that legend below: Anne Frank: The diary of a young girl. All that appealed to me was the word diary.I had always had one in which I wrote in all seriousness 'my edicts' (did you ever think a history lesson on Ashoka's edicts could affect somebody so much? hehehe) and really bad rhyming poetry. 


I remember everything about reading it. I remember waiting for amma to go to office and then immediately springing up from my seat, putting on the radio and grabbing it. It was one of the first books that made it physically difficult for me to stop reading it, when I had to eat or when I had to go to school. I even read it in class, hiding it behind a textbook. This, despite not knowing a thing about holocaust, not knowing who Jews were, not being able to pronounce in my head all the different names. In my mind, I only saw Anne as myself like thousands of other children did probably. I only saw a young girl, imprisoned in a 'secret annexe' behind a bookcase, having a sweet romance with a young boy and having some slight trouble with bad Germans. Somewhere at the back of my mind was what our history teacher HVR had told us about the holocaust in his first class. To a conservative, shocked group of young girls and boys, he had described men and women being marched naked to barracks to be killed later. And that was all that I knew.
And All that mattered to me then was that I was Anne Frank and Anne Frank was me. Stuff for daydreams.


Thankfully, I revisited the book two more times, years later. It was later that I felt the bookcase in my hand, understood what Otto Frank meant when he said, the rooms might appear spacious to you now, you visitors, but when we were there, there was fear living with us and saw with Anne what she saw from the attic -- a patch of blue sky, some blooms and some white birds. And go to Auschwitz as Anne several times.  


So it was that when I came to Amsterdam, it had to be Anne Frank house that I first went to. And feel the bookcase for real. Be in Anne's room. Climb the narrow stairs. See the attic. And find absolutely no words to write in the visitors book.


Oh, I had one too. My Target Diary. Who was my imaginary friend. Whom I used to call in cheap imitation of Anne's 'Dearest Kitty', 'Dear DD'.  And it was a boy. With whom I shared all my little lies, convincing myself and him that they were the truth. It was what I considered my sweet revenge against the world. I did write the truth as well occasionally. Oh I was a messed up little kid in many ways -- I would build a fabricated portrayal of myself in the diary.. all the good that happened to me were just that -- good; but all the 'bad' that happened to me were the EVIL world plotting against me. But I still had my DD with me; to console me; play with me and be my pet dog, soulmate and romantic boyfriend.
When I first acknowledged these memories and actions to myself, I felt quite unique and extraordinary. Does this happen to everybody? Am I special? Only after years (of which three were spent studying psychology) did I realise how normal they were. How very ordinary. And that realisation spinned me back into DD's whorl from where I wanted to but could not escape. If you really let yourself go, and I mean 'let yourself go' in its most deepest, most primaeval sense, like I did with my DD, you end up inside yourself, struggling to come up for air. But once you rescue yourself from it, you can never go back. It has been a firm 'Goodbye DD' for a long time now. The Anne in me rests. 
Picture
Picture
the narrow stairs up to the annexe
Picture
bookcase and secret annexe behind
 
 
There ain’t any guilt any more. Only pleasure.  And status updates.
 
Come now, think. Are you feeling all pleasurable inside because you licked off a pot of hazelnut cream? Feeling full, tickled, embarrassed and gross? Yes, we know what you will do next. Login to Facebook and assuage all those feelings by a simple status update. “I just licked clean a pot of cream.” Friends will rush to like it, some will give banal advice, some will put up smileys. End of pleasure.
 
Aren’t we all guilty as charged?
 
Even Michigan researchers agree with me. Their new research on ‘guilty pleasures’ suggests that when we are actually doing what pleasures us, our brain, unsurprisingly, is only thinking of the pleasure and not its moral overtones or undertones. It is only later when we think back on our action that we associate with it feelings of guilt or embarrassment.
 
Consider for an instant that in a moment of abandon, you completely enjoyed a Himesh Reshammiya number (now, admit it, you were hooked to Jhalak Dhiklaja.) While you were singing along, you were only happy and satiated. It is only later when you tell your friend how much you hate Reshammiya’s singing that you start feeling ‘guilty’ for having experienced the pleasure of singing along to that catchy number. From that moment your brain ‘remembers’ your guilt even though originally there was none.
 
Fashion and celeb magazines looking for fillers have quite neatly murdered the impact of the phrase ‘guilty pleasures’ by asking all and sundry to list out their guilty pleasure reads, guilty pleasure movies, guilty pleasure foods blah blah, day in and day out. The phrase has become so clichéd that when you ask people what their guilty pleasure is, they list the most innocent of acts like eating an extra piece of chocolate in the night, listening to ABBA, reading Jane Austen, taking unplanned breaks, skimming through fashion blogs and taking “slightly over-budgeted” holidays as pleasures that make them feel guilty. I swear I am not making these up. Since when did humans become so morally uptight that mundane overeating and inane indulging started to make them feel guilty?
 
When I asked around for more such guilty pleasures and chided people for acting so innocent, somewhat more interesting ones tumbled out. (Nobody minded spilling out their secrets but nobody wanted to be identified – its ‘guilty pleasures’ after all!)
 
A  friend says her guiltiest indulgence is “sitting in the toilet for you-know-what for ever”. She says her pleasure at prolonging this holiest of rituals is almost “sensual”. Another says his guilty pleasure was fantasizing in lurid detail about making love to a cousin. My another acquaintance says his first thought was to confess about trawling the internet for porn. “But then, I don’t feel guilty at all doing it. So that’s not guilty pleasure, is it?”
 
Nope, it is not. Such not-so-guilty pleasures abound. The majority of them are either food-related or sex-related. Sometimes, it is stealing a smoke when parents are around and sometimes it is stealing money to buy alcohol. But mostly it is dreaming of making love to somebody, watching “outdoor porn” whatever that is, scanning agony aunt columns for sex-related queries, masturbating, dreaming of and I quote, “an incense-filled room full of wind chimes, with a lovely hunk massaging my entire body with purifying oils” or eating pot noodles raw, midnight fridge raids, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate.
 
Oh yes, there is a third category as well. The not-so-guilty but oh-so-gross pleasures category. Under this come confessions such as “getting a thrill by removing goo from my ear and smelling it”, “sniffing my underarms to smell the sweat and liking the smell” “going stealthily into the bathroom every morning to eat aspirin and toothpaste together because it was a delicious combo”, “picking my navel while watching TV” and “plucking my chest hair to pass the time.”
 
Such pleasures so inspired eight women from St Louis in the US that they actually got together to write a book of essays titled “Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions.” The eight women remain anonymous but share intensely personal stuff in their essays and cover a wide range of indulgences from sleeping with married men to taking anti-depressants to extorting money from parents. The women call their effort ‘an anti-self-improvement book’!
 
But like always, the Germans can be relied upon to come up with a slightly weightier (more sinister?) interpretation of the concept. They have a military-sounding word for it too, no offence intended! ‘Schadenfreude’, they call it. There’s no exact translation but roughly it means ‘malicious joy’ or pleasure felt at the misfortune of others. 
 
Now, that’s more like it. If you tell me, the person who sat next to you on a bus irrigating his nose inspired hate in you for no apparent reason but the fact that he was torturing his own nose and you felt hyena-like laughter bubbling inside you when he missed his stop, I would call that guilty pleasure. More seriously, this is perhaps what prompts a collective roar of approval when a matador is pierced in his stomach by a charging bull or inspires shouts of support you hear in the background in grainy YouTube videos showing the Taliban stoning a young woman.
 
Orhan Pamuk in his delectable autobiography ‘Istanbul’ describes a feeling not dissimilar to ‘Schadenfreude’ but more akin to the Latin phrase ‘delectatio morosa’ or ‘the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts.” He narrates how he would cheer himself up when he was all of six, by imagining he was killing people. He coolly recounts how he would lavish affection on a cat, only to strike it cruelly the next instant and emerge from that moment with a bout of laughter that would make him so ashamed that he would shower the cat with love again. Did I hear sadism?
 
You don’t exactly need a scientific study to trace the root of such joys. But studies have been conducted and they confirm that our brains are basically shit stations. When we see others going through ill-luck, we feel happy about ourselves. And scientists add that this happens more with people who have a low opinion of themselves.  Worse, the joy multiplies (and the pleasure centre in our brain actually ‘lights up’) when we see misfortune visit those whom we envy.
 
It takes a Mahatma Gandhi to turn this concept on its head and add a dash of piety with his famous advice to feel blessed by looking at those who are worse off than you rather than envy those who are better off than you.
 
Gandhi might have given a pious twist to this guilt business but it is to Oscar Wilde’s advice that human nature actually responds to. In his iconic work ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (which is by itself a paean to pleasure and guilt), Henry, Dorian’s friend and guide counsels the hero with this classic line: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
 
There. That’s why it is remarkably easy for me to confess my very own once guilt-ridden pleasure. I confess to always, always keeping an eye out for men’s eyelashes. The longer they are, the more curved they are, the more pleasure I get. It is an obsessive but now guiltless pleasure. After all, Wilde did tell us all what to do, didn’t he? When you give in to the temptation, the guilt is assuaged.
 
He would have approved of status updates.

Published in Sunday Herald on 30.11.09
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/38391/guilty-pleasures-forbidden-fruit.html