Friday, November 03, 2006

Gee-zus! The irony is friggin’ killing me!

Ever since one of them saw me alighting from an auto-rickshaw one morning out the front of Saving the World HQ with a novel in my hand, I have been the brunt of a big joke amongst my Indian colleagues, who quite rightly assume I must be crazy to attempt to read a book while riding in an auto-rickshaw!

Admittedly, you’d have to be just a little intellectually unsettled, or perhaps just fatalistic to attempt to concentrate on the written word while riding in one of these death-traps. Aside from the mental distraction of all the horns from the motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses blaring inches away from your ears and the high-pitched squeal of the rickshaw’s 2-stroke engine rumbling under your arse (although in Donkey’s case, the engine noise is pretty effectively muffled!), there’s also the very real physical danger to life and limb from the constant speeding-up and sudden breaking as the driver tries to squeeze his mobile tin-can between rows of stationary traffic, or the death-defying changes in direction as he attempts to manoeuvre (at high speed, I might add) around stationary cows which stand, bemused and unwavering in the middle of Delhi’s busiest roads. All of these things, if you’re not paying attention and hanging on tightly, threaten to dump you on the bitumen in front of an on-coming bus, and if that doesn’t kill you, there’s also some pretty stiff competition from the car and bus fumes and the polluted Delhi skyline, all vying for your mortality.

So my colleagues laugh at me and think it’s all a bit strange, but also hold me a little in awe due to my rickshaw-reading, which I’m obviously quite chuffed about ‘cause I’m up myself and think I’m incredibly high-brow and intellectual. And even though I only get about three pages read on a twenty minute journey due to all of these distractions and the fact that the pages are obscured half the time by my life flashing before my eyes, I still keep up the pretence of reading a book because it’s something to concentrate on instead of the guilt inflicted upon me by my Catholic up-bringing, which always seems to surface when I think I’m only moments away from meeting the Big Feller.

Unfortunately for Donkey, with the welcome arrival of winter to Delhi, which has seen the departure of the fetid, boiling summer air, daylight hours are also in short supply. As if it needed to get any harder, the early sunset has made reading on the way home almost impossible, as it relies on a Donkey being able to snatch a few words here and there as he moves from beneath one street light to the next. The other good place to knock-over a paragraph or two is during the tedious minutes spent stationary in bumper-to-bumper traffic; a lengthy feature of any evening journey on the choked arterials of this city. It was here that Donkey nearly died this evening, not from noise, traffic, pain or pollution, but from a near-lethal dose of irony dealt by Delhi’s often less-than-charitable citizens.

Tonight I was reading Gita Mehta’s Snakes and Ladders, a collection of short essays and editorials about, so the cover indicates, “modern India”. Unfortunately, Mehta is such a disgruntled, old, lefty whinger, that the stories more often recite tales from the “good old days” of India’s struggle for independence, rather than anything that could be called modern, and tonight, as I sat in the stationary traffic, hanging out the side of the rickshaw so as to read my book in the headlights of the car waiting behind me, I was taking in her reminiscences of the role that reading has played in the building of this nation.

She argues that a commitment to reading books in cities across the country created a massive class of Indian intellectuals who ultimately led the fight against India’s British oppressors, and who later were responsible for setting down all the laws and official processes which have since guided India to prosperity.

She recalls fondly how Indians in the 40s,50s and 60s, unable to access books from the West, and in defiance of importing and censorship laws, set up illegal cooperatives and small businesses as “lending libraries” in the back stalls of markets or in alleys and doorways. She proudly recites the high value that Indians placed on reading; so high, in fact, that they were willing to defy the law and put their liberty in peril, just to feed their passion for reading and owning books.

And just as I was reading about how important books and reading were to the personal and intellectual development of the people of India, the headlights which were illuminating my page went out. I looked around to see why, and quickly learned that the well-to-do driver behind me had turned his lights off for no reason other than that he saw me using his precious light without permission.

I closed my book and sat back in the dark … choking as a long, sharp bone of irony stuck in my throat. Seconds later the traffic lights changed to green, and the headlights on the car behind fired back into action.

The sudden jolt of my accelerating rickshaw dislodged my unwanted pain like some great, clunking, mechanical Heimlich manoeuvre, and after a deep breath of exhaust-tainted air, I was on my way again, reading a line here and a line there as the streetlights waxed and waned.

Just so's you know that Donkey speaks true, I was up to page 169 when the lights went out. Pic:


Anonymous said...

People are funny sometimes. Turning the headlights off so you could read. That's comedy.

I also find it funny, but probably a book I would enjoy, that you are reading a book about reading. I find humor in the most mundane things. My father always catches me laughing at something when I'm visiting and he says: "There's Mackenzie amusing herself again."

DonkeyBlog said...

I dunno if reading a book about reading is such a strange thing, Cakey ... I think you of all people would be well qualified to write a book about writing!