How Books Help Spark Conversations With Strangers

Phorum Dalal

May 01, 2018

Ioften frequent Leaping Windows, a café located a stone’s throw away from my house. Their hot chocolate and graphic novel décor is warm and inviting. I’ve sat there, by the window, giggling to myself while reading The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson, cried buckets while reading The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, and many a time, unknown faces have stopped by to ask if I am alright. Then, they see the book and smile, and without even an exchange of words, there is an understanding.

Books and strangers have a strange connection. When you connect over a book, it is as if you have been given a  password to an underground party.

Thankfully, I am not the only one who feels this way.

Definitely Talk To Strangers

Meet Parinita Shetty, a children’s books author who has written When Santa Went Missing and The A-Z Djinn Detective Agency. She confesses to the crime of recommending books to people at bookstores. Especially if they are reading children’s and young adult books.

“I love recommending books to people, and believe it is my area of expertise,” she says sheepishly, adding that the conversation usually begins with the tattoo on her wrist (it reads 9 ¾, the imaginary platform number in King’s Cross station, London, as found in Harry Potter).

“One day, I saw this guy reading a title by British picture book writer Emily Gravett. It is a rather unusual choice, as people in the trade are unlikely to pick up that book. He was sitting in a corner quietly, poring over the book. I walked up to him to suggest other titles of the same genre. Being in the field, I know a little more and want to expand people’s horizons. It is a bit of a problem, they get excited and sometimes think I am an employee,” she laughs.

Once, at a bookstore in Bandra, she happened to meet a teenager who was checking out the young adult collection. “We started chatting about Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and even exchanged lists of books we like to read. We spent a couple of hours reading and chatting. By the end, the store staff had to tell us it was time to close the store. We exchanged emails, and even made a maiden visit to Wayword & Wise in Fort where he showed me some graphic novel titles since he was an art student,” says Shetty.

She gets my thumbs up, and I may borrow some confidence lessons to strike more book conversations too.

Interesting Characters

At another coffee shop, Vinita Bhatia, editor, Hotelier India and Digital Studio magazines, sat reading The Lord Of The Rings. A man passed by and said: “Minas Tirith.”

Spontaneously, she replied: “Gondor.”

Before they knew it, they were discussing the characters and the book. “It was funny and weird at the same time to see someone that deeply into a book and its characters and places,” she recalls, adding, “Books are a great way to break the ice, better than weather and politics.”


Foof For Thought

Meanwhile, some of the best conversations begin with books and end in delicious food. On a holiday in Goa, Chef Mitesh Rangras happened to spot a British guy reading Shantaram, one of the few books Rangras admits to having really liked. “I spoke to him about how it describes the underbelly of Mumbai, that is rarely highlighted to tourists. I ended up recommending him some restaurants around Mohammed Ali Road, and some shops around Chor Bazar,” Rangras shares.

Bring on the mutton cutlets and kebabs.

Airport Banter

More people should do what media professional Smritee Chaturvedi did at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport lounge. She made the long hours of delays and connecting flights worthwhile. She fell into a fruitful conversation with a gentleman from Turkey, who was surprised to see her read Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love. “We chatted till our boarding was announced. Books tie the world together. It is how we discover cultures, people, and absorb cities. In fact, with today’s contemporary writing styles, readers connect well with a lot of cultures and can make conversations with people. Such was my case. Because of such vivid descriptions and narratives in Shafak’s books, I could connect and relate to a lot of anecdotes the family shared,” says Chaturvedi.

I guess sometimes it is the journey and the not the destination that matters.

Bearable Train Journeys

In another scene, one on a Deccan Queen ride from Mumbai to Pune, Anuradha Sawhney, author of The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!, and owner of Back to the Basics food service, had All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for company. “I finished reading the book within an hour into the journey.  I closed the book, gave a big sigh, and as is my wont, I started to think about the book, feeling bad it had gotten over. A lady across the aisle started a conversation about the book. She had read the book and been as affected by it as I was. What a lovely two-hour discussion we had, the time just flew by, and before we knew it, the train had reached Pune station!” says Sawhney.

(Source: Uplift)

I thoroughly enjoy picking up books that have been recommended with the conviction and passion of past readers. Sometimes, I may join in their enthusiasm, and sometimes, I may not find it gripping in the least. But, it creates an eco-system where books, no matter the title, bring us closer to humans. In a world where our most steady relationship is with our cell phone, sharing real-life conversations about a fictional character sounds magical.

Have you ever had conversations with strangers over books? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

Phorum Dalal

Phorum Dalal

Phorum Dalal is a Mumbai-based food, travel and lifestyle journalist.