I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but the writer was speaking about her cousin, in her nineties then, who was in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. She and a bunch of girls in the ghetto had to do sewing each day. Finding someone with a book meant automatic death penalty. But this girl had got hold of a copy of Gone with the Wind and she would take three or four hours out of her sleeping time each night to read. Then during the hour or so when they were sewing the next day, she would recount the story to the others. These girls were risking certain death for a story. The author then talks about how when she heard that story herself, it actually made the fact that she writes so much more important.
Reading lets one speak clearly inside one’s head – there are entire conversations I have in my head, many times after I have read a just a breath-taking paragraph in a book. Sometimes I pick up a book because I can’t come to terms with the ball of tears, the lump in my throat, when I feel homesick even though I am at home, heart-sick, not quite knowing where it’s coming from. I pick up a book and it takes me to a world where the moon always shines directly on me, someone else, the author, is speaking to me, and only to me, as though he/she has a mirror which reveals my very soul. I love reading the most when I feel the loneliest. It is as though the book sees all the baggage I come with and through its pages, helps me unpack. Being in a family where the brothers and their relentless teasing ensured I had a miserable childhood, books – whatever one got one’s hands on in the badlands of Bihar in the seventies and early eighties, – would clear the confusion of my heart and quieten my being. It helped me gain a sense of myself in the world, when teenage angst felt like soul-swamping loneliness, when parents did not feel like friends at all. (When we were kids, our parents were mostly just parents. My father famously, – in the family – sardonically notes how in our mad hurry to be friends with our kids, we are forgetting how to be parents.) He could be right, but at that age, I know I could not confide in my parents and literature was the most life-giving thing I knew and so I constructed for myself a refuge from all the exaggerated miseries I thought life had dealt me.
We didn’t have much, but whatever money we got, we spent only on books. One other way was being on very good terms with the school librarian, a wonderful, erudite lady called Mrs. Kini who would give me two or three books at a time and allowed me to exchange books even before the designated day. We had a clandestine relationship – her and I. I would go during lunch time and get some books which were beyond my ‘class’ or years, and so I was acquainted with Hardy’s Tess and Jude when I was in Class VI, read some Sartre and tasted the surreal, disorienting distortion and the menacing complexity of Kafka (way before I could make sense of it). There was a boy whose grandparents were rich publishers in Calcutta and he had a large (to our minds then, anyway) collection of books and to our immense joy Roy Chowdhury auntie would allow only us siblings to take those books home to read. My parents believed reading anything was fine as long as you could make sense of it. I wonder if they would hold the same opinion in these times of Fifty Shades of Grey. I suspect not.
It makes me very glad that our son can now read books we were able to read only much later, when we got to our college and university days. And even then we only had very few available. (A friend’s mother apparently said of me, ‘thank god we had Lali, or we would still be reading Sydney Sheldon and Robin Cook. Not wholly true, but while my husband had some resistance to new authors and wanted to stick to his Ruth Rendell and Douglas Adams, I readily lapped up books whose authors I had never heard of, – they later turned out famous and award winning, but I can honestly say, straight down to J.K. Rowling and Ian McEwan, I read many authors before they became so famous.) Partly because there is no greater agony than wanting to but not finding anything to read, and old books were hard to find sometimes. My husband was known to read the train timetables in UK with immense concentration if nothing else was available. As for me, I too would prefer reading anything to not reading at all. We devoured almost all the books at the second hand book shops which lined a stretch of Gariahat market in Calcutta. Second hand books are the wild children in bookdom, they don’t have a home, but have a past. It is immensely romantic seeing names of people, notes along the margins, made by people years back, from a different past to a different future. (Did I tell you about how we found a couple of books with our names on it being sold in these second hand shops. We don’t sell books. Clearly some of our close friends – whom we lent our books to, did).These homeless books came together in those rickety stalls, in rich colors and conditions, having so much more character than books stacked stiffly in some rich person’s library – the latter usually being hardbound books no one read. Nobody we knew had even heard of Ellery Queen,- even my charming bookshop man in Bury St. Edmunds, UK, looked quizzically at me when I asked him about the author – “you look too young to know about Ellery Queen,” he said, although I could see the delight in his eyes. We got addicted to his detective stories, in a world not resembling ours at all, but that did not matter -and also got my older brother addicted to them. Today, thankfully, we have the e-versions of all his books because some large-hearted person took pictures of them and made the entire pdf. files into books and had them up on the net for us to devour. See, that is another thing books do – they teach you largeness of spirit, and the conviction too that what you want to get is out there somewhere, at least in someone’s mind.
A book teaches you how to be alone. Ironically, it also tells you how you are not alone. When grief hit our family it was a shock and we could not process it. We had no carefully documented memories to use in times of need, no home videos or even voice recordings. Hell, we didn’t even have those many pictures – just odd shots when people looked very different to what they looked later, I just had books, and I read insatiably, and immersed myself in the characters who did not seem irretrievably distant. My older brother did too. That helped.
Reading is the best – and possibly the politest – way to ignore life and people around you. But if you are of a friendlier disposition, you can discuss books with candor bound by no obligations, barred by no human limitations. I enjoy my time with my son discussing books and seamlessly moving onto discussing life, telling him about my little victories and big defeats, the struggles of people he knew and didn’t; people who made us who we were. I like discussing with him our losses and how derailed we got by them; about how difficult it is to crawl one’s way out of the deep abyss loss can throw you in. I tell him how reading encourages empathy. In the characters we read about, we hold different states of mind, than our own and that is the life-giving force of literature and reading.
These are honest, straight-from-the-heart conversations, without regret or fear of consequence and reason. I hope that these discussions will fill him with wisdom and gentleness, understanding and loving concern, because working on a child to make him/her a good person is hard work. All the wonderful people in the world did not just happen – somebody or maybe some things and circumstances worked on them. Someone or something must have worked behind each of these wonderful people, teaching them not to contradict or confute “nor to believe and take for granted; not to find and discourse, but to weigh and consider’, as Francis Bacon said.
We might not have much control over what profession he would take up in life, and that is fine. As long as we had something to do with the kind of person he becomes in life, I will die happy. The superficial, the trappings, all of that could be changed was unimportant; what was important was to determine the shape, slant and solidity of the structure underneath.
And when we are not there, we don’t want our sibling-less child to be alone