Dadar station, Mumbai, rush hour. This is the node that connects the Central and the Western railways line of Mumbai, and is—at any given point of time, on any given day—bursting, no, exploding, no, imploding, with people, ripping through space with their gait, their bags, their wares. There are always crowds, even at 2 in the morning, after the last train has long left the station.
Around 5.5 lakh people buzz through Dadar every day, on their way to work or to meet a lover, to go to school or to loiter in the city. Every time I have to shimmy through this bulging portal of human mass to change lines, from Central to Western, and get to work as a sweating, heaving, melting person—there is a reason men wear inner vests in Mumbai, especially on the hottest days, counter-intuitively layering up as the heat builds—I tend to get irked at the slow speed at which people move. Mumbai has often been called the fast city, where everything sprints at breakneck speed, a perpetual, dizzying thrust forward, and yet at Dadar I constantly jostle, trying to get ahead of people who are walking slowly, at their own pace. I mumble, mutter curses under my breath. Your languor, your pace doesn’t deserve Mumbai, I say.
However, this past Monday morning, while trying to snake through the slow commuters, finding a gap to ram myself through, I was suddenly, as though struck by an epiphany, reminded of a line in Jerry Pinto’s latest novel The Education of Yuri which, over the preceding weekend, I had dipped into like communion.
Yuri Fonseca is a 15-year-old boy under the care of his uncle Tio Julio, a kind, monk-like presence in his life, a Gandhian Atticus Finch who only wears khadi, ties a langot, lives a life of austere kindness. Tio Julio is the kind of man who meets the world with a kind shake of a hand, irrespective of what hand he is dealt. Rage is not something he is capable of, or capable of expressing in ways we are used to seeing rage being expressed—as a burst of feeling, emitting from the body like a release of something throttled, like a popping soda bottle. When Yuri tells him that he almost became a naxalite, about to roar through villages with a gun and an ideology, and that he gave it up at the very last minute, in the train station, out of fear, Tio Julio poignantly remarks, “What is the point of sending you to college if history passes by you unscathed?” In one of the most moving stretches of dialogue, he snags Yuri’s heart with his affection and attention, “You have been given a self. You have been given time and space to get to know that self. It’s called education.” Such is his tender reading of the world, of the uneasy teenaged heart.
Each time Yuri tries to push past a crowd, as he must while walking through what was then called Bombay, he is reminded of what Tio Julio had told him, like a soft reminder buzzing through his mind, “What makes your rushing more important than theirs?” And just like that, while almost slipping in the gap between two slow walkers, I stopped, thinking, what did make my rushing more important than theirs?
The Education of Yuri, like Pinto’s debut novel Em and the Big Hoom, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance,belongs to a genre, of what I like to call books that make you want to be a better, kinder person. Books that arm you with a spirit of kindness as you prepare yourself to encounter the world, books without a hint of irony, which are able to express dislike without the language of sarcasm, which are able to express love without the language of excess, which are able to express teenage anguish without rationalising it, without vilifying it, without pretending to be objective about it, merely feeling through the rough undulations of those years as one who is going through its rhythms—with both an acute understanding of how we hurt people, of how we are capable of violence, and hurting and being violent nonetheless, as though confronted by the human condition of contradiction, of hypocrisy, of awareness, and the limitations of this awareness for the first time.
Don’t mistake wanting to be a kinder person for being a kinder person. There is a lapping gulf between these two, one that no literature, no self-help catalogue can bridge. But these books feel like gentle waves, whose effect lingers softly until it gets drowned out by life. By no means am I going to stop jostling through Dadar, whispering profanities at strangers who cannot hear or want to listen. But on some days, I might stop my step short and recognise the sheer solipsism, the grunting perversity of my speed.
I have to, at this point, make a distinction between being “inspired” to be kinder and being “moved” to become a kind person. The former has lodged within it a strategy because it is constantly looking forward, imagining a different future, willing to change the shape of the self, contorting it to achieve an ideal, while the latter is a viscous conviction, not necessarily something that yields “results”, that requires change. It is just a pungent smoke you stew in till the smoke thins. It does not even see kindness as an ideal, merely as something that makes life bearable, not better.
This difference is best expressed in Chloe Cooper Jones’ memoir Easy Beauty. Born with sacral agenesis, a physical condition that makes her shorter, her joints and spine more vulnerable to breaks, the book begins with a few colleagues from her philosophy department debating her right to exist. That if you knew your child were to have this crippling condition, would it not be your moral obligation to get the child aborted? Through the book, from Italy to Cambodia to Florida, she sweeps through her journey of trying to interface with a world that has always reminded her that her body is not whole, that it is lacking. This infuses a bitterness in her, one that expresses itself as relief every time someone makes a comment about her appearance, as though she was waiting for someone to point it out.
Her mother, who rears horses, has no patience for this, and tells her simply, “You want to feel yourself grow bigger and the world grow smaller under your intellect. But that’s a trap… Focus [instead] on the feeling of the world getting wider.”
I suppose, then, that that is what such books do. To be inspired, on the one hand, is to insist on the self, on the self as a growing, progressive, and efficient being. On the other hand, in being moved to be kinder, you are not necessarily centring yourself as much as the world, hoping the world expands. To “un-self”, to keep a book down, having had it drench you wholly, and think, tomorrow, the world will be kinder, glow warmer, breathe milder.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.