In my house the only things that I treasure are the books on my shelves. As someone once said, ‘They are not just books, but minds of great people’, so I often treat them that way. Even though the shelf keeps groaning under the weight of books from past expeditions, I run to that second hand book store and come back yet again with a bundle of books.
How many of us book lovers can remember the joy of searching among the piles of dusty books in a store and suddenly finding that one book which we had been looking for all along, and which had been there right under our nose. That delight can only be compared to the pure and unalloyed joy that only a child can experience on getting the one thing that its heart desires, however insignificant it may seem to others.
You wipe the dust away and touch those pages, eagerly waiting to get lost in them, and look at the book seller with a wicked eye which seem to say: ‘Ah, at last, I am getting a chance to cheat someone: the foolish guy does not know how invaluable this book is and is charging only 50 rupees for it.’
You come home and cannot wait to start reading the book. Then you see that someone has scribbled some message on it, you understand that the book has been a gift from one person to another, who either did not care about it or lost it somehow. You think someone’s loss has been your gain.
It is night and if you are not sleeping alone, then your partner is going to make life hell for you, asking you to switch off the light, following that up with swearing, and then threatening with dire consequences if you do not comply. You are in the middle of the plot, and you feel that your partner is a demon for sleep, and silently curse him or her. Then you wait a bit longer, and furtively begin to read again, as the other one is snoring now.
Alas! Your partner gets up with the thought of killing you. Time to close your friend out, shut the book, switch off the lights, then ponder over the events in the book and what is going to happen next.
When I finish a book, I sometimes write my opinion or my own review of it, in a writing which no one can comprehend; I manage to decode my own writing with great difficulty later on. I reserve this privilege only to books which really touched my heart in some way – sad or happy – or just made me think.
When I finished reading ‘Mother’, by Maxim Gorky, in 2004, I wrote that there were never going to be revolutions of the kind described in the book, as youth these days are not idealistic enough, but I am glad that I had to eat my words, literally, as, look at the sheer number of revolutions that are shaking the world now, overthrowing governments, despots – just as in the past! I read my words and smile at their not coming true.
When I was bedridden for a long time, suffering from a heart ailment, I was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and I loved it so much that I held it to my heart all through the night when severe chest pain would choke my breath and I thought I was dancing with death every single moment.
I held it close and it comforted me on those nights when I did not know whether I was alive or already passing into another dark world.
Now, if you were to tell me that in future, people will cease to own books, I would respond that, had it not been for books and my love for reading, I would have been a dead person.
In our family, we, that is, my siblings and I, were first generation learners. My parents had little education, which was to say that they could read and write, but had never been to let alone completed school.
They wanted us to get the best of education, which they had missed out on, and which they thought would make all the difference to our lives. My parents struggled against all odds to place us in the best of schools. Did this place a burden on us to become high achievers? No, it did not, because being very simple people, my parents’ desires were limited. And so, I never felt any kind of pressure arising from high aspirations of parents. But I felt the pressure of a stifling education system, which stressed on just mugging the lessons and scoring in the exams, but never on whether we were really learning anything.
I spent most of my time in class doodling on my notebooks and tuned out of listening to what the teacher was talking about and instead, looking out the window, wondering and longing for all the things that I was missing out on by being imprisoned in the classroom. I envied the birds twittering on the window sills and, thus, drifted away into another world which had no teachers and boring lessons.
I had to be glad for one thing and which was that I loved English classes and came to love reading more than anything else. I started off with the newspaper, then comic books, before going on to story books and novels. The school strictly prohibited reading anything apart from the prescribed text books; it had an extensive library, which was kept, strangely, out of bounds for its students.
So it was that while I knew and understood everything that was going on in the outside world, my friends who were confined to the textbooks were totally ignorant and knew nothing more than what had been taught at school.
This trend was to perpetuate itself throughout my entire life: I have always found it difficult to make friends with whom I could have a decent intellectual conversation. Most people are not willing to discuss anything beyond their personal lives, and this has turned out to be a serious limitation. Their education had not taught them to go beyond their text books.
Reading books gives one access to the minds of many great writers, who not only foresaw many of the problems that were going to proceed from the callous and destructive human nature, but also make us visualize a lot of things which were never part of our life, like the consequences of a war, and revolutions. Everyday joys, relationships… everything can be found in books, to satiate anyone’s thirst for experiencing something, beyond their own realm of life.
Increasingly, I find that I look towards books as friends, rather than turning to my actual friends. I do not know whether this is good, but it has done me a lot of good. Made me non judgemental, made me see what goes on beyond my personal world, made me grow with a lot of empathy rather than mere sympathy, made me hang on to dreams that there could be a better world than this, made me acknowledge that you can find joy and peace in nature that no money can buy, and made me realise how irreplaceable this Nature is and how people are systematically destroying it without considering the repercussions, and made me wish all the rest could see what I am seeing, and finally, made me feel lonely, not finding many other people reading books.
Forget about the future. As I explained, none of my friends ever read books, and still books are owned today. In future, also, the same trend will continue: people who have a longing to be lost in another world will always exist in future too. As long as dreams and imagination are alive, people will own books. I have seen my five year old niece eyeing my collection already, so things will continue as they were before.
But I know one thing for sure: we cannot make people who have no interest in books read, not even at gun point. I have tried to do that, literally, with a friend, and managed to make her finish a book, but when I asked her to tell me briefly what it was about, I wanted to kick myself, for ever making her read it. She had just read it like a text book, and did not care about the characters that I got so excited about. I took that as the biggest insult to the book lover in me, and thus, shut the world of books to non book lovers, forever. It is better for the books never to be owned than to be owned and never read or understood and therefore, never loved.