Friday, November 18, 2011

How Tolstoy changed my life

As a child, there was nothing I liked better than reading.  It wasn't a casual hobby for me.  It was a very very serious activity.  I took my love of books to a very geeky extreme.  I managed to turn reading into an act of rebellion.  

I read books everywhere

In the bath.  Under the bedcovers.  In the car.  

On Mondays a mobile library bus would pull up at the other end of our street.
To say that it was the pinnacle of my week would be an understatement.
I would be waiting on the curb fifteen minutes in advance, so that the millisecond the doors opened (sometimes while the bus was still moving) I would be the first on.

I was so geeky about it, it didn't occur to me that I was a geek.   So I actively promoted it.
For the speech competition at school I gave a speech entitled "My life as a bookworm." 
The crowd went wild over my hilarious anecdote of the time I dropped my book in the bath.  

It wasn't that I was a loner.  I had plenty of friends.  It was just that a lot of my friends lived in books.  Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, the creatures of the Faraway Tree, the Famous Five, the Bobsey Twins, Hal and Roger, the Babysitters Club, the Sweet Valley Twins, the Three Investigators...some of them I can bring to mind faster than my (real-life) childhood friends. 

I simply LOVED books. 
And I still love books.  It's just that now that I'm an adult, I'm less extreme in the way I express that.
I don't have to hide under the covers to stay up late reading anymore. 
And most of my friends exist in the real world these days.
The need for rebellion has faded away.

But I kind of miss that younger, geekier, former self, who so often shunned the real world in favour of the imaginary.

So a few months ago, I decided to catapult myself back into the world of reading by embarking on "the greatest novel of our time": War & Peace.
It is epic.  It took Tolstoy five years to complete.
It is my Mount Everest of the novel world. 

And, I am happy to report, it has changed my life

In the 28 days since I purchased my three volume set of War & Peace, I have read exactly...28 pages.

I have also read four other books in their entirety.

Ever since deciding to read War & Peace, any book other than War & Peace has suddenly taken on an irresistible magnetism.
All of a sudden, reading any book other than War & Peace has not only become extremely fascinating, it has also become a rebellious thing to do.

Thanks to Tolstoy, I have rediscovered the same excitement I felt reading with a torch after lights out.  I'm a rebel!  I'm a reading rebel again!   

So yes, I would highly recommend the works of Mr Tolstoy.
 Reading his books could change your life too.
(And the best thing is, you don't actually have to read them.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


On this day, exactly two years ago, my train to Delhi derailed. 

It happened quite suddenly, in the middle of the night.  I was woken by a violent shaking and the sound of shrieking brakes, only moments before the entire carriage flipped on its side.   

The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. 

I think that’s what makes it so confusing - that something so quick could have such a long-lasting impact.

They told me later that the train had been speeding, and that the tracks were loose due to sloppy maintenance.  When the driver braked suddenly before a bend, the train ripped the tracks right off their bearings.  Four of the twenty carriages were thrown on their sides.  In some places, jagged pieces of metal tore in through the sides of the carriages.   

But I didn’t know any of that then.  Inside my upturned carriage, I was sitting in the darkness amongst the crowd of passengers.  I had been thrown off my top bunk and had landed heavily on the people sleeping below me.  There was shouting and confusion.  I was covered in blood.   
The exits were blocked.  There was nothing to do but sit and wait.

As I sat there waiting, questions swirled through my head.   Was it normal for trains to do this in India?  How was I going to get to the airport now?  What if the carriage burst into flames?  Where were my shoes?  Was the water the man was offering me safe to drink?

An old lady beside me was chanting quietly in Hindi.  I realised guiltily that it hadn't even occurred to me to pray.  A young girl next to me smiled when I asked if she was okay.  “Yes, okay aunty” she replied calmly in English.   

After the longest half hour of my life, some of the men in the carriage managed to pry open a window above us, and to climb onto the roof and start pulling us out, one by one.  It was the strangest feeling to stand on top of the overturned carriage, looking out over the wreckage of the train, and the hundreds of people milling around the tracks. 
Traffic on the busy highway nearby was slowing down to look at the scene.  There were passengers  leaping onto the moving vehicles as they slowed, finding a way back into town.

Nothing about the moment I found myself in resembled my life anymore.   It felt like the moment in a nightmare when you realise you're only dreaming and wake up. 

It’s hard to articulate what changed in me that night. 

It felt like someone had snatched the reins of my life out of my hands.  It felt like the Anna who was pulled out of that train was a different person to the one who had boarded it only hours earlier.
But in a strange way it also felt like the whole thing had happened to someone else completely.

I think that’s why I experienced such huge feelings of confusion and loss in the days, weeks, and months (and now years) that followed the accident.  I can't really believe it happened to me, except for the scars on my body, and this feeling inside of me that wasn't there before. 

So even though I feel funny talking about it, and scared that people will think I'm being a drama queen, I want people to know. 
Because I want people to know me, and like it or not, the train crash is part of my story now.

And writing is the best way I know how.
So I wanted to write something that would explain how the crash has altered the course of my life.
And I wanted to write something to honour the people that died that night.
But I realise how little I understand, even two years down the track. 

So all I can really do is just stop and say:
This happened to me.
And keep accepting that.
And just carry on.