The panel discussion on ‘The Act of Reading’ at FLAME University’s recent symposium was charged up with woman power. The interesting exchange between the three women panelists — Tamil author and archivist Dr C S Lakshmi, visual artist and curator Pushpamala N and translator and educationist Rizio Yohannan Raj — was froth with funny anecdotes, stories behind their writings and artworks as they dissected, explored and discussed the primary topic of the session — Reading.
Based upon their questions to each other and queries from the audience, the panelists spoke largely about the relevance of reading in today’s times and its ethics, as an act of witnessing and seeing rather than the conventional form of reading texts.
Has the act of reading changed?
With respect to the act of reading, translator and educationist Rizio Yohannan Raj said, “The onus is on each individual. There is no training. If one is interested in reading, one has to find a way. The real essence of reading is not institutionalised. Nobody is teaching anyone to read. It’s a different exercise altogether.
Also, the whole idea of being successful in today’s times is about reaching a place. There is a destination which is projected. And if one constantly feeds children with this image of being successful, then the other path will not be documented. I feel there has to be a holistic understanding of this whole field.
Although the institutions have always functioned in the same manner, I think there were more parallel opportunities on campuses earlier than there are today.”
On the other hand, visual artist Pushpamala N was of the opinion that there is no reading at all in today’s times. And hence, the question of it changing didn’t arise, according to her.
On translation in reading
Referring to her story Life in a Thousand Words, Dr C S Lakshmi (Ambai) elaborated on how each person translates the same reading in their own distinct way. In her story, the birth of a child is described and told in three different ways by three different characters — the child, the mother and a journalist.
Each of the characters imagines the event from their perspective and narrates/writes it. While the mother beautifies the process, the child has a different take on it. And the journalist has to compress all the information given by the child in 1000 words.
Ethics of Reading as a form of witnessing
The session had Ambai stressing on reading as a form of witnessing, wherein she said it was not limited to reading texts but also about reading people and moments. When asked about the ethical value of such reading, she replied, “With the art of reading itself, it is also about a matter of time. From the time you read it, to the time you understand it. And then you write it. Your understanding changes over a period of time. First, you read it exactly the way it is and understand it literally. Then you keep going back to it and the text keeps changing according to your age and time. Of course, this is not to do with a text alone. It also includes reading people. When you have read something at 13 and refer to it again when you are 26, its connotations have changed. So that’s how a text or body gets translated over a period of time.”
Giving an example of her first and only novel that she wrote at 18 years, Ambai narrated further, “I grew up in a family where we never spoke about the body and menstruation. So my novel was about platonic love as at 18, I had no clue about love, sex or the body. So I easily divided the body and mind where the female protagonist offers just her soul to her husband. The novel is still available at some stations in Tamil Nadu for Rs 2.” Joking about platonic love selling only at that price in today’s times, Ambai points out how she has completely moved away from that idealistic thought process of her first novel. In fact, when she reflects on it now, she feels as though someone else wrote it.