Reading, Writing and Growing Up

My grandmother was a collector. She collected stamps, coins, postcards, letters, souvenirs, photographs, diaries and books. I was not allowed to touch any of that. At the most, she’d let me play with her jar of coins under supervision. But her books were never off limits. They were mine for the taking. She was an ardent reader. I treasure her massive collection of books. It mostly consists of classics, mystery, fantasy, romance, crime thrillers and philosophy. She stacked her books in a large hidden closet that had a full-sized mirror for a door. That mirror was the rabbit-hole I was so desperately ready to tumble down. She bought books from everywhere – from the airport, the bus stop, the railway station stalls, the posh bookstores… She’d even stop to buy a few from the used book-seller on a bicycle and from the roadside bookwallahs. She was a generous reader too; sharing her books with friends and strangers alike. She never left the house without a book in her bag. She was a gynaecologist and between a crazy day-and-night schedule full of patients and surgeries, she would find time to stand in a corner of the OT and open a random page of The Reader’s Digest to read snippets of this and that, shutting out the noise and hustle around her. I know of times when she managed to read a few pages standing in an overcrowded local train in Mumbai; one hand swinging on the rod above and the other, clutching on to her book tightly.

She brought magazines and comics into my life. Every other day, on her way back from the hospital, she would stop and buy some magazines for herself and comic books for me. Tinkle, Champak, Richie Rich, Amar Chitra Katha, Tin Tin, Panchtantra, Shaktimaan, MAD, Chacha Chaudhary, Spiderman, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Akbar and Birbal and Archie Comics filled my childhood with colour and cartoons. I devoured the books, flipping through pages with wild excitement, as I usually got to read them as an incentive for finishing schoolwork early. Characters like Suppandi, Tenali Raman and Jughead really cracked me up. I read of mythology, history, fables, fairy tales and superheroes. I approached different kinds of comedy with big, bright eyes and a crooked smile – satire, caricature, parody, farce, repartee, slapstick, irony. She’d riddle me often, “Who has a brain sharper than a needle…” I’d cut her off with a silly grin, “… and faster than a super-computer, of course it’s Chacha Chaudhary!”

Seeing her sitting on the floor reading a book, with legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and her back resting in the cozy curve of the couch in the living room was the most familiar and common sight in my house. As her eyes got weary with age and her patience to read the thick novels that she once enjoyed faded, she slowly made a shift to lighter, comic or inspirational literature – short stories, anecdotes, novellas, magazines, poetry. But she never stopped reading.

I don’t remember the instance when my love for books first developed or when my urge to tell a story took form on a paper but as far back as I can recall, I’ve been the happiest when reading or writing. In early school years, the only times I felt genuinely proud, with a sense of accomplishment was when I got an A grade on an English essay or when my poem was published in the school newsletter or when I won a medal for recitation. The only tests I was always gladly prepared for were reading comprehensions, spelling bees, dictation and essay writing. My favourite spot in the entire school was the corner table by the window in the library where I would sneak to, every chance I got. I always carried a book under my arm and often read during classes too. Especially math classes. A teacher once wrote a remark in my annual evaluation report card that said that I had potential and I could do wonders, if only I’d show as much interest in reading textbooks as I did in novels and other books I read for pleasure. I took that as a compliment and went around showing everyone what a wonderful note I got that year.

The only person who was as happy about that remark as I was was my grandmother. When my parents weren’t around, she would have to sign school notes as my guardian. I saw the pride in her smile as she signed that particular report. She gave me a new book that day.

Little did I know then that I’ll read and write for a living. I’ve often wondered if this is what I was really meant to do in life. If this was my calling. Stressful deadlines and lack of inspiration often push my buttons. There were times when other things caught my fancy and I was tempted to take up more lucrative opportunities instead of the low-paying writing jobs that came my way. I did find creative satisfaction in most of the work that I did, but sometimes, that wasn’t enough to go on. Then I’d look at my decked up bookshelf and find immense pleasure in the mere sight of books. The pattern of how everything I ever did through these years led me to books and writing has left a clear trace that makes all the sense in the world. It is a part of me that is intact, solid and unwavering. That is who I am, and this is what I know. Perhaps, this is all I know. And that, it seems, will be enough.

Sometimes, all you need is that proud signature on your report card to keep you going. All you need is a guardian.

Reading

The smell of dust clung to the room while they sat back and stared at me. I think I almost saw them pout. Or maybe that was just me. With every step, a tiny convolution took shape. One that brought back memories of  pages yellow and white. Black symbols afloat, mingling in and out of the yellow. Free of intricacies, without ties and restraint, just by themselves. Also, without meaning. Shelves right up to the ceiling looked down on me as I tried to fit in. I thought I always did.

Not just yet. No, not entirely so. But I tried. I knocked down a pile and let it stay there, for, it said that I was here. Coughing away, I turned back, to come again and pick one up. To un-dust and to cling on to it.

Books

At the end of
Each hagridden day,
I came to you
Seeking a quest,
To look forward to.
You, I opened,
To that page
Which held me last.
Being released into
A yet other world
A megacosm
That never failed me.

In the hope
To never return,
I read on.

Picked

 

That leaf was the most beautiful thing she had seen in years. On turning the yellow pages of an old, dusty book she had long-forgotten, there it lay, amongst kind. Paper is made of wood after all, she thought. It was in a safe place. Arid, dry, drained of all that was liquid, it spoke to her. Just to her. It had a colour that matched its transparency. She saw its veins intertwined, yet so clear; each leading somewhere, following a pattern. She put out her hand to find similarity in the lines they said narrate her destiny.

It was considered to be a sacred fig; the tree was supposedly wisdom-giving. Peepal, yes, she recalled. She peered at the leaf closely. She did not see that in it. She felt its dryness with the tip of her finger. Somewhat like dry skin, she thought. She admired its beauty turning it up and down when she realised how its lifelessness was what gave it that charm. Beauty comes at a price after all, she thought as she placed the dry leaf back amidst the pages of her old, dusty book, where it belonged.

Blocked

Something stirred her awake. Maybe it was the neighbor’s cat again. The wooden table wasn’t a comfortable headrest. It took her brain a few minutes to go from blankness to sight. Every muscle of her body screamed ache. With half-opened eyes, she stares at the screen. A blank page. White. It makes her eyes hurt. The cursor blinks. And blinks. And blinks. The clock reads 3:23am.

She strains her head to reach out to somewhere. Somewhere that inspires her to do that, which keeps her alive. To create. She waits for that click. Nothing.

Coffee. That’s what she needs. Dragging herself out of the lazy chair, she pulls her legs to where her coffee-maker lies. Black. Beautiful. Coffee has never failed her, she thinks. Black. Strong. Brew it right and things start falling into place. She takes a sip. It burns her tongue numb. With a gasp, she takes her mug and places it next to the screen with the blank page. She thinks of the previous night. And the night before. And the one before. She shrugs. She is right on her routine. She has a loyal memory, which is dangerous sometimes. She remembers every work that she produced in all its glory, as it hits her in the face. Every word, every line that she wrote spoke to her once. It doesn’t anymore. There’s a block somewhere, that can’t be undone. Gulp.

The coffee is gone. Yet, the cursor blinks away. It drives her crazy. It has been months, and still there is no thought that makes her brain effortlessly weave out beautiful stories out of her words. Her imagination, once needed to be tied up, so that it wouldn’t outrun this world and its reality. Now, it lazes around, hitting an idea or two, and collapses to the ground again, in chains. Writing came so naturally to her, she never thought of the process. She does now, but can’t figure it out. There was nothing that escaped her wit and sensibility. She penned down everything she thought was worth conscious anamnesis. Reading and writing constituted the center of her life. 4:34am.

Staring out of the window, impaired, she realizes, with wide open eyes, her worst nightmare. The day she could no longer write. The block, so insistently heavy, it makes her gray matter spew out all sense. Her creativity dies in an experience so foreign to her, she finds it worse than physical death. Something snaps, like a twig. In that knowledge, she finishes knowing.