CHENNAI : With the sound of waves and breeze in the backdrop, American writer Dorothy Parker’s sharp witty short stories keep me company at Bessie Beach. Nearly two years since I let a book consume me, a silent reading community by the Besant Nagar Beach brought novels back into my routine. “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” writes Jorge Borges Luis. This paradise may not be a library but it certainly has books and a beach.
Bessy Reads finds its roots in Cubbon Reads which took Bengaluru by storm, prompting citizens to bring out mats, and dusty paperbacks to the park in the heart of the city. This revolution mushroomed across the world and now, this city, too, is home to at least three chapters. For those who have yet to venture into fictional worlds, or have left behind a childhood filled with paperbacks, these communities might be for you.
Policy documents, the back of shampoo bottles, or audiobooks with gravelly voices — any text is welcome here. Unlike traditional book clubs, these chapters do not prescribe books, deadlines or force members to share their few cents. Readers can arrive and leave when they want. No words or greetings need to be exchanged between readers. So, if you’ve picked out a novel, or chosen a mat, bookmark these weekend spots:
Nageswara Rao Park
(Saturdays, 3 pm -4 pm)
In the last week of July, Balaji — inspired by other silent reading movements across the world — decided to host a community reading session in a park. Despite the steady drizzle, several people turned up and leafed through the books he and other readers brought with them. Enthused by the positive response, Balaji decided to journey on with organising this community, perhaps introducing interactions in later editions. For now, they gather on alternate Saturdays of the month. Unlike the other book clubs, this one sees the attendance of children and senior citizens alike, indulging in their love for Amar Chitra Katha comics or even Tamil books or newspapers. “We want to make clear that we are not going to lend books; it is just to encourage and nurture the art of reading. It should be a happy outing for everyone; just after you take your siesta, come over and read for one hour,” he says. Balaji and his wife also offer snacks like sundal, buttermilk, biscuits, and chocolates to those who stay beyond the session. “We are hooked to gadgets, more than books, and that is where we thought maybe reclaiming space, reclaiming reading is another thing kids need to develop,” he adds.
(Saturdays 4 pm - 6 pm)
A few hours from Chennai, Puducherry has its pubs, tourist attractions, and the famed splendor of White Town. Now, Bharathi Park hosts the Union Territory’s first silent reading community in a public place, on Saturdays between 4 pm and 6 pm. Angira Mitra and Kanishk Tank began this chapter to remedy the problem of lack of reading these days and make it become more accessible and not just a private event. “As a person who likes spending time with themselves, it is a space where you can be around nature, and silence, and read, it gives you the sense of being in a community and with yourself,” says Angira. She laughingly adds that reading here feels like a movie character moment.
As you read this, other such communities are slowly cropping up across the city. Instagram pages pop up, revealing a new reads edition nearby. As curators and participants urge, drop by. As short reels and doom-scrolling define our days, a breather and a page or two may just be prudent. For more details, visit @bessyreads, @chennaireads, @pondyreads, on Instagram and @PoongaBook on Twitter.
Bessy Reads, Karl Schmidt Memorial
(Sundays, 6 am -8 am)
A group gathers like clockwork at the arch-like memorial, and sits on the shores of Bessie, every Sunday. From 6 am to 8 am, they leisurely lay on mats, flip through paperbacks and befriend new canine companions. Bessy Reads began in June, beckoning bibliophiles and apprehensive not-yet book worms to read in and reclaim public spaces. “We decided to do it at Bessie because it is a residential area, reachable by public transport, and a beach; a city which has beaches should not be wasted,” explains curator Krutika Kumar, who was reading Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore when this reporter met her. From a handful of readers, the community is now on its ninth edition and has 35 attendees with at least seven to eight regulars. Participants can choose to socialise with fellow-readers over cups of steaming coffee and idli-vada at the nearby Murugan Idli or choose to leave. Kruthika adds she is on a personal journey to nudge children into joining the community. “Pick up any book you like and join us by the ocean on Sunday mornings!” says Sanjana, co-curator.
Chennai Reads, Gandhi Mandapam
(Sundays, 4 pm - 6 pm)
For the bleary-eyed late risers and ones who enjoy laid-back Sundays, the Chennai Reads — which began just after Bessy Reads — at Gandhi Mandapam, Guindy is the perfect reading community for you. From books by Perumal Murugan to TM Krishna, Marjane Satrapi — the calm, sprawling gardens sees titles across genres.
The sound of traffic fades out, and this slowly-growing community finds time to slow down, after a busy week. “Especially after the pandemic, many of us are accustomed to being home, accessing content online, or reading books online. We miss out on connecting socially, and (this club) will help a lot of people to come out, even if they have trouble connecting with people,” says curator Krishna Sai, adding that it aims to normalise silent reading outside. Their post-session opens up unexplored genres of books, and leads to conversations on work culture, family, and so on. For Jaanu K, a student living in a hostel, Chennai Reads provides a space to read her favourite genre — self-help books. The community gives people a space to read and focus, she adds.
Poonga Book Club
(first Sunday of every month, 4 pm IST)
Seemingly an outlier in this list, Poonga Book Club may not be a silent reading movement but it aims to be as accessible, inclusive, and free-wheeling. Conducted on the first Sunday of every month, the club chooses a theme, from food to classical music or graphic novels, and welcomes people to talk about what they’ve read, or just listen in and gather a firehouse of recommendations. In 2017, Lavanya and Chenthil began the club in Semmozhi Poonga.
“We listed down points what our book club should have — it would be in a public place and you can come and talk about any book you like,” says Chenthil. All these themes came to life in the bustling park over the next few years until the club went online during Covid-19. Even then, it managed to rope in participants from different cities like Salem, Bengaluru, London, and Stockholm. Lawyer Bhargavi Ravi, who joined Poonga in 2020, says, “This is the most judgment-free book-loving safe space. There are all kinds of readers — ones who are terrifyingly well-read in multiple languages,re-read Crime and Punishment, who have read the most mind-numbingly difficult book and re-read them. You can come in with a fluffy romance, or not knowing about poetry.”