When I moved to Bengaluru in 1999, it was with a fair amount of reluctance. While my husband was hell-bent on leaving Delhi and raring to begin life afresh with a new job in a new city, I was on a break from full-time work with two young children, a back problem, no close family or old friends in Bengaluru, and no talent for learning a new language. In short, I had no support system in what was to be my new home.
Before I knew it, 10 years had passed. But I still felt like an outsider in the city. I keenly felt the absence of old friends—people you’ve had the luxury of knowing through school, heartbreaks, sleepovers, pregnancies, miscarriages, jobs losses, or grieved the loss of a parent with.
Through all the lonely days of ferrying the kids to and from school, I tried to find my people. I tried the ‘let’s catch up’ thing with ladies who lunched, aired outfits still reeking of mothballs to party with women on ‘girl’s nights’, and even hung out with school mums and attempted to feel the full unbridled joys of fancy-dress planning. But truth be told, my highs didn’t come from deciding whether to dress my energetic offspring as a dragon or a knight.
I tried going back to a full-time job (walked away as soon as I remembered there is no such thing as a life outside a full-time job in advertising), learned to salsa (loved the dance but had problems distinguishing between the steps for an inside right turn and an inside left and often found myself at the opposite end of the room from the rest of the group), and even tried acting workshops, which showed me I had a talent for drawing upon memories of characters from my life; excellent as an exorcism and very handy when I stumbled into writing fiction later. But theatre needs time, rehearsals, and hours of workshopping—luxuries that moms with young kids can’t afford easily.
The one constant in my life before and after moving was books. I discovered wonderful bookshops in Bengaluru but didn’t have anybody to talk about them with. I stumbled upon new books and new authors, and yearned to have people in my life who were on the same page as me. I eventually joined a book club but it turned out to be more like a study group. I found another but that followed more of a ‘meet and listen to an author speak’ format. I remained a book loony seeking other book loonies.
I had been writing short stories every once in a while, but these were only for myself, not meant for publication and not genre-based. One night though, after a disastrous wedding anniversary dinner, I wrote a short story—a romance, no less. With the morale boost given by two margaritas, I entered it for a nationwide Harlequin contest for India’s first Mills and Boon author. I went on to win. The contest started a new chapter for me as a romance novelist, while giving me the courage to start publishing my short stories. All of this started to bring me in touch with a new set of people, readers, who I could vibe with. That’s when I thought of asking five new friends if they were game to start a book club with me. We decided to go for it over a lunch of anda bhurji masala, and that’s how our book club got its name—‘Book Masala’.
When we started, I was eager for Book Masala to be a democratic book club where everyone would have a voice—in the choice of books we read, the way we grew, the new members we added, the place and time we met. Every member needed to have the power to veto, to lobby for votes on which book we select, to equally share responsibility, take turns in steering the discussion, and to feel a sense of ownership. I had also noticed that many book clubs were almost exclusively populated by women and was glad when we voted to make our book club gender-balanced.
In the first year of Book Masala, a friend offered us a space to meet at the hotel she worked at, with coffee and cookies thrown in. It was a comfortable central location that required no effort other than to read the book and show up. In year two, when the hotel friend moved, we started to meet at members’ homes or in central Bengaluru cafes after furious debates about the choice of venue. I started to see the city through the eyes of Bangaloreans. Distances that I thought weren’t much (coming from Delhi) turned out to be a big deal for many, and I began to appreciate members who battled Bangalore’s poor infrastructure to attend meetings from afar.
Meetings at homes meant that members arrived with local goodies. Alongside our book discussions, I came to know the city through its food. Spicy ‘bhajjis’ from North Bengaluru, macaroons from South Bengaluru, haleem samosas from iconic central Bengaluru locations, plum cake and rose cookies from famous old bakeries. With each meeting, we got to know each other—how we grew up, our cultural backgrounds, our family pressures. As I became a part of members’ milestones —a wedding, a family member in hospital—I slowly started to feel like I belonged.
When we started the book club, we agreed to only read fiction. We’ve stuck to that but have tried to include as many genres as possible—adult fantasy, YA, science fiction, historical fiction, graphic novels, literary fiction, popular fiction. The vote decides all. The books we’ve read opened up dialogues around gender, identity, geography, and helped us see that it didn’t matter if we came from Kashmir or Kerala. In fact, the book club has had a sprinkling of members from all over India and across faiths, a luxury that no place gives you as beautifully as Bengaluru.
In the past six months, when the rug was pulled from right under all our feet by the pandemic, Book Masala meetings moved online. Especially in the early days, just seeing old friendly faces with their familiar quirks and banter offered comfort and a much-needed sense of the old normal. We’ve even been able to welcome back much-missed old members who had moved away to other cities. Now we argue, agree with, and challenge each other while walking on terraces or blending a cold coffee, family pictures visible on walls behind us, sometimes a child or family elder or pet in the background. Earlier we visited each other’s homes formally as guests. Now it’s like being with a friend whose home you can casually drop into.
If you think about it, there’s quite a contradiction in loving to read and being part of a book club. Reading is solitary. A book club necessitates sociability. And in the eight years since I began Book Masala, it has grown into a close-knit group.
Books can touch you, revolt you, bore you, amuse you, stun you, provoke you. The way somebody responds to a book almost always comes from something in their own life. And when you bring this understanding into your discussion within a book club, you start to let people know aspects of you and see aspects to them that you may never have gotten to see otherwise.
As for me, two decades after I moved, that sense of rootlessness I had all those years has given way to one of homecoming. Particularly once every month when I meet my book-worshipping, book-championing, and sometimes book-massacring family.
Milan Vohra (@milanvohra) is an advertising professional, short story writer and novelist. Her first book The Love Asana ( Harlequin) made her the first Indian Mills & Boon author and her book Tick-tock we’re 30 ( Westland Amazon) is now being adapted for the screen. Her latest book is Our Song, published with HarperCollins.