Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Dukedom Large Enough

The Strand book sale was on some time ago. Book lovers in Mumbai will know what that means. It means you set aside everything else and make that pilgrimage to Sunderbai hall at Churchgate for the sale. 

It isn’t every day that some of the greatest gems of English literature, not to mention history, biography, design, architecture and a host of other categories, are marked down to such a great extent. For those people whose heart skips a couple of beats on sighting the words, discount, sale and books, in the same sentence, this is truly a treat.

I have fond memories of the Strand sale. Some of the most priceless gems in my collection hail from there. As I sat down to write this post, I could think of other books that were waiting for me. I yearned to shut shop at work and rush to the sale, and yet the sale began and ended, and I did not go. Why, do you ask?

That’s what happens when a book lover marries a non-book lover. While I regard books as food for thought, my husband considers them food for termites. Where I think of them as storehouses of knowledge, he sees them as gatherers of dust.

My husband told me some time ago that I may not buy any more books, that if I wish to buy any more books, I must give up the ones I have. A sharp intake of breath escaped me. I could not believe my ears. Had my husband just asked me to give up my books? How could he be so cruel?

He claimed, in his defence, that he had never once seen me read them since our marriage. Insufficient grounds for desertion, I countered. How do I explain to him that merely having them in my life, within reach, is a great comfort? I may not have read those books in the last few years, but they are mine, familiar and homely, and it is with a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart that I regard them.

Besides just because he hasn’t seen me read them, doesn’t mean I haven’t. If there is anything that exceeds the joy of reading a good book, it is the joy of reading a good book AGAIN. The experience can be likened to that of visiting an interesting yet familiar place in the company of an old friend. The fact that you know exactly what is going to happen next matters not one whit.

Mind you, I do not buy books unless I have read them before. They have to be ‘keepers’ before I put my money down for them. Of course, I enjoy a good whodunit as much as anyone else, but for such so-called ‘best-sellers’ there are always the famous ‘circulating’ libraries and the street booksellers, who stock both cheap two-penny and classic literature. 

It is at one such unassuming street bookshop that I bought my copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, with ‘To Manohar and his charming consort, Bharati – on their wedding day, 1903,’ inscribed on the flyleaf. The pages were brown and fragile when I bought the book (and at my shoestring college budget it was definitely dear at Rs 80), but how it must have been cherished by the bridal couple. And they must have been Shakespeare enthusiasts to get a gift like that.

There have been other jewels that I picked up from these street book haunts. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute, The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West, and A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams, among others. I could barely keep the excitement out of my voice, when I bid for those books. I was so afraid the hawker would see that I wanted those books and hike up the price.

Could I give up any of these?

What about the volume of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller that I cannot go beyond page 9, which I will finish some day?

Or the abridged editions of The Prisoner of Zenda, The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, that whetted my appetite for the real thing.

What about books like Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis that taught me that prose could be poetry, that it could bring tears to your eyes and give you goosebumps?

Or Animal Farm (which by the way, I wish I had written) and 1984 by George Orwell that created such a stir in my mind?

Could I give up the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde and Saki and the Complete Short Stories of O Henry that occupy pride of place on my bookshelf? Not to mention All Things Wise and Wonderful by the inimitable James Herriot. (Note to self: Need to lay my hands on All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Lord God made them all.)

I could not part from One Minute Nonsense and Prayer of the Frog (parts I and II), both by Anthony de Mello, from which I am always able to glean new wisdom.

And you better not ask to borrow Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl which I read in college, and was greatly influenced by.

Nor can I do without my English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dictionaries and my Roget’s Thesaurus.

There are so many books that have become a part of my life. Could I give them up? No way.

We have a shared history, these books and I. To me, these books are not just storytellers and purveyors of information. They have created their own worlds in my imagination and peopled them with characters, sometimes lovable, sometimes ruffianly, but always memorable. 

They are my friends, an inseparable part of my life and my consciousness. They have left an indelible mark on me. I am a changed woman for having read them. They have forged my thinking, fashioned and re-fashioned my perceptions, changed my life. To them, I return time and time again for conversations that are always spirited and alive.

Above all, I must make room for the books that haven’t been published yet. Books whose existence is now confined to a few manuscripts of long hand, but will someday come into their own — with my name on them.

Portable Magic
Books were always a life-saver. When the electricity conked off, or our national Doordarshan programming was disrupted, I turned to my books. I could spend hours reading, racing through each book, so that I could rush back in for another treat.

What fears did loneliness have then that could not be quashed by a book? When friends were scurried off by their parents on vacations, we had our books for company.

When we ourselves travelled from Bombay to Goa on the Great Indian Railways on a journey that seemed to take forever in the torpid summer heat, it was books that came to our rescue. Books were, as Stephen King put it, “portable magic.”

Decorating = Building bookshelves
I have always fantasised about having a library in my home, a room with books on all the walls from the floor to the ceiling. In that fantasy, I used to reluctantly set aside space for a low door, under which a true book lover would gladly crouch.

I have always felt that any room with bookshelves in it is well-decorated enough to suit me. I recall the library scene in the animation film, Beauty and the Beast. I fail to remember what exactly happens there in the library in the Beast’s mansion. But what I cannot forget are the stacks of books piled high from the floor to the ceiling. Only the room was massive, and the ceiling stretched as high as the spires.

Books and I
By non-reader standards, I was a strange kid. I could spend hours poring over old newspapers and tattered books and magazines. There was always something interesting to read there.

I remember how excited I was the first time I stepped into a library as a child. In that heightened state of excitement, I remember trying, mentally (and feverishly), to multiply the number of books with the number of shelves, and wondering if I would be able to finish all the books in that room, if I read, say, one a day. I also recall a distinct thought I had back then: that heaven must be a place where you could find all the books that had ever been written, in all the languages of the world.

When my brother became a member of the British Council Library, I used to go to the library in his stead every Saturday, borrow four books, devour them as fast as I could and return to the library the following Saturday to borrow another four. One of the librarians there would eye me warily, wondering perhaps when I found time to do the things that normal human beings do. I would hope desperately that there was no library rule against making too many trips in a single month.

We weren’t gifted any books as children, for reasons I’ve mentioned before. So all the books that my brother and I had were those that we had received as prizes at school for having topped a particular school subject in class. We used to spend the week after our school annual days devouring the books that we had received.

One year, I heard a nasty rumour that the school planned to hand out cash awards, instead of books, as prizes. I doubt any other kid was as upset as I was.

Teaching a Love for Reading
The habit of reading was inculcated in us at a very young age. Neither Dad nor Mum actually sat us down and read to us. That was an age when parents had no access to Better Parenting books. So they just let centuries of instinct and intuition supply what they lacked in knowledge.

And so it was that while today I have the benefit of knowledge, gleaned from scores of websites and books, on the best way to raise a reader, my father just read books. It was the sight of him reading, the look of absorbed reflection and delight so evident on his face, that told us, without words, how much fun reading could be.

As we grew older, Dad showed us his books. There was an air of quiet pride when he did that and I learned to understand what a treasure it is to have and hold your own books. It was then that the seed was sown, the determination to be the proud owner of my own collection some day.

I also have one other childhood memory relating to books. I remember asking Dad, “Will you give me your books when I am older?” I added, “I don’t want anything else,” perhaps intending to soften the blow.

“Oh yes,” he had said then, smiling at me. And he was as good as his word.

Today I can see Matilda, Winnie the Pooh and Noddy trying to encroach into my space on the bookcase and I am thrilled beyond measure. I want to raise a family of readers. Some of my most treasured moments have been spent with my daughter, my arms wrapped around her affectionately, with a book on our laps. 

As we read her favourite stories, over and over again, holding her chubby forefinger as we trace the embossed lettering on the books, I know that the words that she is listening to are dancing across the blossoming expanse of her mind. 

I modulate my voice to sound like Noddy or Tigger or Agatha Trunchbull, Matilda’s adversary, knowing well that she is literally hanging on to my every word. Sometimes I deliberately omit a particular word, only to be forcefully reminded of the remission.

There are many reasons why I cherish these moments with her. For one, it is time that I set aside for her alone. Movies, TV, household chores, office work, my own reading — everything else takes second place. All other noises are hushed. 

Little as she is, she knows that her multi-tasking, much harried mother is making her a gift of time – always a precious gift. But more importantly, she realizes that she is being initiated into the delights of reading, a pastime that is dear to her mother’s heart. Her mind is expanding. Her imagination is breaking boundaries. Her world is being enlarged. And the only equipment that is needed to achieve this is what author Christopher Morley once describes as “(not) just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue.”

How much is a Book Worth?
Time and dust, the two eternal adversaries of all things finite, have left their mark on my books. The covers of some of them, once shiny and bright, have faded. One or two of them are scarred by the blot marks of a wayward fountain pen. And the unkindest cut of all, one for which I am thoroughly ashamed, is the dog’s ears on some of my most cherished possessions. But neither time nor dust could diminish their worth in my eyes.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Pats Herself on the Back
Last week, my daughter held my face between her palms (a fail-proof way of getting her mother’s attention), and said to me, “Mamma, I become big then, you’ll give me your books, please. I don’t want anything else.”

I don't want anything else either.

(The title of this post has been adapted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Best Medicine

It was past 11 that night, and I was desperately trying to put my 3½-year-old daughter to bed. The little one was asleep. And I hoped to get some shut-eye myself. It wouldn’t be long before the baby woke up for the first of his many night-time feeds. And I wanted to get whatever rest I could.

In vain. Daughter dearest had no intentions of sleeping. She sat astride her father’s stomach (Post-fatherhood, it had been redesigned for comfort) and settled herself to hear a bedtime story (We have more than one storyteller in the family).

I watched the father-daughter moment indulgently. My husband was telling her an original story about Superman and Spiderman, in Malwani, no less. Malwani is a dialect of Konkani, with strong Marathi influences, spoken in the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra.

As an avowed Superman fan (Christopher Reeve), I fought against the urge to chuckle loudly. In my husband’s stories, and there are at least 8 of them, it is always Spiderman who saves the day, whereas Superman is a buffoon who wears a bedsheet around his neck and underpants on top of his trousers and flies around aimlessly.

Even as the story continued, she suddenly began to laugh, a ha-ha-hee-hee-ho-ho that rose in force and intensity, promising to take you on a guided tour of the Barakhadi, the 12 building blocks of alphabets in the Devanagari script.

The story was temporarily suspended but the laughter continued, getting louder, more outspoken by the second. I scolded my daughter. But she only giggled the more. Alarmed, I looked at the sleeping baby, afraid that he would wake up. He stirred a little, then resumed his slumber. I heaved a sigh of relief, then turned to glare at my husband hoping he would act like the adult he was and quiet our firstborn before she woke her brother up. But he only shrugged his shoulders to indicate his powerlessness to attempt any such task.

My alarm grew. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before he gave in and joined in the laughter, unrestrainedly. My warnings went unheeded. Already it seemed as if the tribe of laughers was going to be doubled.

Intending to thwart their gaiety, I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes. I was quite sure that my face looked particularly forbidding, and that our offspring would certainly be subdued at the sight of it.

To my surprise, both father and daughter took one good look at me and laughed louder. Needless to say my son awoke and made some noise of his own. It was an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment for me and after some mild shouting from all quarters, peace was restored. It was only after everyone else had gone to bed and I had some quiet me-time that my mood altered somewhat and it struck me that perhaps I had been too harsh with her. After all, she had only laughed.

Was that such a bad thing? Hadn’t I been a champion giggler in my time? I remember how one of our teachers at school, Sr Edith, I think her name was, was always telling me to stop giggling. Almost anything had the power to amuse me in those days. And so it was with most of my friends as well. Nothing was immune to the Giggling Fit. No subject was too grave for it. Why do you think the phrase, like a giggly schoolgirl, emerged?

As we entered college, bidding goodbye to our schoolgirl lives, we unconsciously gave up giggling and adopted the full-throated laughter that was a symbol of the way we saw ourselves – independent, at the start of a whole new adventure. The five years we spent in College, we knew with prescience, would be some of the best years of our lives.

Laughter came easily then. We were young. The future seemed exciting, enveloped in a million possibilities, all good. Hope was in our makeup. There was no room for negativity. There were no shadows in our lives, nothing that could resist the assault of Laughter. Authority, discipline, rules – they all crumbled and looked sheepish once Laughter got going. The theatre of the absurd and that of the rational could provoke the same response. The more serious something was, the more ridiculous our Laughter made it appear.

Because we were asserting ourselves, no one could tell us to stop laughing. The giggle was hurriedly smothered, but Laughter could hold its own. It was so infectious that others who had no idea what was so funny would find themselves unable to resist laughing. Sometimes even we would forget what we had started laughing over.

The world itself seemed to encourage us to laugh in those days. So whether it was the Tom and Jerry cartoons that caused us to laugh until our sides ached or Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, the first sit-com on Doordarshan that made us feel so grownup when we understood the jokes, laughter found encouragement. Today when people claim to be LoL or RoFL on chat and sms, it seems so fake.

Recently I got all excited when I saw CDs of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi on sale at a mall. I couldn’t wait to get home and begin reliving those days. I watched 9 episodes back-to-back in silence, finding the canned laughter increasingly annoying, before my husband had the good sense to switch off the TV and put me out of my misery. So what happened?

Age did. Apparently children laugh 300-400 times a day; adults are lucky if they manage to laugh 15 times a day. Clearly, Laughter is the preserve of childhood and youth. That would explain why youngsters can laugh so effortlessly at everything and nothing and grownups have to get together every morning, as members of so-called Laughter Clubs, and go all blue in the face in order to force themselves to laugh.

That adults laugh less than children is a known fact. And the reason why it happens is that gradually we begin to play less, imagine less, believe less. That’s when cynicism sets in. In my own case, I had allowed the false belief that giggles equals giddy to sneak upon me and strangle my laughter.

Today I, who could once upon a time be booked for inciting a riot just by laughing, allow whole weeks to go by between laugh sessions. And then they are not fits of laughter, just a dry chuckle at the most. I can’t remember the last time I laughed until I cried. And that realisation really makes me cry.

As I think of my behaviour with my daughter, I am truly ashamed of myself. Not so long ago, when she was a little infant, it was over her first laugh that I had first bonded with my daughter.

I don’t know why I’ve let myself go like that. If, as they say, laughter is the best medicine, I have been underdosing for far too long. But I am determined to make amends. From now on, I shall laugh and not care if I risk appearing foolish. I shall seek to laugh easily and more often. I will try to take life less seriously.

Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be, sang Whitney Houston in The Greatest Love of All. I will strive to remember that lesson the next time I am tempted to curb my children’s enthusiasm and their laughter.


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