Books

How book clubs across India have transitioned online during the pandemic

Despite the many portrayals of bibliophiles as loners, reading can be social endeavour. Abigail Williams, in her book The Social Life of Books, writes about the prevalence of communal reading in 18th Century England. Reading together was necessary then, for two reasons: In the absence of modern printing technologies, not everyone owned a book; and it was the only way people with poor sight could consume a book as ophthalmology was underdeveloped and bulbs didn’t exist. In the following centuries, technologies progressed, eyesight got better, books were aplenty, reading became more solitary. Yet the inherent need to share stories never changed. Book discussions are now more interpersonal and unorganised, but there have been manifestations of the 18th Century reading groups in the form of book clubs.

A book club can connect a doctor, an entrepreneur, a homemaker and a college student through their shared love for reading. The pandemic, however, halted most clubs’ regular get-togethers. Here’s how they have kept the conversations going online.

Belongg, Delhi

Belongg isn’t a conventional book club. Lasya Nadimpally, its community manager, calls it a “cultural platform to talk about identity and discrimination.” The book club, Started last year, it is a part of a social venture that seeks to provide services in housing, education among others to excluded and underserved communities. Discussions apart, the burgeoning book club has hosted film screenings, potluck, author book readings and more. The pandemic paused all these offline activities. But Belongg maximised the situation.

In the last five months, it made plans to set up local chapters of the club in over 50 cities, verified its Twitter handle, hosted a four-day online literature festival on inclusion and diversity, weekly author readings, mental health webinars and other events. “In a way, it was easier for us now than beforeusual to reach many authors, publishers and bookstores as most of them were relatively free,” says Lasya. “So, despite missing our offline activities, we had a lot of things going online.”

How to join: The book club is open and free for all. For more details visit: belongg.net/book-club

Book Masala, Bengaluru

When author Milan Vohra moved to Bengaluru in the late ’90s, she, in the pursuit of like-minded people, joined a few book clubs -- small and big -- that offered different discussion formats. "I wanted to be with a book club in which everyone had a say. From the choice of book we selected for the month, to the venue, or even a shift in meeting date or time - would always be by vote and a majority consensus. A democratic book club - of book lovers, by book lovers, for book lovers." So, she created one in 2012 with her friends. They had brainstormed the idea over a meal at a cafe — hence the ‘Masala’ in the name. The club meets once every month to discuss a book its members — aged from the 20s to 50s — have chosen via a poll.

In the last eight years, several long-time members of the club had to move out of Bengaluru. “The pandemic forced us to go online. All those who moved to other cities also could join us now,” says Milan, “We are thinking of having them on video call even after we start meeting in person again.”

How to join: Can Message the club’s founder, Milan Vohra, on Facebook.

Books N Conversations, Hyderabad

Last Sunday, the members of Books N Conversations created art with crayons and watercolours, listening to music and instructions from a psychologist. With their regular monthly meetups halted, the two-year-old, all-women book club decided to come together online for an art therapy session. “It was an enriching experience,” says Sammy Sahni, who founded the club with Uzma Hyder, “The theme of the session was emotional boundaries. So, we drew and discussed people in our lives and the emotional boundaries we have for each of them.”

How book clubs across India have transitioned online during the pandemic

The club longs for its pre-pandemic routine of exploring the cafes of Hyderabad and discussing books in person. The club members vote to pick the ‘book of the month’. The genre changes every month. But since the pandemic, Sammy says, the club has been discussing books related to personal growth. “It’s heartening to see people turning up for meetings even during this time. Other than our usual book discussions, we are planning to have more interactive sessions like art therapy to break the monotony.”

How to join: Women who’d like to join the club can message the Instagram page, BooksNConversations.

Book Cellar, Chennai

Shvetha Jaishankar, a former beauty queen and author, left Chennai as a 17-year-old who had just started modelling. Upon moving back to her hometown after a decade in 2010, she wanted to make new friends. The following year, she started Book Cellar with two of her friends. “I got the idea from my neighbour in London, who had a book club,” says Shvetha. The club slowly grew. But the members never exceeded 15 as she wanted the group to be close-knit.

How book clubs across India have transitioned online during the pandemic

“We meet once every month at a cafe or one of our houses and discuss everything under the sun, along with the book,” says Shvetha. “Considering that our club was built on the idea of establishing social connections, it’s interesting and different to meet online now.”

How to join: On invitation only

Kochi Reading Group, Kochi

For book clubs, meeting online isn’t an entirely unfavourable option. It cuts down travel time and effort. In some cases, members who have moved to other cities can join the meetups too. Joe Cleetus of Kochi Reading Group, however, says, “No. We’d gladly make the extra effort to get out of our houses and congregate in a physical space, for, besides reading, there are friendships to nurture, and that requires the warmth of human contact.” The group, which now has 14 members, was formed in 2006. The members meet once a month, usually for about two hours on Friday evenings at the Cochin Yacht Club.

“We read a novel or poems. Each one reads a passage from the novel and we discuss; or a poem or two by a poet of their choice,” says Joe. He misses celebrating birthdays of the group members, embracing each other and “the pandemonium of occasional simultaneous conversations in smaller groups”. But Joe says that the members look forward to the online meetings they have now as it gives them the feeling of togetherness.

How to join: On invitation only. For more details, visit their blog kochiread.blogspot.com


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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 11:44:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/how-book-clubs-across-india-have-transitioned-online-during-the-pandemic/article32457313.ece

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