Recently a friend was accosted by alady. Women reading this column and a few men will relate to this experience—a complete stranger, usually a middle-aged woman who is evidently quite satisfied with herself and would like to share the largesse of her self-congratulation with the world. So here is my friend, quietly reading her book whilst she waits for the bell to ring at her child’s school. The lady asked, in a tone of utmost curiosity, as to what exactly my friend was doing. She was naturally taken by surprise, as the activity in question seemed fairly obvious. Undaunted, the lady persisted. Do you do this at home? In front of your husband? Doesn’t he mind? When she was reassured that indeed, my friend read her book at home and in front of her uncomplaining spouse, the lady was scandalized to the extent that she roundly told my friend that it was an extremely irregular thing to do indeed and huffed off, leaving my friend affronted, albeit in a thoroughly bemused way. After all, it isn’t every day that you are obliquely called a harridan for reading in the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, it does seem that the general state of reading affairs in this city at least (I can’t speak for the entire country, which I hope and pray is possibly much more erudite). It’s almost enough to feel like resurrecting a bluestocking suffragette or two. Nobody reads. Men or women, nobody seems to find it of any significance that they have gone through life without ever cracking open a book of Literature in any language. Most people read a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen or some such canonical text while at school and under pain of report-card death, but once they loosed themselves from that bond there was literally no looking back. People have flung themselves into their lives with nary a glance at the paperbacks they suffered through—indeed, they pride themselves on never having had time for reading ‘storybooks’ since they stopped wearing uniforms to class. Then these people end up in university classrooms where they encounter teachers like me, who hopefully ask them what they are reading these days, only to be met with the blank silence of people usually reserved for the answering of extremely awkward questions such as ‘did you conceive naturally’ or ‘how much do you earn’. Apparently people don’t even read comic books any more, that lowest reading denomination.

Quellehorreur! I hear you exclaim. How dreadful! Who would be proud of being a complete jahil, only being able to read and write and never having experienced the wonder and beauty of an excellent book? Most of the city of Lahore, that’s who. The people who flip through a weekend magazine and feel like their week’s reading is done. The people who think public libraries are a waste of space. The people who accost you and make you feel like an abomination for quietly minding your own business. Reading in public mystifies people in any situation. Methinks it is to do with the strangeness people feel when the person next to them is ignoring them completely, but is also being as polite as possible in doing so. It is an intolerable situation, because you technically cannot be affronted, but you still feel aggrieved. Additionally people seem to find the idea of reading for pleasure incredible. Why else would you be spending your valuable free time in the doctor’s waiting room doing something like reading a book unless you were under academic duress? The sword of failing an exam looming, Damocles-like, over one’s head would excuse all manner of eccentric behaviour. But reading, and underlining bits, and scribbling in the margins and laughing out loud? For fun? It’s really a “go to Jail Road Pagalkhana, directly to Pagalkhana, do not pass Go, do not collect 200” situation.

Everyone thinks it’s very nice for children to read, though. They just don’t want to do it themselves. I would have parents try and wheedle me into ‘fixing’ their child’s English, but would look a slightly queasy when I would harp on about the imperative importance of reading at home in order to improve said English. There’s no excuse for it really, nor is there any way out of it. If you want your child to be fluent in a language, they have got to read in it. Read anything and everything they can get their hands on. I remember the amazing day when I read a Ravi Atta billboard in Urdu for the first time—in a moving car, I could not only read Urdu, but read it fast enough to decipher it! I was bursting with pride when I told my Urdu teacher the next day, and bless her for keeping a straight face. But I could read, and it was the most thrilling thing that had happened to me.

Unfortunately, many of us think that just reading is enough. That it is a means to an end, and that end is study, examinations, work and information. Admittedly, not everyone likes to read, or finds pleasure in sitting still in a corner and turning pages. But it is a taste that is easily cultivated, because there is something for everyone in the world of books. You can read anything, and there is certainly nobody alive who only reads Tolstoy all the time. Even Tolstoy must have spent some happy hours reading some rubbish Dan-Brown-equivalent books in his leisure time. Avid readers have different books for different activities, moods, and times of day. And while people are snobby about their tastes, there is no shame in liking Dan Brown, or Tolstoy, or both. There was a time when people boasting about what they read was a laughable affectation; now it seems one should long for those good old days back when people thought reading was something to be proud of. Even if it were Paulo Coelho.

A family friend recently returned from a stint in Abuja. At any traffic signal, people sell books. And not just any random thriller kind of books, but Proper Books. They sell them like our street vendors sell dusters and window shades, and they do so because they make decent money doing it. People in Nigeria buy books like we buy dusters and masalay walay papar. No wonder the place has produced world-class writers like Ben Okri and Chinua Achebe, and the best we’ve been able to muster is Manto, who has been dead for almost sixty years and was technically Indian for most of his life. Still, like any good secret society we readers carry on, bearing our banner and spending most of our salaries keeping our few good bookstores in business. Maybe someday we’ll turn the tide.

n    The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.