“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
It was eerily quiet. Time stood still. People disappeared from outside the window, but the birds started chirping, uninterrupted by humans marching to the band of purpose. It was early April, hot in Gurgaon, India, where I live. I sat in my reading chair—a lavender-colored armchair I customized but rarely used before 2020. A fresh freelancer just three months into this independent role, I spent so many moments looking outside from the window into the tennis court I couldn’t use anymore, still settling into this new world that had changed beyond recognition in every aspect: personally and professionally.
On March 25 I had written a blog post, These Travel Books Will Offer Comfort During Coronavirus Self-Isolation, without any inkling how books would change my year. Those days, while I was wondering what to do with my life now that I couldn’t do travel writing in the traditional form, I challenged myself to read 100 books in 2020. I had the time after all.
This was the peak of Instagram productivity messages. Everyone was making dalgona coffee, playing Ludo, hosting Zoom parties—I was, too. I would pitch story ideas to never hear back from editors, or get rejected. One month I sat with over 30 rejections (and no replies), doing a puzzle on the bed, restless to just go somewhere! Borders were closed. Flights were running only to bring citizens back from countries where they were stuck or airlift medical supplies and essentials.
The pandemic was real everywhere. Closing my eyes to it was of little use, so I kept them wide open and raised a book to them. And suddenly, I was elsewhere.
With Bill Bryson’s Down Under, I revisited Australia. The fond memories of Sydney and Melbourne came rushing back: going to the beach, late-night chai sessions with my friend, watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks as powerful winds chilled us to the bones, driving in Melbourne, eating unbelievable food in Chinatown. In the real world, Asians were getting blamed for the virus and xenophobia was on the rise.
On Bill Gates’ recommendation, I bought A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles on Kindle and spent decades in Russia with Count Alexander Rostov. I couldn’t have asked for a more worthy companion to help me through the turmoil of Towles’ words as I imagined my own future away from India. His words hit a vulnerable vein, “From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment; we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well, taking comfort from the notion that we will hear word of him soon enough.”
There were so many destinations that got added to my wishlist as I read. The Summer of Chasing Dreams and One Hundred Proposals by Holly Martin were both like world tours, with romantic angles. I also spent time in the mountains with Buddhist monks while reading The Dalai Lama’s Cat and learned lessons in forgiveness and karma.
I was in Sweden with the cantankerous Ove (A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman) and saw life through his mature, grumpy eyes. Eleanor Oliphant (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman) lived in Glasgow, and for a few days, I did too, in her modest house where she had a plant, donated furniture, and traces of an ordinary life.
There were so many misses, too. I left Bill Bryson’s At Home and Angela Saini’s Superior unfinished. I begrudgingly read Julia Child’s My Life in France and found it had too many French food references for my taste. I didn’t even understand half of A Room With a View! Reading was like adjusting the temperature of the water when you’re taking a shower: too hot, too cold, ah, the sweet spot. Every time I had to fight with the tap to find it.
Some days, the clothes tied to the rope on my balcony wouldn’t let the light pass through my windows. They would swing gently with the hot winds, and I’d look at them in a state of meditation and think about the stories, the characters, their motivations, and their life after. For non-fiction, a simple Google search told me what the protagonist was up to—Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In and Option B) had found love and is engaged now; Michelle Obama and Barack Obama were campaigning for President Biden; Trevor Noah was still making jokes. But what about Don Tillman in Australia (from The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion)? Gavin Scott and his friends and family in Nashville (The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams)? All those anonymous clients of Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)?
Reading didn’t come easily. I was distracted by life and sometimes didn’t feel like touching a book—a reading block I also experienced in 2021. Middle of the year, productivity became my Everest, but someone pointed out that you can’t have a goal attached to every activity. I’ve always loved reading, but suddenly it was a task because of my self-subscribed ego paralleling the challenge. I had to rewire and start afresh.
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A night before I was leaving for Goa in December, grappled with travel anxiety, I ensconced myself with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. The tumultuous years of his presidency were all but forgotten. It wasn’t an easy book to read. It was physically heavy, the sleeve was getting squished by my angle in bed, and Obama wrote about an America of the past that didn’t interest me so much. I’m also one of those people who didn’t fall in love with the U.S. at first sight, gasp! It was windy and cold and I was too new in my career (read: poor) to enjoy the niceties that the country has to offer. With Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, I felt that I missed something on my short visit—I wanted to explore the art galleries and museums and the White House, also the National Parks. With his, not so much. But I was determined to complete the last 100 pages before leaving. And I did. It was my 98th book.
On December 26th, in the sunlit balcony of my friend’s house in Goa, I had done what I set out to accomplish: I read 100 books in 2020. That same day, I found out about a new strain that was popping its head out of sanitized societies around the world.
The year was crap, let’s be honest. When I encounter difficult emotions, my response is flight. Literally: get on a flight and go somewhere or at least make plans for it. Last year without that option, I had to sit with what was bothering me and understand quietly. Inward, not outward.
But I wasn’t just hopping from one book to another, detached or mindless. Some books aren’t memorable six months later, but those that were opened my mind to something. Just like a country does. Some travel experiences are forgettable, too, but I remember stepping down from the ladder in my suite in the Maldives into the ocean, clutching the rails as you’d expect from an unadventurous non-swimmer and taking in a breath of fear and delight. The Indian Ocean, boundless. A traveler alone, discovering its bounty.
In another life, I would pick up a book from a bookstore, airport kiosk, or roadside vendor when I traveled. A local author who’d tell me something new, something interesting about the destination, real or made-up. So, the connection between my love for books and travel wasn’t inexplicable. 2020 just reaffirmed it.
My biggest lesson of 2020 came from books. Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B.” You can’t run from bad stuff. Trauma, grief, disappointment, rejection, and failure are all part of life. When the earth quivers, you just hope that your foundation is strong enough to stay upright. If you do crumble, you’ll need resilience to build yourself back up. It doesn’t come from telling yourself to be happy all the time. Because you can’t—it’s an unrealistic, impossible message you see on thoughtless inspirational quotes.
As I watch the wind rustle tree leaves outside my window now, I’m much more comfortable with the idea of sitting in one place, without the nervous energy of a child wanting to be somewhere else. When the time comes, I’ll pack my bag (and my Kindle) to see another destination, hopefully something I’ve read about in a book, with more gratitude for the opportunity than before—and I had plenty of gratitude earlier as well.