Benefits of Reading

I was about three months into Grade 1 in school when my mother gifted me my first book: an illustrated telling of a bunch of fables from different parts of the world. I finished the book in a week's time, trying on new words for size at each turn.

When I finished, my mother asked me to tell her what I had gathered from the book. I didn't have anything to "tell" her, and so, I asked her for permission to "show" her: and that manifested in many ways. I began to play more fairly, I began to treat people as I wanted to be treated, and most importantly, I began to learn to look at things like a fly on the wall.

Reading opened up a new world – a world where learning meant acquiring truths, a world where all such truths were actionable. Through my reading, I went to war-stricken Afghanistan where women bear the brunt of living a crippled life – facing domestic violence, honour killings, rape and an abject deprivation from their every right. I went to DR Congo where women bear the brunt of sexual violence aplenty and suffer indignities in the hands of the very society that should protect them. I went to different parts of India, where I learned of girl foetuses being killed in the womb because they were girls, where tribal women are forced to dance naked to be able to get a meal. I travelled to parts of the Middle East where women are the property of their men, and could even be killed or raped, with no one asking. I went to Nigeria, where girls are subjected to the harsh malpractice of genital mutilation, and their cries were so loud that they were silent. I went to Pakistan and Palestine, where women are subjected to the awful nightmare of murder in the name of protecting their familial honour. I went to South East Asia where girls are born into brothels, and lived their lives there, without knowing that they were made slaves. I travelled to Kosovo and Houston, Texas, where the dirtiest secret is the filthy game of human trafficking which has many a woman under its fold. I went to Latin America where ‘poverty has a woman’s face’.

It always intrigued me to know how every face had a name, and every name had a story. It drew me, like iron chips to a magnet, to know that these stories are bunched up into statistics to report wrongdoing or to report a phenomenon. So, you often don’t hear how a daughter left home to get her first salary only for a bomb blast to claim her life on the way. You often don’t hear what it feels like for one to wake up in a new land after being driven out of her own homeland thanks to war – to be tagged with the label refugee.

You seldom hear of the story of survival, of how a woman fought the burden of stigma and social isolation after surviving sexual assault, to own her life and lead it on her own terms like a true victor. You don't have spaces to hear these stories, either: society offers stigma in exchange for every survivor's bold attempt to speak out. Reprisals await those who dare to call out their abusers: no one needs a reminder of how the #MeToo movement panned out online.

Reading had led me down a path to see the dangers of a single story and to come face to face with the power of lasting change. It is an act of subversion, an act that lets you find knowledge as it seeks to find you and to ground your knowledge in action that is concrete and future-facing in a way that can make change happen, and sustain.

As I grew up, thriving on a rich diet of books that told true and fictionalised accounts of events around the world, I learned what I could have otherwise learned only if I had the money to travel. I learned of painful realities and heartrending stories of survivors of rape, of domestic violence, of honour killings, of deprivation, of gender violence, of foeticide, of infanticide. As I wrote, I grew, because I didn’t just read these stories, I felt them. What were just words in a book shook me to understand that it was, after all, the reality, the harsh truth for a woman, miles away? As much as the world was ‘ahead’, it was also terribly backward.

And while I read all of this, reading became the catalyst that I most needed to learn, to grow, and to be. I woke up to harsh realities and was driven into action. Knowledge is a catalyst for action, and that is the biggest way in which reading can help.

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