It was September 2018. I had gotten my first international assignment to work with a program on Gender-Based Violence. In a few weeks, I was leaving for Juba, South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation working towards its political stability and peace.
My supervisor had advised me to carry books and movies for my stay in Juba, as I was going to be accommodated inside a compound with night time curfew and high security in place. Heeding her advice, I downloaded a few movies on my computer and bought a book called “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth. With 1,535 pages, I knew it would occupy me for a while. However, in Juba, I got hold of other books to read when I was not working or travelling within the country for the program.
It was inside my residential compound that I finished books like, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah and “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I felt these were more relevant for me at that time as I was in an African country. These books helped me broaden my perspectives towards Africa and its diversity. A Suitable Boy remained unopened throughout my time in South Sudan.
While coming back to Nepal, I found I had exceeded the weight limit for my luggage. I was given the options of either paying extra or unloading some of my stuff. For a few minutes I contemplated unpacking some things, including the only book I had brought with me. However, I decided to pay extra and bring back everything, including my unopened book.
Even when I reached Kathmandu and was unemployed for months, the book still didn’t get my attention. The size and weight made it difficult for me to carry around when I was going to restaurants, banks, or anywhere else where I might have to wait. This was a book that could only be read at home. But with today’s modern distractions, even reading it at home proved difficult.
When I found out Mira Nair’s next directorial venture was based on this novel, this only strengthened my resolve that I would not read this book, for I knew it was almost impossible for me to finish it before Nair finished her movie. I was certain, once I watched her work I would never have energy or enthusiasm to go back to the book. Hence my aspiration to finish it was almost coming to an end—that is until the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 disrupted all of our lives.
I understand that the virus has affected us in different ways depending on our economic status, religions we believe in, genders we identify with, surnames we inherited, and the color of skin we were born with. At this stage of my life, I was one of the lucky ones who could afford to sit at home and didn’t have to worry about my next meal for a few months. It was at this time, in these unusual circumstances, that I felt the book was actually calling out to me.
Regardless of whatever might happen with Nair’s schedule, “A Suitable Boy” wanted me to open those pages and dive into another world, where my reality wouldn’t only be made of the number of infected cases and the resulting deaths surrounding us.
The made the stay inside my small apartment worthwhile. It made me travel, meet new people, and experience different emotions during the lockdown. I was with Lata and Kabir when they were in the boat for Barsat Mahal; I walked in the park street cemetery in Kolkata with Amit and Lata. I was on the train with Lata and Ms Rupa Meher as they were travelling from Kolkata to Delhi to Lucknow. I was inside the court when Firoz was debating the Zambinadari bill. I was enthralled by Saeeda Bai's songs when she was singing in Prem Niwas. I was with Maan and Rasheed in Rudhia village when they were having discussions about religion and god and I was enjoying tango with Meenakshi at a night club in Kolkata, the Golden Slipper, in the early 1950s.
Books have this amazing ability to transport us to places we might never go or to make us feel things we didn’t know we had in us. Some books can make us smile when we feel sad and some can make us cry when we feel happy. Some books force us to rethink our own prejudices and belief systems and some make us look at the world through a new lens.
My experience with A Suitable Boy made me realize it is not always the reader who chooses a book; sometimes it is the other way around—the book chooses you! It picks the time, place and right moment. It’s like the book knows when it is suitable to be read.