Bound by words

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Reading itself may be a solitary pursuit but the friendships the shared habit can forge make it a very sociable activity.

Reading something together essentially means you are sharing reality for all practical purposes. | maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

A long time ago, when my father was young, he happened to be heading for an assignation with a friend at a modest lodge, the sort of establishment where gentlemen of a certain standing but humble means may live. As he walked down a long corridor, he caught a glimpse of a half-open room from which emanated a loud guffaw — that rolling-from-the-pit-of-the-tummy kind of mirth — and the laugher appeared to be alone. Unable to resist, his own eyes alight with merriment, Dad opened the door wider and ventured, “Wodehouse?”

“Yes!!” came the delighted reply as its owner held up a dog-eared copy of Summer Moonshine.

And thus was born such a deep friendship, forged with much hilarity over Henry Cecil, Jerome K. Jerome and, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, that the younger man became a part of our family, an ‘uncle’ so beloved over the decades between my childhood and middle age that I miss him to this day when I write something and can’t show it to him (he was lost to cancer over a decade ago).

Literature can broaden not only our intellectual but emotional horizons in profound ways. It is a process that is at once intensely private, an almost a bilateral connection between the author and the reader across time and geographies, and yet so tangibly shareable. At the centre of one such experience that altered my perception of a fellow human being was a book. It began with my witless admission that I hadn’t read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “You haven’t read Marquez?” an otherwise diffident colleague wanted to know, looking both perplexed and mildly distraught. “You haven’t read Marquez?” I promised to recompense as soon as I could. I did not realise exactly how soon then.

The next day, aforementioned person arrived at work, pulled out a brand new copy of Love in the Time of Cholera from his battered backpack, formally worded dedication already in place, and, with nothing more than munificence in his demeanour, told me, “You must read it.” Thus was I introduced to Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, and he became, thereafter, 'the friend who gave me Marquez'. If you are reading this, N, thank you again.

When my children were little, I rediscovered books through their eyes. In the night, after play, homework and dinner, we would snuggle together, the world in the shadows beyond the light of the bedside lamp, yawning but unwilling to sleep till Horton hatched the egg one more time, or Anita Desai admitted in her Village by the Sea, “There was nothing he could do — they knew that — to make their mother well, to keep away the drunken neighbour, to save them all from the cruelty all around them, but it helped that he knew, too, knew their fears and shared their troubles.” Indeed, it did.

 

The girls, stilled by the gravity of what had just occurred, exchanged a glance and simply waited. I completed the reading. In the conversations that inevitably followed, there was questing reflection and doubt, never a bad thing when it comes to life.

I remember the time we were approaching the end of Ranchor Prime’s ardent retelling of Gita Press’ Valmiki Ramayana as the concise and evocatively introduced Ramayana: A Journey, a beautiful Channel 4 and Collins and Brown publication rich with Mughal art sourced from collections like those at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (it was my default option for kiddie gifts till it sadly went out of print). The battle was over. Ravana was vanquished. But a desperate anxiety engulfed us when Rama, whom we had together come to admire over his many adventures, “knew what he must do” to the lovely and bereft Sita, whose honour, he says, “is not so easy to redeem”, and thus she takes the agnipareeksha.

Prime pauses here, and in a moment of impelling honesty, intrudes into his cherished account of the epic, with the line, “What happened next is painful to recount”, and then again, at the start of the epilogue: “The seventh book of Ramayana, called Uttara, or ‘supreme’, does not make easy telling, but I must tell it because without it my story will be incomplete”. I remember exhaling with relief, no longer tasked with explaining the unjustifiable. The girls, stilled by the gravity of what had just occurred, exchanged a glance and simply waited. I completed the reading. In the conversations that inevitably followed, there was questing reflection and doubt, never a bad thing when it comes to life.

My father once told me I would never be alone as long as I had a book with me. I think he meant it literally but it rang true in other ways as well. On a business visit to Manchester, I found myself on a tour of Elizabeth Gaskell’s lovingly restored house in the outskirts of the historic city. I hadn’t read Cranford but my younger child had so I sent her pictures from my phone, and suddenly, she was with me on the journey, her excitement made mine. I purchased a hardbound pocket edition of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford from a fund-raising sale of old books in the teashop belowstairs, but realised I had erred when, upon my return, my older child’s face fell at being left out of our little memory-making (I made sure I compensated for the folly on a later trip to, of all the incredible places, a secondhand bookstore at Hay-on-Wye, with a reference volume on the history of design that I found with two minutes to spare before the 5 o' clock shop-closing bell tinkled).

I have never been sure if we share books or we are shared by them. A friend from school, with whom I connected on Facebook after nearly 30 years, thanked me for letting her borrow from our “enviable” collection of Asterix and Tintin comics — and I don’t even remember lending them to her. We had pieced together a complete compilation of these classics by bargain-hunting at the second-hand booksellers of (what was then) Calcutta’s Gariahat Market, their longevity restored by careful hand-stitching and plastic-covering at home. When my children were old enough, my father bequeathed both sets to them, adding a couple of shiny new books to replace absconding titles, now that he could afford what he couldn't then for us, a momentous legacy which did not escape the awestruck regard of his heirs, for they knew by then of the stories behind these stories.

My older daughter’s art-driven kinship with my chittappaa fetched her meticulously tissue-wrapped and terribly expensive imported volumes on company that ranged from Van Gogh and Raphael to Toulouse Lautrec and Norman Rockwell, all of whom now sit amiably alongside her Bill Watterson omnibuses. The reassuringly physical presence of books sometimes comes with wishes like this one in the clear scrawl of a dear friend: ‘With hope that the world be yours’. It is as if books can leap across cantilevered distances, connecting the old to the young or turning strangers into friends with everything it means to be human. I wish them a safe crossing.

My father, who has resisted my efforts to acquaint him with the writing of A.K.Ramanujan, Pico Iyer and Kiran Nagarkar, but was glad to discover Dan Brown and Lee Child when his younger son-in-law introduced him the joys of America’s public libraries, keeps by his bedside LIFCO’s editions of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa Mahakavyam and Kumarasambhavam in Venkata Raghavacharya’s 'pada-artha' (word-by-word) translations. He reads two-to-four lines at a time (anything more would be hard to process, he says, and he disapproves of racy page-turning). When I recently asked him about them, this man of few spoken words wrote back elaborating on Kalidasa’s genius in free verse, concluding with the admonishment that I need not buy the books, he would bring them when he came next.

The now-older children, having flown the nest, want to plan trips around his visit right away, and I rather hope we will get one of his impromptu talks, demystifying Sanskrit and mythology as only he can, coffee cup in hand, leaning back on the rocking chair in the balcony, never without a book, the kids on the floor beside him. The shelf looks set to expand again, along with our minds and hearts.

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