Sunday, April 04, 2004

It's only words - I

First love

I have only hazy memories of the first time I was swept off my feet. But my aunt tells me I must have been 3 or 4 years old. I'd tagged along with her to her friend's house and after a while was nowhere to be seen. Assuming I'd gone down the stairs alone, they launched a frantic search. Imagine their chagrin, when they found me in one of the rooms itself, leaning over a table, swinging a leg and with total absorption, 'reading' a thick tome. I don't remember the title, but I recall being enthralled by row after neat row of alphabets and the wafery thinness of the pages.

Another memory is of a kiddies party perhaps not long after. The hostess held two cheerfully wrapped gifts and asked me, "What would you like - a game or books?" No conflict here. Thrusting my pudgy hands out, I earnestly lisped, "Bookths" And that's how the collection began... with Thumbelina, Little Mermaid and Beauty.

Toys came and went, but my precious bookths were carefully preserved. The first day of summer vacations saw an unvarying ritual: notebooks and textbooks were gleefully expelled and the motley collection of storybooks would be brought out and lined against the wall. The Library was open!

At school, the library was tucked away in one quiet corner. And my favourite moment was when we all had to troop out in a queue and climb the 54 steps or so from the Primary Section to the Secondary, where the library was located. Mystery, fantasy, adventure - all in one little room. Even the archetypal villain - the librarian. She not only rationed the Enid Blytons, but also shoved into our unwilling hands, books on animals, birds, science and even novels in Hindi and Marathi. Admirable intentions, some might think, but not us who shrank from these surrogate textbooks.

I bided my time until I became the library monitor. And then craftily went around distributing all the books I wanted to read to my classmates. Through the week I'd swap books with them and thus, swiftly worked my way through the Blytons, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews, Richmal Cromptons and Wodehouses. Sometimes I'd even prop a novel between the pages of a textbook during a boring class and once suffered the ignominy of standing outside class when caught doing that.

The collection stayed very modest, until i discovered the detour from College to Marine Lines station. Two second hand bookstores lay in wait on that detour with books piled precariously almost up to the ceiling. Many an afternoon was spent craning and contorting, thumbing and sneezing in those musty bookstores. Rarely did i leave without carting away armfuls of trashy fiction, classics, thrillers and some rare reads. The 2 1/2 hour daily train rides were scarcely ever felt.

With English Literature, I had a reading list and therefore, a legitimate reason to indulge in my hobby. But my mother remained unconvinced as she saw empty spaces at home vanishing. She complained to Dad, who acted swiftly, but not in the way she expected. A bookcase was constructed which was dubbed rather fancifully, 'The Library'.

What kind of books do you read, I'm often asked. And here's where I flounder. The thought of limiting oneself to a certain genre is preposterous. At some point I savour Indian writers, then start craving the classics, until I get a whiff of travel writing. From there, I might hop on to short stories, dipping into inspirational and spiritual literature. There was once the war phase, where I devoured everything in sight on the Second World War and the Vietnam War. And occasionally, there's the regression to the Enid Blyton era, where I long wistfully for the Wishing Chair and the Magic Faraway Tree.

It's a journey I don't question anymore. In fact, sometimes I feel that it isn't me choosing a book but vice versa. With increasing regularity, I 'chance' upon books whose message I need to hear or books which set me off on a new path.

And along this path are also strewn quirks of various sorts. The egregious memory turns elephantine when it comes to books I've lent. I've been known to stalk people who fail to return my books in time. And then there's the meticulous cataloguing of every single book by name, author and category. Each new entrant is allowed into the Library only after it's sheathed in plastic. And I know the almost precise location of each of the 807 books right down to the shelf, row and surrounding books.

Obsession, thunders my mother. I wickedly point to the Erasmus quote pasted on the Library, 'When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.'

Somehow, these lines reassure me that I'm not alone.

It's been six months since I started the blog. And when i think about it, the urge to write has undoubtedly been inspired by everything I've read and enjoyed all these years. The journey continues...

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