What’s not to love in this – green grass, a mat, a patch of sunshine, the shade of tree boughs and a book to read? But beware, readers, parks want you to keep off the grass.
Cubbon Reads, a silent reading movement, began when two book readers posted photos on Instagram from Cubbon Park in Bengaluru. In less than a year, it’s become a worldwide reading movement. Book lovers in over 70 cities have formed open-air reading groups, including Lodhi Reads in New Delhi.
I love the concept as it involves both reading and the use of public space that we pay taxes to maintain. For a long time, I had ceased to think of a public park as a safe space for women, especially solo women. One of the most blissful moments in my life was during my first visit to London, on an unexpectedly sunny day when I stretched out on the grass in a park. Nobody looked askance. It was joyful to simply be a human being and not have to be on guard because of my gender.
The infamous New Year’s Eve assault on women in Bangalore in 2016 was a catalyst that drove some of us to reclaim public spaces for women. We met in Cubbon Park, recited poetry and read books. Those who couldn’t join us went to parks closer to them. A couple of years later, we joined hands with an art collective and added poetry and singing. These sporadic meetings didn’t evolve into a continuous movement like Cubbon Reads that inspired a new generation of readers and nature lovers.
However, the very popularity of the movement has tripped it up. The increasing number of readers turning up in Lalbagh in Bengaluru irked a walker who questioned how they were allowed to loll on the grass. He complained to the Horticulture Department that if walkers and joggers weren’t allowed on the grass, book readers couldn’t do so either. It would be easy to pillory the objectors. My initial reaction went thus: what does it say of a society that loves to object to people spending time in a park? First, they came for the lovers – whistle-blowing guards were sent to disturb their cooing and cuddling, then they went after the picnickers, next for those playing games, and now they are coming for the readers. If the crusaders have their way, perhaps breathing would soon be an offence in Garden City. To give the conscientious objector/s their due, Lalbagh is more than just another park; it is a botanical garden, reckoned to be one of the finest in Asia and has historical as well as geological significance. The Horticulture Department is correct to be protective about it.
Before the city’s exponential growth, picnics and games at the park were the norm. Family and friends bonded over healthy and affordable activities in public spaces. There was a sense of equitable community ownership; on the whole, people took care not to damage the plants or litter.
But there’s a reason why ‘keep off the grass’ signs abound. A handful of people strolling on grass isn’t harmful. But when the foot traffic gets heavy, the soil gets compacted and reduces the natural drainage of water. It leads to flooding in the garden. It also makes it harder for the roots of the grass to get moisture and nutrients. Bengaluru’s population is about 11 million people today. On an average Sunday, there are about 12,000 people in Lalbagh. When a couple of hundred book readers are allowed on the grass, others will follow suit. Sitting or lying down on mats or carpets to protect the grass isn’t enough to stop the damage. The good news is that authorities have not banned book reading; people can read sitting on park benches but will have to stay off the grass. With the right attitude from all sides, there can be a balance between the rights of the people to use parks for peaceful and lawful recreation and the rights of the park authorities to protect the space. Readers, young readers especially, are the essence of the literary ecosystem, and we need to nurture the reading movement in the city in parks and elsewhere.
PS: Ab Dilli door nahin! As I write this column, I am preparing for a book tour. Butterflies flutter in the stomach, and I would love to see friendly faces in the audience. Dear Dilli-wasis, please do come to the launch of my latest book ‘Busted -Debunking Management Myths with Logic, Experience and Curiosity by Ashok Soota, Peter de Jager and Sandhya Mendonca’ on Monday, Sept 25th to the Triveni Kala Sangam at 5 pm.
Sandhya Mendonca is an author and host of ‘Spotlight with Sandhya’ podcast.