“Chhee, Harry Potter!” When I Met the Mean Girls of a Book Club in Mumbai

First Person

“Chhee, Harry Potter!” When I Met the Mean Girls of a Book Club in Mumbai

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

All my life I’ve believed in two definitive tests of character: One. If my cat likes someone, that person is probably going to be a good egg. Two. If a person loves books, she couldn’t be wholly bad. Boy was I wrong on that second count.

A shy child, I found solace in books. When in my teens, I read my way through my grandmother’s collection of PG Wodehouse, my Amma thought I was ready for a library. Soon, the dusty public library in my hometown Belgaum became my haven. There were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews galore, but more than that, I loved the library because it was where I met people just like me. I never spoke to anybody other than the librarian, yet I felt like myself in the company of fellow book lovers. Not much has changed since – I look for that feeling of comfort in every new place.

So when I swapped out my peaceful life in Pune for a tumultuous existence in Mumbai sometime last year, the first thing I did was join a book club. In this fast-paced city of millions, I thought all would be fine if I found my tribe. I was seeking camaraderie, book recommendations, adventures, conversations around hobbits and dragons. Armed with the book I had been reading, I went to a meet organised by one of the most popular book clubs in town.

We met at a hip café in Bandra. It was a cosy enough group – many college students, all a fair bit younger than I was. At the ripe old age of almost 30, I felt just a tiny bit out of place. Everybody seemed to know everybody else and most of them went back to their conversations after a perfunctory hello. The message was clear: “You can’t sit with us.”

Nevertheless, I was hopeful. After all, book lovers always find something in common. The meeting began. The founder of the club, a pretty, vivacious girl, asked each of us to talk about the book we had recently read. One talked about The Fountainhead, the other talked about the debut Erin Morgenstern, the third talked about a Murakami, and it went on. The conversation was lively and fun. Until we came to a guy – let’s call him Akash – a scrawny, pimply boy. His book of choice was Artemis Fowl.

These millennials were woke in every other way, yet they discriminated based on “intellect”.

Akash was not a confident person. His command over the language was tenuous and he spoke with a nervous stutter. Add to that his choice of book, which most of the book-clubbers considered kidlit. He held up his book – a worn-out paperback, that he’d probably picked up at a second-hand book stall. The founder of the club gave him an encouraging smile, but I caught a smirk or two between the others, some giggled.

Soon the heckling began – even Kunal Kamra could have picked up a few tips from the members. One of them interrupted Akash to ask rather condescendingly why at the “mature age of 20” was he reading Artemis Fowl, and the discussion swerved into the “rightness” or “wrongness” of books. When Akash found his voice again, another specimen, let’s call her Regina (because this was literally Mean Girls culture), interrupted Akash once again. Regina smiled her jalebi-sweet smile and asked him whether he was prone to “low-sugar induced shakiness”. Was that why he was stuttering so much?

Akash was naturally embarrassed. “Um, what? I… no, nothing like that,” he stammered, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of his voice.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one-time scene. It was as recurrent as the Sooryavansham reruns on Sony TV. In the few handful meetings I attended, I always caught someone secretly making fun of the not-so-popular members of the club. They didn’t need much fodder either – a grammatical error, a mispronounced word, the choice of literature. The moment somebody spoke about Chetan Bhagat or did not know what The Vegetarian was, I’d see a pair or two of rolling eyes.

I realised in time that this book club was not about books at all, but about parading one’s wit, sharpening one’s sarcasm, and showing off one’s superior literary tastes. Rather, it was about showing off one’s privilege. These millennials were woke in every other way – they’d go to pride marches, they’d dump their surnames, speak about equal rights, and yet they discriminated based on “intellect”. And that, according to me, is just as bad as being a racist, bigot, or a sexist.

I had always thought of reading as one of the most inclusive hobbies. After all we have heroes and heroines like the awkward Holden Caulfield, whimsical Luna Lovegood, unassuming Jane Eyre, and simple but loyal Samwise Gamgee. We root for the underdog. So how can we not be inclusive toward those less privileged? And if we do congratulate ourselves over understanding the references in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene or our tenacity in keeping up with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, we must remember the place of privilege we likely come from. Not everyone who loves books has to be fluent in English or has had a reading habit since they were children. Not everyone has had access to a library or had grandmas who read Wodehouse.

A book club, I told them, should encourage expression and reading, even if the book being read is a “shitty one”.

Book clubs used to be places where people buried their differences and celebrated their love for everything literature. The only other book club I’d been a part of was an impromptu one at school, which was all about reading (ok, maybe a little bit of fangirling over Aragorn). Be it Tolkien or Tinkle, a crime thriller or a comic strip. Nothing was frowned upon.

But the Mumbai book club was nothing like that. It was like every other collective – incomplete without a WhatsApp group, aka a group for roasting other members.When one poor fellow mistakenly pasted an incorrect link, he was met with a very rude response.

When this went too far, I decided it was time to quit. In a polite yet firm message, I told them that it was time for me to part ways with the club. A book club, I told them, should encourage expression and reading, even if the book being read is a “shitty one”. I called out their duplicities and signed off. In the next hour, I received a bunch of messages from other members of the group letting me know that I had done the right thing.

I’d joined the club as a way to meet like-minded people in Mumbai and I did meet a couple. For the most part though, I was introduced to a bunch of elitists, who looked down at a guy making a great effort to read his first English book in his early 20s.

As CS Lewis once said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.” If children’s books were good enough for CS Lewis, they ought to be good enough for an upstart book club.