Reading Corner with Karishma Nair


Karishma Nair is a Development Professional – always elsewhere but carries Bombay-Dhaka, Arundhati Roy and poetry in her heart everywhere. She wrote a heart-wrenching piece for us on APS attack in 2015. 

How and when did you develop an interest in reading?  What is the importance of this habit in your life?

I wish my answer could begin with ‘I have been reading since I was a kid’ but alas I am what I’d like to call the ‘late bloomer’.  It was the day I mistakenly assumed Paulo Coelho to be a Science Professor. During the time when I had enrolled for the Commerce stream after my 10th grade; my group of friends (who had all chosen the Science Stream) would jest about my choice as rather unintelligent and capitalistic.  Feeling completely disheartened (and rather unintelligent of course) I decided to read one science related lesson every day from my Sister’s syllabus (who was majoring in Physics). That day Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ was lying at her study table and assuming I was going to dive into some heavy duty Chemistry equations, I ended up finding gold – the wealth of a reading habit,  and comfort, wonder and hope in the world of books.

When it comes to genre, which one do you prefer reading the most? Reason for this preference?

When I started out I consumed fiction to escape the horrors of the turbulent times that were unfolding in our world then, but I found that the weight of a good story remaining untold left me more shattered than I preferred.  With time, I’ve consciously steered towards poetry and non-fiction; hoping it would help me understand why we choose to thrive on the edge of chaos and fragility by perfecting the art of forgetting when in power.

Recall an Aha moment(s) you had while reading. How has that changed your perspective to life?

With the kind of work I do, I have an Aha moment with everything I have to read now. But I guess one that birthed the architecture of my politics was ‘The End of Imagination’: Arundhati Roy’s essay on India’s nuclear tests.  Her lone –celebrated- voice dissented against the national euphoria that had engulfed us all. It made me chase a trail of questions, a series of aha moments, which helped me hone my individual voice. It made me realize that when it comes to it, we are the only help that can save ourselves, from ourselves.

If you were to re-write a book that you have read, which one would you? Why would you change it?

Why would anyone want to re-write anything that they’ve enjoyed? Why would anyone want to re-write anything that is badly written either?  Besides, I’m far too lazy to even mull the idea of re-writing something that was so fiercely personal to someone – it’s just too much work to undo the soul of another!

Do you have an emotional bond with any specific books? What caused that bond?

There are quite a few books but the God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was the first book that  made me cry in public (in a crowded train and it was rather musical with my sobs  interspersed with the snores of co- passengers). I had stubbornly refusing to read Roy’s fiction because I felt it would dilute – to me –her political voice. At 26 though, along with the loss of my grandmother, I had exiled myself from the memories of the place she came from (Kerala) too. GoST is a story of love, loss and the beauty of small things, all set in Kerala.  Somehow, reading that book made me feel like Roy had plucked her memories and very cleverly, made me feel like they were actually mine instead. She helped me heal. That book did many things for many people, but for me that day on the train, it was the catalyst that enabled me to claim back the shattered piece called Kerala in my heart again…

  • I recently finished reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. A heartbreaking read:  about loss and love, and why it is SO important to stop forgetting.
  • Khaled Hosseini writes the saddest of stories in the most devastatingly beautiful voice.
  • John Berger – Lilac and flag.  It was recommended to me by my favourite writer. The book is a tale of explosive love.
  • Elif Shafak – 40 Rules of Love. I read it at a time, when I had only recently left India for the first time and felt lost. Her storytelling soothed me into untangling my thoughts and emotions then.
  • The complete poems  of Anna Akhmatova. If you love poetry, you must read her. She helped me swim in a world sinking with complex questions.

Do you keep going back to any book(s)? Why? Any book(s) you have not been able to finish? Why?

I’m extremely fascinated with loss and our understanding of it.  Sometimes stories of loss exhibit the greatest form of love and sometimes the image of love emits the decay of loss. I find myself constantly drawn to literature with the backdrop of Partition (of the Indian sub-continent) . Having lived in Bangladesh, I think I’m more fueled now to read about how this loss has shaped all of us apart and yet distinctly kept our similarities alive.

I always find myself re-reading Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar because it beautifully weaves all these themes with the most intelligent character writing. One line remains etched in my mind “There are many stories which are not on paper. They’re written in the bodies and minds of women.” Her poetry too is moving and powerful.

PG Wodehouse – Amidst all the loss and ache, much of his genuinely clever humour is like warm sunshine for my soul.

The poetry of Kamala Das, Sylvia Plath, Rumi, Yehuda Amichai and Warsan Shire, I keep returning to, like home.

I’ve simply stopped reading a book if its prose hasn’t danced straight out of its pages or if I wasn’t completely obsessed with any of the characters (it could even be the antagonist).  I’ll take the risk and be brave enough to say that I just couldn’t read beyond the second book of the Potter series! Even though J,K Rowling has created a brilliant world, I just couldn’t connect to her vision of character development.

Who are your favourite writers? Any writer(s) you think are under rated? Your favourite Pakistani writer(s)?

Arundhati Roy (of course). James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Eduardo Galeano, Haruki Murakami , B.R Ambedkar, Rilke, Alice Munro, Simone De Beauvoir, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anaïs Nin, Osho, Khaled Hosseini…..

Don’t know about underrated, but tons of writers – especially in this age of ‘networking’ are embarrassingly overrated!  There is nothing that upsets me more than buying a book which a writer – I trust – gives a favourable review of, only because the book is written by members of their clique!

I’ve LOVED the urgency , ache and compassion in Fatima Bhutto’s writing since the days of her first column, Bapsi Sidhwa and undoubtedly the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Basti by Intizar Husain left me captivated.

Any short stories or essays that you would like to recommend to our readers?

  • Toba Tek Singh – Manto. Rather much of his work.
  • Mahashweta Devi – Draupadi and Fisherman
  • Mavis Gallant – The Collected Stories, especially the complex Mlle Dias De Corta.  No one can write a crisp yet comprehensive sentence like she does.
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Shooting an Elephant – George Orwell
  • Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer
  • On the Importance of Being Unprincipled – John Herman Randall Jr


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