Recently, I went to Himachal for a 10-day vacation. Most of the vacation was, not surprisingly, about books and poetry and café hopping. Mcleod Ganj is the perfect place to just sit and read after you’ve chosen from the various teas and coffees available to you. Almost every café there is a book-café, after realising which, a book-café-starved-soul from the city – like me – feels at home and immediately gets down to the business of getting comfortable. And once that is done, there is no turning back.
Whenever I went to a book café, I wanted to take along at least one book from their collection but in return, I had to give something. And since I wasn’t ready to part with the few books I had, I settled on reading the books I liked from the café there itself or noting down their titles. On my last day, however, I was losing it. I desperately wanted to take a book from Common Ground café and I spoke to the owner twice but she refused to part with her copy of Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan. Obviously. No give, no take. Fair enough.
So, I went back to my home for 10 days: Yellow Guest House. Lhamo, the owner, had by now become great friends with us. During our stay there, he would bear with our indecisiveness about the number of days we’d be staying, our late hours, and our demands for water bottles and cigarettes late at night. So, it was Lhamo who, once again, gave in to our demand of a book or two from his tiny shelf.
I picked up this petite, beat-up copy of Fahrenheit 451 and Revati picked up a French book. I was, obviously, immediately jealous – since both of us were looking for a French book for days. But then I looked at Lhamo stamping my book with the guest house address and I stopped thinking about who’s getting the better deal.
I left the same evening and the moment I settled in the bus, I started reading. No, I didn’t finish it on the bus journey. I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to me in true McLeod spirit. Soon, the lights were switched off and I decided to put the adamant child in me – who wanted to turn the bus back – to sleep.
It’s easy to guess that it took me a while to get over the fact that I’m back from the mountains to a city that resembled a gutter from the plane. In the week that followed, reading Fahrenheit 451 was somehow my foremost link to all the places and people I had left behind. It is strange since the book is about a possible future where firemen set fire to houses instead of putting them out. And not just any house, but one with books and with any kind of a free-flow of knowledge in it.
I realised that our relationship to the grasping of knowledge has changed a lot as time has passed. Bradbury was writing about the Age of Information – in which we’re right now living – in 1954. And his prediction rings frighteningly true. In the futuristic world he creates in Fahrenheit 451, people don’t have families but ‘parlour families’. Parlour families are wall-sized TV screens on all four walls of the parlour with virtual family members in them. A virtual family who tells you how special you are, how important, and keeps you occupied and updated with gossip and news. On train, bus, and subway rides, a recurring jingle keeps the mind’s attention on the surface, not allowing it to go deep inside. Billboards are 200-feet long and wide. People no longer think, read or have conversations.
They’re slowly being emptied of their essence, their minds are nothing but sieves. And this army of empty individuals is hell-bent on keeping the emptiness intact so that the monster of feeling doesn’t disrupt the order of things. They will do everything to stay distracted, to not pay attention, to not know.
In Captain Beatty’s words:
“We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.”
The story is about Guy Montag, a fireman, who is suddenly jerked awake to the reality of his world due to a series of incidents. These incidents make him realise that he isn’t happy despite all the fun parks and the culture of titillation that the city provides. No longer could the jingles and colourful visuals that form the empty clanking of his surroundings drown the war within himself.
But there is another, larger, war that is taking place outside the many Montags of different realities and worlds. What will the war bring? What do wars always bring?
However, Montag soon learns from his wiser, yet equally terrified guide, Faber, that saving the physical books in itself is not enough. Aren’t wars being waged even now when men and governments have free access to books and all knowledge? What needs to be saved and understood and taken into ourselves is what the books really say. Aren’t we all just hoarding sources of knowledge without really taking any knowledge in? In approaching the future, we’re approaching another Dark Age, I am convinced. But Bradbury convinces the reader that after every age of darkness, there is an age of light. And that even if they burn all the books, they can’t burn the books that have become a part of us. As long as we strive to remember.
“‘Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as you’d drop dead in the next ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass!’”
And for this reason, Fahrenheit 451 has been a reassuring read.
Back in the city, I met Revati and we were in the company of books once more. And yet again, I ended up picking up a book in which books were being burnt. What cosmic sign is this? Until the next review!