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11.05.2018

“Piles,” a friend intoned. “You’ll get piles if you read in the loo. It puts undue pressure, my mother says.” We shifted around our school tiffin-boxes uncomfortably, as if already struck by phantom piles, but this writer continued to risk it all for a quiet place to read.

While bathroom reading continues to remain a guilty - and mercifully painless - pleasure, we all graduated to seeking out people who found a book so unputdownable they risked giving up the solitude of their bogs to find their brethren. Book Clubs seemed great, in theory. Books, nerdy company, andsnacks? Sign up the swots!

Alas, fiction usually beats reality rather resoundingly in these instances. Book clubs start out well-intentioned until they fall apart thanks to a distaste for the book selection, the wrongness of others’ opinions, and just plain inertia. We were on the verge of resigning ourselves to a lifetime of loo lurking. That is, until, we found ourselves at the Bangalore edition of Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) Club.

It starts off like a pulpy thriller: a faceless form is filled out with details, and the name of a book adjudged worthy of discussion. Attach photo evidence (of course) and don’t call them, they’ll call you. A day later, our inbox alerts us to our acceptance into this not-so-secret society. A time and location for the meeting - this assignation - are shared. We head off to parts unknown.

If it were winter, we would have definitely paired this tryst with a trench coat. Instead, the sunglasses and fedora will have to do. In a sunny living room, under a whirring fan, we arrive in the company of twenty earnest readers, all antsy to kick things off already. Three hours have been dedicated to this meeting of the minds. Overkill, we think, but as our first member shows us his month’s reading, we realise that this is not the book club we valiantly hosted that fell apart the moment we had to discuss Elif Shafak.

What seemed to work, in this case, is that unlike other book clubs that insist everyone read the same book , BYOB encourages members to bring the books they currently can’t put down instead. It immediately puts to rest any literary one-upmanship one might want to pettily indulge in; instead of deciding whether a book is worth reading, the discussion centers around why the book matters to the reader instead. That doesn’t dispense with taste altogether - we got the sense that it might be best to steer clear of bringing, say, one’s single-minded Paulo Coelho worship to such a place.

Started as a way to encourage “book socialisation,” BYOB encourages an honour system of sharing, where members have the choice of entering their books into the community library for their fellow readers to enjoy or hate-read. Recommendations are made, potential readers are encouraged or warned off, and every member’s review is an opportunity to gingerly dip your toes in unknown literary waters, before you jump right in. Each member has ten minutes to make their case (lower if the turnout is higher, which is usually the case, we discovered to our surprise).

If this meeting sounds much too regimented for our friends who are more about #goodvibesonly, it really isn’t. Things begin with brief book reviews, but our story-sentiments spark discussions that tumble pleasingly over each other. Current events are referenced, thoughts from previous meetings are recapped for the noobs, and inevitably silly yet endearing jokes are recollected warmly.

On our first visit, for instance, we learned about the evolution of temple rituals over time, the rise of self-help and help-other mavens, poetry in Hindi that is incomprehensible to our Bangalorean ears but gorgeous nonetheless, and more - all over homemade cake and cups of tea. Those three hours rushed past us. The only thing this salon is missing is a fainting couch (why aren’t we in 17th century France?) and a disdain for the bourgeoisie (we love not being in 17th century France).

Getting there: BYOB Club meetings are held across India. Find one closest to you at their Facebook page and follow the instructions on the event page to sign up.

Accessibility: Varies as per meeting location, which is usually a member’s house.

Sushmita Sundaram writes about funny people, odd things, and anything edible. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.

Photo credit: Instagram.com/byobindia

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