The first time I took an underground metro my mother took a half day’s leave from work, invited her colleague and her kids, packed us all a lunch and hailed an auto. We were planning a picnic. I doubt whether I would call it that now. Because the instructions to us then were: we will board from Patel Chowk metro station, go to the last station and then come back the same way.

We kids were very deflated to see that once inside the underground, there was nothing much to do other than slide from one silver seat to another. Climbing the poles had yet to enter our imagination. When I asked my mother why she hadn’t let me carry any of my toys, she said, because it was a different kind of picnic.

Now however I make sure that every time I travel in metro, I have something to read.

Over the last decade, the activity of reading has become more visible in public transport. I was alerted to this while on my school bus – people cramming for tests, writing, completing their practical files. I saw Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in hardcover for the first time in the bus and subconsciously made a mental note of its price. Once, I saw a young boy tear a page from his geography notebook, as the ink from his blue gel pen made a nice river all along the page. Our bus conductor would always advise us against reading and writing on the bus – eyes will get weak, he would say, while reading almost everything written behind other buses and trucks.

As I grew up, reading while travelling became important. It was nice to have company. It was a good distraction from small talk. It was one of the things I could be in control of while travelling. It rendered to escaping – a journey undertaken within a journey. It was good to make sense (or not) of the visuals outside and the world inside a book.

Not all books can be read anywhere – there are perfect weather conditions for a book too, ideal reading conditions, and these may not always be zones of quietness. The number of times I’ve closed The Finkler Question on Violet line is more than the number of times I’ve registered Rina Simone saying, ‘Please mind the gap.’

On a breezy October Saturday afternoon, I boarded Yellow line at Kashmere Gate. My co-passenger had just gotten up to deboard and beside her was a girl earnestly reading. I saw in ant black letters PAPPACHI’S MOTH staring at me. Her copy of the book was larger in size than mine and that is how I met A, a first-year student in DU.

She was reading The God of Small Things, and I showed her my copy of the same book. Her thoughts were definitely in some other universe when suddenly they reconfigured, as she gave an ‘OH!’ of recognition. Her eyes lit up, “It’s so good na,” mildly melting at the sight of the book. I nodded. When I did not look away, she added, “Yeah, but a bit difficult too.”

My inner student thanked her for saying that. As we chatted along, I got to know that she is a frequent metro traveler, “I usually do make it a point to read in Metro, because I have 30 mins of free time. I don’t get time to read otherwise. I am doing Sociology honours, you know.” “So, do you also listen to audio books or read on other devices?” “No. I like to smell and touch books. I like to hold them.”

“Any good memories of metro reading?” “Hai na. Once in a crowded metro I literally cried while reading A Thousand Splendid Suns… My co-passenger got worried and asked if I was alright. I said ‘yeah’ feebly. But that book made me so emotional. Have you read it?”

I shook my head and told her about a Ruskin Bond book I had finished reading, Uncles Aunts and Elephants, and without realising it I started beaming at everyone in the metro who looked at me because I was so happy.

“It was all involuntary.” What I didn’t tell her was at that exact moment, words from Ghachar Ghochar were ringing in my head, and that too in Rina Simone’s voice, as if announcing the next metro station no longer interested her – “Language communicates in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with entirely unprecedented.”

There are people who recognise chapter names, book covers, may surreptitiously read side by side, may even stop you to ask for a review. So many times, we lose track of stations that we are supposed to de-board on, all because we are so engrossed in a book.

“I see a bright deep tangerine book shining every now and then. I don’t even guess, I know it is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. It’s interesting for me to see people of a certain age group reading certain books – Every time I go to office, I usually see young urban working people holding that tangerine book. I am seeing less of Chetan Bhagat these days. There’s a Jodi Picoult that I just saw today. The women’s compartment usually has a lot of women reading, almost all the times that I have travelled,” said a woman in her mid-thirties, who takes metro once a week and also likes to judge people for the choice of clothes and the books they read.

“I even count surfing on Myntra as reading. Every time I refresh there is a quote that appears on screen which tries to make a case in favour of buying clothes.”

A young content writer working in Noida once mentioned how he sometimes just closes his book and observes people, as sometimes this is more refreshing. And it doesn’t hurt that it also helps in getting ideas for the characters (of a novel) he is writing.

We are driving slowly, the road is glass.
“Imagine where we are was a sea once.
Just imagine!” The sky is relentlessly
sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:

The lines above are from Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘Snow on the Desert’. One cannot help but feel the isolation these lines create, but as we are traveling in metro, our reading experience is also paved for us.

Early morning rushes are definitely something to fear especially if you have seen Kashmere Gate or Rajiv Chowk. But even in such desperate times readers can always be seen desperately trying to cling to their book in the crowd, trying to not lose track of the passage, reading by folding the book. They can be seen either leaning against the pole, or standing with laptop bags in front, two fingers pressed against the door glass for support, and a book in the other hand.

Once a boy was so hooked to his reading of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that at Sikanderpur station he was pushed outside by the Rapid Metro crowd – but instead of raising the alarm, he quietly stood aside and got in through the coach’s next door.

At Mandi House, people seat themselves under the tube lit hoardings. At Green Park, students can be seen taking up the circular seats by the stairs. In metro, the comfortable coach junctions are more crowded in the evenings. The corrugated rubber in the vestibule is another space for people to lean on, and read newspapers in the morning as the metro snakes its way along. The reading junta also leans along the poles, and on the doors that do not open at every metro station. The ends of metro coaches also see scenes where people take out their newspaper and sit, as they dig in the bag for Pratiyogita Darpan.

At metro stations with interchange facility like Hauz Khas or INA, one sees people walking a lot and reading books but not bumping into each other. Reading in metro then can also become about learning about the metro station as a space. Reading in these spaces then can make us hopeful that there is a future where reading books can be seen as normal as the pitter- patter of metro is.

In the summer of 2018, I was commuting in the metro for three hours every day. I was reading Many Lives and Many Masters, and only during my commuting hours. It is a book I would never go back to, but it didn’t help me realise where my time went while reading. Somehow the physical pain of standing was taken up by the act of reading, which immediately wafted to imagining a connection between different worlds.

It is not hard for me to understand why I loved reading Ruskin Bond more in a metro than at home – the noise, the smells, the terrains of some worlds cannot be felt when you are static. Delhi Metro creates a world of its own as soon as you enter it, but this world serves as an entry point also to the book as I open it. The sight, chatter and the whiff of the women’s coach evoked a new memory. I can no longer read the same book without thinking about how colourful the coach looked.

I believe some words only make sense when you are literally traveling, as if to understand the metaphorical passage of immersing yourself into some other world. Some words are better felt with the passage of time and space.

“This is a very strange incident. The doors of the car had just opened at Pragati Maidan metro station. I saw a book kept on the twin railings of the staircase. I ran to it, got hold of it, and dashed back inside the metro. Later, I wrote to BoDM asking if I could join them as a volunteer.” On this sunny November afternoon in Connaught Place Park, a bunch of around fifteen volunteers met to discuss the coming month’s book drops.

Sometimes the results are funny. “They think it might a bomb or they fear getting caught in the act. I personally therefore do not make it a point to stop there to see the book being picked up. Sometimes we wait, sometimes we hide, sometimes we leave. Sometimes people pick it up, flip through it and leave it there again… We trust the people who take these books to re-drop them. There is also a BoDM sticker on the front cover and a note from us inside. The staff of Delhi Metro, CISF people posted in metro stations are also curious about books and ask us for books… We have started dropping books in Hindi and Urdu too.”

But does dropping books on metro equal reading books in metro? I don’t think so. What BoDM is trying to do is to foster reading. It doesn’t matter whether people read in public or private. The important thing is that people read.

Since people are travelling long stretches of time and distance every day, reading a book in metro helps in focusing. It serves as ‘me-time’, a jumpstart to another refreshing evening, as a meditative exercise, a space to conserve energy, to concentrate and get away from distractions.

Isn’t it ironic that to close off the distractions of this world, we are ready to plunge in another world with distractions all around us?

To see people reading in metro, is like seeing libraries walking. There is so much to know – read, learn, communicate, understand, marvel and wonder about everything, that finally just the presence of seeing people read, gets the ‘picnic’ started.