Finding a Book (Or Something) As a Cure

This week, I was in dire need of a good book. I was increasingly getting weary of everything, and wanted to read an unfamiliar, compelling and life-affirming book. On a whim, I bought "Britt-Marie Was Here" by Fredrick Backman. After I finished the book, I felt like I had come out of an intensive meditation retreat; calm, happy and teary-eyed. "Britt-Marie Was Here" is about an elderly Swedish woman who moves into a football-crazy small town after her entire life is upended, and finds an unexpected family. Reading this book clarified some of the questions I was grappling with; on loneliness, definitions of happiness and our place in the world. Once again, I'd found solace and some answers in a book. It got me thinking about books, and their prescriptive potential to heal our modern day ailments. Can a book rescue you from a burnout at work, for instance?

Some people believe they can. Bibliotherapy is a growing psychologist practice where books are prescribed for life crises, awkward situations and even physical ailments. In a 2015 essay for the New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey writes about an appointment with a bibliotherapist. She's asked about what's preoccupying her at the moment, and she replies with something I can understand; the fear that she's ill-prepared for the inevitable grief of losing a loved one. She's given a prescribed list of books in return, including RK Narayan' "The Guide" (which if you haven't read, I'd highly recommend!). There's a "medical handbook" on bibliotherapy too, called "The Novel Cure" where you can thumb through whatever that's ailing you, and find a book to remedy it. From difficult marriages to hiccups.

Instinctively, bibliotherapy makes sense. For as long as I can remember, I've read books to make sense of the world. In almost all times of emotional upheaval or bedridden days, I have read and read and read. When I shifted to Mumbai, I read "Maximum City" by Suketu Mehta to get over my homesickness for Delhi. On experiencing loneliness in an alien country in Germany, where I yearned to hear a language I understood, I read "Two Lives" by Vikram Seth. I read both volumes of "The Complete Adventures of Feluda" to sail through a quarter-life crisis, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to get over heartbreak and "India After Gandhi"by Ramchandra Guha to tide over the uncertainty of "what to do with my life?" (Something about the comprehensive research and the defying nature of India's democracy is reassuring, I think.)

But I don't think bibliotherapy can make sense for everyone. I make sense of the world through books, because I love reading. For a non-reader, reading might become a "good habit" they must pick up. Yesterday, a Quora question popped up in my inbox. "I am 26 years old and my life is not going anywhere, and I don't know what to do." The top-rated answer to this question had point-wise directives for a better life, one of which was to read more. "Not fiction, but read books whose ideas you can implement." Looked at in this way, reading then, becomes like a bitter medicine that you avoided as a child.

Not to your taste, but necessary for good health.

So, how should we find solace? I'd argue, by doing whatever makes you happy. In my dance class, I meet women who have been learning Kathak since they were eight years old. Whether they're happy, sad or worried, they dance. And the world aligns with the beats of their tihai. My friend visits monuments — familiar and otherwise — when she is frazzled. That's how she understands the world. Poetry, music, fashion, knitting, sports — we all have a "therapy" we instinctively go to.

Maybe the point is to ask ourselves. Too many people I meet are approaching burnout at alarming rates; you ask them what they do apart from work, and they look baffled as if it didn't occur to them to think of life as separate from work. But, it is. So on this sunny Sunday (in Delhi, at least), maybe ask yourselves what is it that allows you to understand the world?

Who knows, there could be a book waiting for you. Or maybe something else. Write to me, whatever it is. I'd love to know.

"Discovery of India" by Jawaharlal Nehru


1. I have tried all my life to keep a diary, but in vain. Something about recounting how I feel on a page always seems to me as being performative, and so I give up quickly. Which is why this piece by Nisha Susan is fascinating.

"The truly private diary in which you spill can be soothing in the moment and fascinating in retrospect. Confessing on social media has a tendency to want to be found fascinating in the moment. It’s soothing only when you publicly deactivate your account with a martyred and just-you-wait air. Confessing your unhappiness or happiness online, it always seems to me, is a way to tempt fate, to put yourself in Ginny Weasley-meets-Tom Riddle-like situations. It is, to misappropriate Ramanujan, “absorbed unselfconscious privacy where love (and hate) matures"

2. The only magician I remember as a child is PC Sircar. I didn't know magicians are still working, but as this piece by Premankur Biswas and Santanu Chowdhury says, they're barely making it.

"The Anand Parvat slum has 150 families of street magicians. Ishamuddin insists that more than showmanship or sensationalism, it’s their sense of brotherhood that has kept together the community of Indian magicians in these difficult times. Indeed, in his well-researched book on Indian magicians, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (2018, Picador India), author John Zubrzycki observes that the pantheon of Indian magicians — jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, madaris, qalandars, sanperas, katputliwallahs, behurupiyas, the list goes on — valued their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of 12, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats."

3. It's Loneliness Awareness Week in the United Kingdom, which means it's a good time to bring up one of my favourite personal essays. Richa Kaul Padte breaks down loneliness on the Internet, and otherwise.

"I took 140 character flights from my aching body and spun long threads to escape the web of my spinning world. There I was, talking about my sexual awakenings. Here I went, re-tweeting relief efforts for a major disaster. Oh look, I had a bunch of new progressive friends. Offline, I sank deeper into my bed, measuring time with failed medical treatments and missed events. Pills, Ayurveda, acupuncture. Weddings, scholarships, conferences. I was depressed, disoriented, and spent most afternoons curled up in a panicked ball of anxiety."

If reading this reminded you of something, write to me by hitting reply on this email, I'd love to know. If you liked reading this and know someone else who'd want this once-a-week in their inbox, tell them!

As always, I will write again soon.