Books Voices

The Pandemic Through the Eyes and Reading List of a Bibliophile

From children's books to romances to essays of healing and hope, Dr Shalini Mullick takes us through her reading list that evolved as India's Covid crisis hit a peak.

By Dr Shalini Mullick

Reading of course, is a superpower. Since I was a child, books have been my solace, salve, and sustenance. The diverse journeys into other worlds that books have taken me on over the decades – from childhood to a career in medicine – are reflected in my reading choices. This became even more evident once the pandemic set in.

Before the spring of 2020 could give way to the summer, the pandemic made itself a part of our lives. We were compelled to categorise all our activities into silos of essential and non-essential. Reading became more essential than ever.

Like everyone else, my routine also changed. Tired after balancing work and household chores, it would be time to turn in, only to wake up to another day of monotony. Unaware that just a year later, I would recall this period of drudgery as a time of calmness and stability, I would catch up on my reading.

During student life, and later too, I used to be an ardent follower of popular fiction, mystery, thrillers, adventure, romance, and many other genres. But gradually nonfiction had become the staple of my reading list. Memoir, discovery, biographies, psychology, history, geopolitics, self-actualisation, autobiographies, medical humanities, technical pieces (especially medicine), found themselves stacked on the shelf or downloaded on the kindle.

Confronted with the reality of a tiny virus and a huge pandemic, I craved the comfort of an imaginary world. The fiction books that I was midway through satiated my longing for a world crafted for me, where someone was in control.

I rediscovered titles from my children’s bookshelves; mostly fairy tales and simple stories from their primary school days. I devoured the seemingly unrelated genres of romance and crime. Unlike events around me, they were all neatly wrapped up when they ended with no loose ends.

Following news of vaccine research over the next few months, we tried to blend the old pace of life, with the new that had been thrust upon us. Rom-coms, humour and re-reading popular fiction bestsellers became my go-to.

By the time the New Year – and the beginning of the vaccination – dawned, I was reading much more and more of short and shorter fiction. The stories from anthologies that I had added to my collection were perfect for short reading spells, and reduced attention spans.

Poetry had been unexplored genre; but it captivated me. Timeless and flowing with emotion, it gave me a sense of being tethered to something and distracted me from the Machiavellian mutations occurring in the virus.

The April showers of misery were followed by the flowers of May, which, unfortunately were not the ones associated with happy occasions. I was unable to ignore the pictures of queues in life and in death; and faces stricken with grief, guilt and rage.

Even these newly found interests failed me. The closure that short fiction had given me paled in front of the pathos of thousands. The universal humanity that poetry had reminded me of was suffering.

Disquieted, I returned to my bookshelf. To the print versions of some books that I had bought recently but not gotten around to reading. Holding these books, placing them on my chest in between chapters, snuggling up in the duvet, the books physically comforted me. The words they contained and the thoughts that they articulated held my hand, soothed my troubled soul, and restored faith and hope in healing.

A Thousand Cranes for India

Edited by Pallavi Aiyar (Seagull Books, 2020)

These 23 diverse pieces with the origami crane as a motif of reclamation make for an interesting collection. Some of these engage and resonate stronger than others, but all are powerful articulations. Coming together of voices which speak up about the increasingly deepening fault lines in our country was a reminder of the power that solidarity brings.

The theme of renewal and healing is relevant in times like today with so much suffering and pain around us. Like the crane was a unifying reference in the book, would our hope for a better world would be overarching?


equALLY

Edited by Srini Ramaswamy and Ramakrishna Sinha (Rupa, 2021)

This is an anthology of essays by 45 people from different walks of life. They write about their experiences of transformation into true allies of the LGBTQ+ community.

Their personal journeys with honest accounts of how they understood and empathised with the community are inspiring. Hope found its way into my heart after reading this; hope for allyship and its power to create a truly inclusive community and transform lives.


How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

By Elif Shafak (Hachette, 2020)

If the other two books had held my hand, or gently placed an arm around my shoulder, this one hugged me close. Writing from the heart, the author touches many a chord in this 90-page paperback. Reading the parts about bewilderment and anxiety, I was able to finally put a name to the feelings that had been simmering inside me, even without the pandemic as a backdrop.

She observes how fault-lines are a global phenomenon, and how undermining coexistence contributed to the increasingly polarised world we live in. Her stoic advice on the importance of trying to turn into our individual and collective anger into a force for good in place of letting it paralyze us or corrode us is heartening.

I wish our shared humanity heeds her warning against apathy and disengagement. Her account of the social media bubbles resonated especially strongly, as so much of our strife results from the actions of people trapped in those echo chambers. The book made me feel heard, less alone, and optimistic in the power of connection.


The three books are diverse, spanning oceans, thoughts, and communities. But all of them were uplifting reads. In a world divided and disturbed, where hate seems to prevail over love, where suffering and pain have been unbale to bring humanity closer, and where judgement prevails over acceptance, they rekindled my hope in the other superpower: Kindness. They were a reminder of the power that empathy and compassion hold to redeem and transform.

Dr Shalini Mullick is a practising doctor based in Gurugram specialising in pulmonary pathology, and a keen reader-turned-writer, who writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction. 

1 comment on “The Pandemic Through the Eyes and Reading List of a Bibliophile

  1. Anonymous

    love how the books have been linked to emotions!!

    Liked by 1 person

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