Building a reading community in Bengaluru, book by book

Turning Pages Together: Bengaluru’s Literary Legacy, part of IIHS City Scripts, delved into Bengaluru’s strong book culture and how it has shaped community reading spaces

Updated - May 15, 2024 11:36 am IST

Published - May 14, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

(From left) Prerna Prakash, Harsh Snehanshu, Preksha Sharma, Jayalaxmi Patil and Milan Vohra at IIHS City Scripts.

(From left) Prerna Prakash, Harsh Snehanshu, Preksha Sharma, Jayalaxmi Patil and Milan Vohra at IIHS City Scripts. | Photo Credit: IHS Media Lab

Harsh Snehanshu, the co-founder of Cubbon Reads, remembers the very first book he read, sprawled on the verdant grass of the park: Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar.

“I finished it in one stretch within two and a half hours,” he says at a recent panel discussion titled Turning Pages Together: Bengaluru’s Literary Legacy, part of City Scripts, an annual urban writing festival organised by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). Unlike at home, where there were many distractions, silently reading in the park helped him and his co-founder, Shruti Sah, easily focus on reading. “It was so productive that we started doing it every weekend. It became our own personal ritual,” says the Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur, who co-founded Cubbon Reads in January 2023. 

Being ardent cyclists who would cycle all the way to Cubbon Park from home, carrying mats, books and food, Harsh and Shruti wanted to bring more cyclists into the fold. “I posted on my personal Instagram that this was something we had started doing, (hoping) to get more cyclists to come along with us,” says Harsh. Instead, the post attracted more readers, growing organically over the last year or so, into around 500-odd people, who gather at Cubbon Park weekly with their books. “Every Saturday morning, you will see the park turn into an archipelago of mats where people just sit and read,” he says of Cubbon Reads, which is now a global silent reading movement with chapters in over 70 cities.   

People reading at Cubbon Park.

People reading at Cubbon Park. | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan B@Chennai

A strong literary legacy 

Besides Harsh, the other speakers in the session were Cubbon Book Club co-founder, Preksha Sharma, writer and advertising professional, Milan Vohra, actor, writer and activist, Jayalaxmi Patil and Prerna Prakash, who manages Atta Galatta, an independent Indian language bookstore and events space located in Indiranagar in the city. They were all unanimous in their view that the popularity of these literary communities was a direct outcome of the city’s strong literary legacy. 

“When people talk about a good book culture, they always talk about Bengaluru,” points out Prerna, who moderated the session. When people come to Bengaluru, the first place they go to is Church Street, home to iconic independent bookstores like Blossom’s and Book Worm, she says. “There is a voraciousness for buying books that I haven’t seen in any other city.” She believes that books are deeply entwined into the cultural fabric of Bengaluru. 

When people come to Bengaluru, the first place they go to is Church Street, home to iconic independent bookstores like Blossom’s and Book Worm, says Prerna.

When people come to Bengaluru, the first place they go to is Church Street, home to iconic independent bookstores like Blossom’s and Book Worm, says Prerna. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Antidote to loneliness

But what makes the people of Bengaluru such ardent book lovers? The answer may lie in the need to find a community of like-minded people, especially important in a city filled with many people whose roots lie outside Karnataka. Book communities, as Prerna says, can be an antidote to loneliness, a way to discover your identity and forge your own connections. “Bengaluru is singular that way...we have a lot of osmosis,” she says. “There are folks constantly coming in and moving out. Books become such an important way in which we make those connections.” 

Milan Vohra, India’s first Mills & Boon author, agrees. Eleven years ago, Milan and her friends founded a book club called Book Masala, something she is extremely proud of. “This is something that is very precious. When I think of leaving Bangalore, I think—where will I get that back again?” she remarks. 

When she first moved to the city with two young children, Milan experienced a sense of loneliness and a loss of identity. “I was in a space where I was taking a break from corporate life,” says Milan, who dabbled in many things—pottery, theatre, salsa—attempting to make more friends in the city. “(But) I was still not finding my people, my tribe,” she says. 

Then, in 2012, she published her first book The Love Asana.Soon, she found herself meeting new people and realised that the people she was connecting with the most were book lovers, like herself. “That was the thread,” says Milan, who went on to found Book Masala, whose name is a nod to this community of very different people drawn together by this deep love for the written word. “We were like a masala box with all these spices and a common centre (books) that united us,” she recounts.  

A Kannada book club

Preksha Sharma’s decision to start the Cubbon Book Club followed a similar trajectory as did Jayalaxmi’s. “When I started, I started for myself,” says the latter, the founder of Ee hottige, a Kannada book club. She talks about coming from Mumbai and not having too many friends in the city. The book club started as an attempt to connect with other people who were passionate about literature. “I just wanted to discuss the things I was reading,” says Jayalaxmi.

For Preksha, the Cubbon Book Club wasn’t just a space to find friends but also to carve out some reading time for herself. “When I moved to Bangalore, I was a lawyer and had a pretty hectic schedule,” says Preksha, who couldn’t find the time to go to Cubbon Park or book shops though she badly wanted to. But a few months into living like this made her realise that if things continued this way, she would never read much.  

So Preksha turned to social media, looking for like-minded people who would be interested in coming together to talk about books. “We thought we could just sit and talk (about books) in Cubbon Park,” she says, recalling how many people had responded to this post and showed up at Cubbon Park on their first meetup. “I realized that there are so many people out there who want to make friends, who love reading books,” says Preksha, who went on to make many new friends thanks to the book club. “We started building a community,” she says.  

Creating inclusive spaces 

While there are many benefits of making reading a communal experience, there are some issues that must be navigated. For starters, being sensitive to the varied reading tastes of a group of people. It is why Harsh, for instance, prefers the idea of a silent reading community of people who bring their own books and read together at their own pace rather than a book club, which tends to discuss a specific text. “That has made it very inclusive. It appeals to the free will of the community,” he says.  

Milan, on the other hand, believes that engaging with different people about the same book can be very enlightening. It also allows you to get out of your comfort zone as a reader, experimenting with genres and authors who you would not pick up otherwise. “I wasn’t happy to read science fiction and fantasy,” says Milan, who went on to do so anyway because of the book club. “The only parameter we agreed on was that we meet once a month, and (only) read fiction. It was really for everyone to have a say in what we are reading, she says, describing the process by which the books are chosen as a democratic one. “I want everyone to have a sense of ownership and that comes from having a voice. We vote in the group and the book that has gotten the most votes is taken,” she says. 

Nature of shared space

And it isn’t just the book choice but the nature of any shared space itself. “What do we do about the inherent politics of every space? How do we make it safe and accessible?” asks Prerna.  

“Of course, politics happens,” says Jayalaxmi, with a smile. She chooses to ignore the politics in the air and prefers to engage with a text directly. “Books are books...readers are lovers are book lovers,” she says, an opinion Milan also echoes. That played a role in the decision to make the book club fiction-only, she says. “We don’t want political and religion-related books in this discussion. There are enough platforms out there to discuss them. This was a very conscious choice,” she says. “We are not looking to be anything but a community of people who are family in Bangalore.” 

And what makes books, in general, such an excellent vehicle to form relationships in and with the city? For Harsh, who runs two startups and is no stranger to the hustle culture, it is the slowness of reading together that he looks forward to. “It takes the mind off from that whole obsession with productivity. You finally get to do something for pleasure, for yourself,” he says. 

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