"How about Proust's In Search of Lost Time?" Tamaru asked. "If you've never read it this would be a good opportunity to read the whole thing."
"Have you read it?"
"No, I've never been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time. Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can't read the whole of Proust."
"Do you know anybody who has read the whole thing?"
"I've known some people who have spent a long period in jail, but none were the type to be interested in Proust."
-- 1Q84 (pgs. 613-14), Haruki Murakami
I wouldn't have been able to read Proust without public (and not-so-public) transport: over the last two years, New York's subways; and, after I moved to India, its flights and trains, provided much of the (odd) setting for my entry into Proust's mysterious world (nothing hermetically sealed or self-contained about it, and yet I can think of few novels that I've read that so persuasively imagine a world that seems its own world, timeless in that it seems utterly remote from the reader's world, but subject to the same laws as our world). So, without further ado, thank you to the 6 train (most often from 103rd Street to Grand Central); the Q and B trains (for after-work trips to Brighton Beach, but -- for a very few days while I was in the middle of the second volume -- elsewhere in Brooklyn too); the rides on the E to Queens and on the 4/5 to Brooklyn; and the even rarer jaunts on the 1 or the L (the West Side has not been subway terrain to me for years); for a couple of cold months late in 2010 (my last in New York), there were different rides on the 4/5, to Wall Street; earlier that year, in my last summer in the City (and, it seemed to me even then, one of my happiest), there were trips on the F and R to GOWANUS too). The NYC subways weren't the only trains: the occasional Metro-North trains on the Harlem Line to Westchester; and the New Jersey transit lines to Rockland County, did their bit too. And then there were the flights: not very frequent, but guaranteed to afford me uninterrupted time to read: a few between New York and London or Dubai; or between New York and Delhi or Bombay. Indeed, after I moved to India and my diligence in this matter fell away, my Proust became increasingly dependent on the chunks I got through on planes: so thank you, too, to the Mumbai-Delhi flights; and the Mumbai-Dubai ones; the take-offs and landings otherwise known as the Mumbai-Bhopal and Delhi-Bhopal flights; and two outliers from Bombay, to Calcutta and Hyderabad. But for sheer pleasure, nothing topped the two Proust train journeys, the Samparkranti Express that took me from Mumbai to Bhopal for my niece's wedding (in a carriage where the air was so thick with talk of commerce and complaints about corruption, it was transformed into something comforting, a familiar and dense ambience that felt snug); and the Rajdhani from Mumbai to Delhi. There was much reading at home too, of course: my Proust-world is bordered at one end by an apartment on 103rd Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan; and by a flat on Shirly-Rajen Road in Bandra at the other. And much reading that I owe to the friends I was going to see or staying with (you know who you are; some of you cannot be named, hence it's fairer to do it this way).
It's only fitting that it takes so much time to read Proust's novel: long enough that, reading it, one cannot ignore the passage of time. The novel demarcates my own last two years from other periods of my life, but it also refracts them through its prism. Perhaps every novel would do that, but this one, of necessity, takes up so much of one time, its imprint is permanent. Thank you, Bhaiya, for planting the seed back in 1995, in a wooden attic with a "Teach Yourself French" book; through several false starts (poor Swann only found his way at the third attempt), the idea persisted.