Conversation with my 13 year old son last year:
Son: Ma, are we not going for any vacation abroad this year?
Me: No, son, we don’t have the money for foreign holidays.
Son: But other people who are your friends are going?
Me: We are not other people, sweetheart, we are us, very middle-class people who can’t afford foreign holidays every year, or even every other year.
Son: So, what can I have instead?
Me: Not that you should have anything instead, but if you insist, then you can buy whatever books you wish to buy, whenever.
I told him how books were the cheapest vacations, something even we could always buy for him.
I had no idea he would take this as literally as he did.
So every day during that summer vacation, and later, the Flipcart man would ring the bell, and while my son watched slyly, enjoying my discomfiture, knowing he was pushing it, but also knowing he could hold me to it, I would need to fish money for cash-on-delivery books. The dog started jumping around the Flipcart man like he would around a family member, signifying how much of a fixture he had become in our lives. The books ranged from Sartre to Camus to Raymond Briggs to Terry Pratchett to Neil Geiman to innumerable history books. I am not sure how much he understood, but he did read them all, and that was enough for me.
Both my husband and I remembered we ourselves used to be like that around that age. So Neel was sleep-deprived all through the vacations, going to bed around 5 in the morning, waking up zombie-like in time for lunch, and then the same cycle would continue. Still, sleep deprivation to read was better than book deprivation to sleep, I thought. I can remember a whole childhood worth of vacations when we would be trundled off to our grandparents’ places, where we had uncles and aunts too, where we had no parents to ask us to sleep, where I could easily sneak off from where I slept next to my grandma, take out a book, switch on a light which did not wake them up, and read. Sleep was good, but books were better.
My grandparents’ places did not have too many English books, so we carried some with us, but mostly we would plunder the treasure trove of Bengali books, and wonderful cloth-bound gold-embossed editions of Mahabharat, which my granddad would read from and then explain. I did not understand much Sanskrit then, (not that that state of affairs has changed much) but like the Mahalaya of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the sing-song quality of his chanting of the verses would put us siblings to sleep in the lap of either or both of them, or we would just lie down on the beautiful, cool red-cemented floor. I read my Ashapurna Devi there, much of Tagore and Sarat Chandra. That was where my without-any-reason-angst-ridden-teenage- soul found empathetic connection with several characters. Our circumstances were nowhere near similar, but it felt as though they were. We were simple children, all of us, with no dreams of extraordinary, admirable, but ultimately foolish lives.
What we did have, though, were experiences and people around us who loved and were not afraid to reprimand us. Our uncles and aunts had full authority to scold us all through those innumerable vacations of months, year after year. We learnt to find wonder and marvel in ordinary lives, running through fields to watch the steam engine chug by, much like Apu and Durga did in Pather Panchali. Through those afternoons and nights of endless tactile, visual and aural experiences, through sessions when our favorite aunt, who somehow had seen many Hindi movies, would tell us their stories creating vivid imagination – of Jaya Bhaduri as the dumb and deaf wife of a similarly challenged Sanjeev Kumar, of Hema Malini blind in some movie i forget the name of, of ‘tafat jao sub jhoot hei’ chants in a Bengali movie (Khudito Pashan?), after coming back from her full time job in a firm, never once showing any irritation at our demands for more stories. These stories, and the books we read or that were read to us, taught us the joy of tasting, of giving. It taught us how to cry when pets and people died and how to move on despite the pain, despite permanent hollows in the pits of our stomachs. It showed us the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand on paper, taught us to savor the music in the rustle of paper scraping other paper. (Biblichor (n) the characteristic, faint, musty smell of old books that fills your nostrils when you enter an old library or bookstore. I just found that out – we learn every day, see?)
Outnumbered in a male-dominated family as I was, in the age when brothers had only one thing to achieve, -how to make life miserable for the lone sister, books made the ordinary come alive for me. It made me less lonely when the brothers left me alone to play their guns and sticks battles etc. Those ordinary winter afternoons of our lives, I walked alone, far from the crowds, finding – in my mind, at least – myself in places no one had ever been before. Books have shown me how humans are capable of magic more than anything else has or ever will.
During my college and university days, when all around me were dating, or were engaged, I was sure of only one thing. I realize it is a daft reason to make someone your partner for life, but I was sure I could never marry anyone whose eyes I did not like and who did not read. Through years and years of living with my husband, through our idiosyncrasies which drive us to take permanent residence up imaginary walls, I know that it is his intellect, his mind, his habit of almost frenzied reading, for which I have immense respect which will always bind me to him, Reading is what attracts me to people, even now. Books give you the chance to never let anyone figure you out. You could talk for hours and still have a million things to ask. It makes a person’s mind so lovely and special, you can’t help but fall in love with them.
I do think a bookshelf is a rather complete image of a person. So, if you have any Shiv Khera, Robin Sharma, or if you have Meluha or Oath of the Vayuputra and more than one Chetan Bhagat book (I will forgive everyone who has read just one for trial), and other such books, mainly, maybe my friendship with you will not go places. When I enter someone’s homes, I always look at their books first. And if there is something I regard as good (which is not the gold standard, I am a mere mortal, in the larger scheme of things, after all), the person gets elevated in my mind. I feel a deep, profound connection to a person simply by looking at his/her books on the shelf. And I know it with certainty that no decoration looks as wonderful in the walls as shelves of books. Some of my deepest friendships have started with discussions on books, and – not that it needed validation – but the friendships which have lasted are also those with whom I can find a mental connect through reading.
I do make value judgments, I admit. Experience has also taught me that some of the most erudite, most learned people are absolutely the scum of the earth, and people I would not touch with a bargepole. That education does not really have much impact on human behavior, at least at a personal level. That kind of messes my life’s philosophy a bit, but oh well. Then again, books are those inert things within which are contained the wisdom to doubt what one has been taught to believe.
Because our dad had a transferable job, we moved schools several times, and during teenage years, when friends are your entire world, it could have been traumatic. I think what saw us siblings through was our ability to immerse ourselves in books, so much that we lived in books more than we lived anywhere else. Our books taught us how what we felt was felt by people – real and imaginary – through centuries, that our longings were universal longings and through our childhood and youth, we saw how we were not isolated, that even if dragons existed, they could be beaten.
So I tell my son, the holidays can be had later, when he grows up and/or we have more money. Right now, he can travel places through books. We can’t buy him the ephemeral happiness of posh holidays, but we can buy him books, and it is kind of the same thing, only more permanent.