A common interest in literature often leads to new bonds with people you'd never otherwise meet, says Manavi Kapur.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
A shy young woman walks into a room full of people, all mirroring her reticence.
Hesitantly, she picks up a book and begins reading a passage from it.
She looks up to see an enraptured audience, some with their chins resting on their palms, looking intently and waiting for their turn.
While a typical book club meeting spells awkwardness for newcomers, it is an exciting space for regulars, strangers forging a bond over a shared passion.
Book lovers, even though they have a common love for literature, find it hard to truly share it out in the open.
Book clubs help break those barriers, creating democratic spaces for bookworms to express what they feel about a book without the fear of judgement or criticism.
"There is no genre that is not restricted to a book club meeting," says Ayush Jain, founder of Pune Book Lovers, a book club established in 2015.
For Ayush, the journey began when he moved from Jaipur to Pune and could not find a good book club to join.
"After having successfully established a book club in Jaipur, I knew how to go about starting one here in Pune," he says.
The 29-year-old business analyst siphons off time from his schedule to organise meet-ups in the city, which includes looking for venues, enrolling new members and maintaining the club's presence on social media.
"The biggest challenge is looking for a venue. Most people won't attend a meet-up if it’s at a remote location."
Nidhi Srivastava, founder of Bring Your Own Book, or BYOB, thought she had found a solution to the problem of scouting for a venue when she opened her home for the first meet-up in New Delhi.
"I was nervous because I was opening my home to complete strangers. Today, those very strangers are good friends," she says.
The meet-ups now happen at mutually decided cafes or open venues.
BYOB works on a slightly modified book club principle where each member brings a book he or she has recently read and shares views about it.
"It's like an open book review session, and though we have a moderator for each meet-up, we don't stop anyone from freely expressing what they think or feel about the book," she explains.
But it isn't only the adults who join book clubs.
Though the average age among book clubs in India is 24 to 35, several teenagers too join the meet-ups.
Kolkata's La Maison de Livres caters specifically to children.
Diva Jain, a mother of two, founded the club when she was "disappointed by the curricula and pedagogy at our schools that seemed narrowly focussed on memorising passages of text by rote and regurgitating them for exams."
La Maison de Livres initially began with assigning passages to children to read at home and then discuss at the meeting.
"This format has changed significantly now with the evolution in their reading abilities. For one, the children are now divided into groups based on their age and reading habits. While we still have readings and discussions about the assigned books, the focus has shifted to greater aspects such as plot development and characterisation," she explains.
But keeping a book club together has its own challenges.
"Once you make friends at the book club, it can be alienating for a newcomer. That is something we must always remain careful and sensitive about," says Ayush.
For first-timers, Srivastava or the local BYOB moderator also organises ice-breakers.
In fact, the common interest in literature often leads to a bond that goes beyond friendship. "So many of our members are dating each other," she chuckles.
While some book club meetings are free and fluid, others can be theme- or genre-specific.
"One gets to learn a lot from these meet-ups. For instance, I never knew there was so much to read in the humour genre," explains Ayush.
Srivastava's BYOB even has a library system that is maintained through a physical register.
"The most exciting part of attending a book club meeting is the countless ideas that are exchanged," says Srivastava.
Book clubs are no longer the prerogative of only those with time on their hands.
The serious hobby now has professionals with busy schedules making time to read, think and step out of their comfort zones.