Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reading myself into and through books

I have been reading a lot of picture books lately for the course I am doing on children's libraries. Some of them are absolutely stunning in terms of artwork, innovative fonts, thought-provoking layout, economy of text and multilayered narratives. And yes, I will blog about them soon. 

In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote inspired by a picture book titled A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston. Enjoy!

I am a child of books.

I sail across a sea of words, as I read myself into books and read myself through books. Leaning back against the sturdy branches of the bimbli tree in my childhood home, or the warm sunkissed tiled roof of the house where I spent my teenage years, I spend hours making friends with people who live in the pages of books, and come to life in the squiggles that work like magic spells. 

I read books to get through school and college. I read books at parties, too shy and awkward to converse and make friends. When my father books tickets for long bus journeys to visit relatives during the school holidays, I pack my bag with a tome or two and prepare to journey through forests of fairytales.

I come from a world of stories, a place where giraffes browse in my backyard, Goethe’s Faust sinks into despair, and Irving Stone’s Van Gogh paints his madness onto canvas. “Thigele gandi peshi kadetha”, my grandmother laments worrying that my absorption with the book in my hands will prevent me from noticing my surroundings (read housework that I will be expected to do). My mother smiles as she places a third and then a fourth dosa on my plate and, finicky eater that I am, I eat them without noticing, for I am busy savouring Hemingway’s tale of the old man and his battle with the fish rather than the coconut chutney on my plate.

In college, I discover Kafka and the Russian writers and am drawn to the abyss of despair that their writings open up. “Come away with me” they seem to call out, and I shake my head, knowing that like Theseus, I will find my way through the maze.

I get married and move to Bangalore and my books travel along with me. (“No, ma, I don’t have space for my trousseau saris, I have to pack my Jane Austen collection”) When returning from our honeymoon, we stop over at Calcutta and rush to College Street, where I buy Johanna Spyri’s Heidi for three rupees, and Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada for two rupees fifty paisa! My husband and I set up house, linger over our book collections, and hurriedly arrange the other stuff in some semblance of order. Dusting takes a backseat, as I pick up a copy of Melville’s Moby Dick and upon my imagination, I float.

When my son turns one, a circulating library in my neighbourhood shuts shop, and vulture-like, I swoop on them to buy up their stock at throw-away prices.  Dog-eared copies of Enid Blyton, Bertrand Russel, Robin Cook and A.J. Cronin form a contiguous chain of book joy as they perch spine-to-spine, next to each other in the rough-hewn shelves we have fixed to the walls in place of the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall mahogany book cabinets of my dreams. I plonk my son into his pram and walk through the Jayanagar fourth block complex, travelling over mountains of make-believe. I notice with a start that the only people I can recognize and who know me back are the people at Nagasri Book House. 

In the school and college classrooms where I pretend to teach, I share my love of books with the students. We discuss Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Amitava Kumar’s Bombay London New York, and talk about how books have shaped us. I write plays for the children to perform on Annual Day, and the stories are drawn from Greek myths, Indian folk tales, science fiction and other tales of yore. My reading shapes me and the ways in which I shape the world around me. When I visit Germany, I spend some quiet moments at Bebelplatz, beside Micha Ullman’s installation of an underground library with empty shelves, to remember the horrific night when the Nazis burnt twenty thousand books.  I think back on Bertolt Brecht’s poem "A Worker Reads History" and understand there are treasures to discover, even in the darkness.

I dream of opening a library, a bookstore, a publishing house. I dream of crafting stories that speak, of writing books that will call out to readers, of creating narratives that will resonate with others’ lives, of spinning yarns that will help them escape the banality of reality. I dream. Ah well, imagination is free.

With apologies to Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston - the phrases in bold are taken from their picture book, A Child of Books.

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