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Reeti Roy describes her childhood reading in Calcutta, and how until the age of 14 she had not thought about the cultural implications of marginalized characters. Now, a third year university student, she looks at the importance of referencing the context of time, place, and sociopolitical situations of everything we read.

Calcutta Bookstore. Photo: FriskoDude

I GREW UP in a predominantly Bengali neighbourhood in Calcutta. As a child I was actively encouraged to read.

As incentives for doing well on examinations or behaving nicely I was given a book. I did not choose the books–my parents chose them–but I remember holding the book in my hand, smelling the paper and running around the house in joy .

I delighted in the parar boier dokan. This was a musty, run-down bookstore, which sold second hand books alongside new arrivals. Around the corner of the bookstore was a muri (puffed rice) seller, who would sell muri in thongas- small bags made out of old newspapers. I’d spend hours trying to read the words on the thongas. By the time I was twelve, I was already writing my first “novel.”

It helped that I grew up bilingual. I was reading Bengali as well as English books. The Bengali Novel draws heavily from 19th century English writing in terms of structure, but reading Bengali literature, I read about people who had lives similar to mine, who probably lived on the same lanes that I do now, but inhabited my world in a different time.

Reading literature written in English taught me about people whose lives were not necessarily similar to mine, but I understood them because some of my struggles were mirrored in the stories.

I realize now however that my preliminary reading constructed a rather linear notion of books in my mind.

Reading the “Right” Way

Till the age of fourteen, I believed I was well read and that I was using my critical faculties to decipher fiction. Today, I believe that I was too unaware of histories and peoples to have come to rational, informed conclusions.

I read classics like Robinson Crusoe, for instance, but failed to consider the ill-treatment of Friday. I read Jane Eyre, but had somehow overlooked the plight of “the mad woman in the attic,” Bertha Mason.

Thoughts on the “legitimacy” of reading:

A. Books are like people. There can never be a “right” way or “wrong” way of reading a text.

In an ideal world, every individual should have the right / ability to express her or his opinion. But many people are unable to express themselves because they are subjugated by those who are in power. Just like people, there are books that create hierarchies in our minds- books that have, over the ages, purposely propagated eurocentric views of the world.

B. My political and geographical positions led me to think in a certain way.

After wading through rather difficult “postcolonial theory” in my first year of college, I came to the conclusion that I had unconsciously sided with Robinson Crusoe and had completely forgotten Man Friday. This notion was remedied when I read Foe by South African novelist J.M Coetzee.

Later, when I read Wuthering Heights, instead of looking at Heathcliff as a villain or glorifying him as “ The Byronic hero” (or falling in love with him! I was tempted to, but didn’t), my perception of Heathcliff was that of a common man, who dared to love someone “above him” in terms of class.

In my second year of college, I began to think seriously about notions of race, class and gender. What was legitimate writing and who made it legitimate?

As I was thinking about these questions, I chanced upon Black Venus by Angela Carter. Angela Carter writes about Jeanne Duval, the mistress of Charles Baudelaire. What really impressed me about Black Venus was that it brought Duval’s character to life.

I then read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and realized how Coetzee, Rhys and Carter were all trying to give a voice to the ignored and the forgotten by using classic literary texts as their starting points and reworking them.

C. Now, as a third year student of Literature, I feel like I am more aware of what I am reading.

Only recently, I began reading The Tempest for my course on Shakespeare and immediately sympathised with Caliban.

Conclusions:

1. Whenever reading, always be aware of dominant worldviews.

2. It is not a solution to be dismissive of writing that is considered “legitimate” but which causes tremendous discomfiture, but instead we must ask questions of every piece of legitimate writing: “why is it legitimate” and “who legitimised it?”

3. Without studying or being aware of the social, political, and historical context of the times / places that books were written, we risk creating a monolithic notion of books and characters in our minds.

Community Connection

How has your perception of books evolved? Let us know in the comments below.

For more of Reeti’s thoughts on books, please read 4 Classic Christmas Reads.

 

 

About The Author

Reeti Roy

Reeti Roy has finished her Bachelors degree from Jadavpur University in Calcutta with first class honors in English Literature. She spent her summer in Edinburgh on a scholarship to pursue Creative Writing and is now at London School of Economics and Political Science pursuing an MSc in Social Anthropology. She blogs here.

More By This Author

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  • http://songs-from-the-road.blogspot.com/ Rudrani

    I think that varied and informed reading does create a notion of “perspective” which we often fail to recognise. Questioning the idea of a “canon” is truly a step forward in the right direction.

  • http://thepenandpaper.wordpress.com Alyssa

    Wow – GREAT food for thought!

  • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

    My husband is a high school English teacher (prior to that he taught middle school reading) and he frequently encounters kids who just don’t like to read. While I agree with the three conclusions you’ve noted above, I think those are only relevant to people who are interested in engaging in what they read. For my husband, getting a child who has no interest in reading to pick up a comic book or any sort of writing that engages them is a big accomplishment. Hopefully everyone can someday come to the conclusions you’ve noted above, but I think we need to focus on getting everyone interested in such a thing first.

  • http://collazoprojects.com Julie

    Reeti-

    I really enjoyed this piece because I felt that I got to know you better, and I felt a congruence between your experiences and my own. This paragraph, in particular, resonated with me:

    “Till the age of fourteen, I believed I was well read and that I was using my critical faculties to decipher fiction. Today, I believe that I was too unaware of histories and peoples to have come to rational, informed conclusions.”

    Thanks for this piece.

  • http://reetiroy.matadoru.com/ Reeti

    Thanks Julie :)

  • Miri

    Small correction, the title of Jean Rhys’ novel is Wide Sargasso Sea
    Great book, and perfect example for your piece :)

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      thanks.

      corrected.

  • Tuna

    Well written. Questioning the context of a book is necessary to understand it. When I first read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I was seven or eight years old, I think. And I read it like a simple fairy tale, a story of good versus evil. When I read it again, I was nineteen, and the Post Colonial class I read it for, taught me the sub-text and the censorship implications behind the book.
    Knowledge about the background and context is essential.

  • Kevin

    Amazing article! It is so true, I agree with you completely. I am an English major at the University of Ottawa in my second year and I can relate with how you grew up and the need for political and historical understand of the novels we read. Excellent advice! Keep on writing!

  • http://reetiroy.matadoru.com/ Reeti

    Thanks Kevin! I really appreciate it :)

  • phishtopher

    great article reeti.

  • http://reetiroy.matadoru.com/ Reeti

    Ryan! Hi! Thanks :)

  • oolung

    Hi!
    A great article.
    I think the way we read books tells more about ourselves than the books in question. I remember reading “Madame Bovary” for the first time when I was about 17. I hated the main character! I read the book again a few months ago and even though I still don’t like Emma that much, I find I can understand her so much better.
    Reading this book again let me notice how much I’ve grown in that time. Re-reading books is a great way to becoming a more mature person :)

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