Love of books


I am not a scholar by any means but I do feel an inexplicable love towards books. I love holding books, I love smelling them, the rustle of pages makes me happy, I love talking about them, I love people who read! I do not know when this love affair started and why it started. I only know that my mother is responsible for it. It is a blessing and a curse. Books bring joy to me, they give me freedom to travel without moving an inch, they help me know the unknown through written words. Books help me dream of a better world, books unveil the layers in human psyche and books teach me empathy. Books are a blessing. The curse? My life relegates itself to an insignificant corner while I devour books. The other day at work, as I was helping an elderly customer we started chatting about the kinds of books we liked to read. After exchanging our mutual interests and cooing over authors we both enjoyed, she said to me in a conspiratorial whisper:

“You know my mother would be very displeased with me, but after I have finished my morning chores, I go up to my room, lay down on my bed and I read. My mother would not have liked to see me lie in my bedroom in the middle of the day with a book. But I tell myself, I have worked all my life, now I have earned these luxurious afternoons with just my books.”

I agreed with her wholeheartedly, and I told her so. My mother, on the other hand, showed me by example that afternoons are for reading books unless you are taking a nap. And what better way to nap than falling asleep while reading, snoozing off while a book rests on your chest?

Kolkata Book fair, since, I was a little girl was like carnival time for me and many of my book loving friends. As a child, I went with my mother, her hand held mine tightly as she ran with me from one stall to another buying books for herself and me with what little money she had. When I grew up and went to college, the annual book fair was a sacred pilgrimage for many of us. We waited for classes to end so we could get on a minibus and head towards Maidan, where the book fair was held every year. They have changed the venue, I hear. A few of us in our naiveté even pledged to come back every year to the Book fair for annual rendezvous no matter which part of the world we lived in. I smile when I think of that promise. How young we were, how innocent.

Sean asked me out on our first date with these words, and I quote verbatim, “So, when are you going to the book fair with me?” Dude was clever. He knew it would be hard for me turn down a trip to the book fair. “What! With you?? No, you are a foreigner, I can’t be seen with a foreigner. I am a good Indian woman, I don’t go out with little known white man! I like your attention and I like you but I don’t want to be alone with you. That is scary!! Wait, book fair you say? Gulp! Public place, what can you do? If you get nasty I will just call for help and have the mob beat you up.” While all those erratic thoughts fired in my head, I said, “Yes, I will go to the book fair with you!” Kolkata book fair saw our first date and the blossoming of our romance 🙂 !

Within a week of us moving to Baltimore after marriage, Sean woke up one morning and said he was going to take me to a special place. I will be very happy there. He would not tell me where.

“Do I need to get dressed up for it?” I asked bubbling with excitement at the uncertainty.
“No, just comb your hair and brush your teeth!”

We walked a couple of blocks from our apartment and came to a beautiful, historic building with arches and big windows. Enoch Pratt Free Public Library, I read with my head tilted way back. I walked in almost in a daze. The old smell and the expansive inner courtyard with natural lights flooding the inside from the skylights took my breath away. I wanted to move in there. Nobody checked my bag, nobody demanded money. All I had to do was mail myself a self addressed envelope for address check, bring it in the next time and got my library card, my gatepass to the land of unlimited books. The winter of USA was bitter for a woman from the land of warmth and sun. The library was my refuge. When I did not need to check out books, I simply roamed the huge building, stroking the antique banisters, smelling the scent of books, getting lost in the stacks. The library and I created memories. The library introduced me to American authors who I knew little of in India. I fell in love with some of them.

Then life happened. We moved. We created a family. We moved again back to the suburbs. I discovered the county library. From a very young age, I took my children to the library because I wanted them to grow up between books. And I secretly harbored a desire to work there – one day. As the children grew, I started questioning my reason for staying at home but I had lost the confidence. I had been out of the job market for 12 long years. I decided to start putting my foot in the threshold by volunteering. I accepted the role of library grandparent (in my thirties) and read books to children. Then I interfiled books and dvds. After volunteering for 3 years while Ryan was in pre-school and kindergarten, I gathered sufficient courage to look for openings. A friend messaged me that a position was available at the library I volunteered in and I applied. The interview went well, the interviewers laughed which I took to be a good sign. In the mean time, I was exploring the possibility of becoming involved in this wonderful initiative Project Literacy educating adult learners who are interested in getting their high school diploma. As I was driving back from one of the final meetings of Project Literacy, I got a call from the HR of the library.

“Thank you for interviewing. We would like to offer you the position….!”

Magical words, after 12 years of staying at home. Small dream for many, but it was MY dream and it came true. How can a job that requires me to read and read more not be a dream job? So when the cobwebs hang from the walls and the dinner, on occasion, is a hasty affair, I rationalize to the family – ‘Sorry, I was working!’ 🙂

I will most likely never be rich working at a library but strangely enough I feel richer every day as I finish the last page of a really good book, close it with a contented sigh and look at my untidy bedside table with books piled high. Life is good with books in it.

Way back when…


I firmly believe it is always a good idea to start at the beginning. For instance, the day I caught a glimpse of the back of a tall, well-built man at the book corner of an upscale store in a five star hotel in Kolkata, where I worked at the time. The man must have felt the brush of the pallu of my saree on his arm, or the soft gentle swish of air as I passed by him to the cash register, he turned back and smiled at me. Months of customer service training made me immediately flex my facial muscles into a responding grin. But then I smiled a real smile. Maybe I smiled because his smile was so genuine and warm, maybe because he had kind eyes or just maybe because I was twenty-four and a very handsome man just smiled at me.

I finished my job at the register and went back to my department in the mezzanine floor and promptly forgot about the man downstairs. In about ten minutes, he came up. He needed a gift for a wedding he had to attend, it was a Sunday and all the stores in the city were closed. I gave him some suggestions, of course, but surprisingly, the conversation gradually shifted from gift ideas to us – my Master’s program, university, job, likes, preferences, his work, education et all. I do not remember what all we talked about, but I do remember we talked for about two and a half hours. My poor manager sent a coworker up to my floor to make sure I was coping fine with a foreigner. I also remember, after talking for close to an hour, he asked me if I was married. When I said no, he extended his arm, gripped my hand in a firm handshake and gave me his name. I tease him to this day that if I WAS married, would he have not told me his name? He says he wanted to make sure the coast was clear for him to pursue farther. Fair enough!

Before he left, he handed me his card and asked me to call him sometime. The cards that I got at that job generally ended up in the trash can. His, I kept. After a couple of weeks, while searching for change in my purse, I came up with his card. I remembered the feeling of happiness and excitement in me when he was talking, the ready smile and the twinkling green eyes. I made a decision, very unnatural for me. I decided to give him a call. I am naturally shy, not prone to taking chances or making the first move. But I wanted to see him again.

I could almost hear the pounding of my heart as I dialed the number and heard the phone ring on the other end. And then his deep voice boomed into my ears. I managed a squeaky hello and a stuttering ‘I am Piyali!’

The response to that was, “Which Piyali?”

Oh, the embarrassment!!! I felt a flush of warmth creeping upon my face as shame swept over me. He didn’t remember me! I wanted to hang up immediately, instead I calmly mentioned I was Piyali from the ______! My voice didn’t waver but I was close to tears at the humiliation of being so forgettable. He recovered quickly. He even managed enthusiasm in his voice, which he now claims, was genuine. And then dropped the second bomb.

“Do you want me to take you out for dinner sometime?”

Do I want him to???? No I did not. Girls in parochial Kolkata in mid nineties did not go out to dinner with unknown men. All I wanted was to see him again, maybe at the store, in a safe environment, among a lot of people!!! My degradation, at that point, was complete. I politely said, “No thank you. I just called to say hello. You have a good day!”

I was bitterly disappointed but also strangely relieved that I could close that chapter and move on. His interest in me that night meant nothing. The next day, he was back at the store. And the next, and the day after that. He kept coming back. I was thrilled to bits, reveling in all the attention and the cherishing the novelty of knowing a man from a different country.

Then one day he asked me, “So, when are you going to the Book fair with me?” Not “Will you go to the book fair with me” but “When….” I was caught off guard. I couldn’t go out with him. My virtue as a middle class, rule following Bengali woman was at stake if I was seen with a man, a white man at that! Yet, in my heart, I desperately wanted to. I broke the unwritten rules yet again, I gave in. Our first date was the Kolkata Book fair, standing in line to get ticket, walking leisurely to the book stalls, stopping to see the local artists paint pictures, pointing out the ones we liked the best, laughing at our dust laden shoes, talking of our idea of a perfect life partner, telling him I never wish to get married, wishing his wife good luck when he said he wanted six children.

Our courtship was beautiful. Our rendezvous were covert, romantic and thrilling. For the demure, rule follower me, dating was a wild adventure in itself, dating a foreigner was beyond belief. He waited for me in front of the RamKrishna Mission in Golpark, outside my Mass Communication classes, he came by the hotel at night to pick me up and drop me home in his car. We walked along the Lake and the Maidan, we sat by the musical fountains and I talked to him about Rabindra Nath Tagore, sung him a few of my favorite songs. We ate ice cream at Scoops by the river Ganga and watched the sun go down by the Howrah bridge. We soaked in the sight of the pinkish hue of the Victoria memorial as the last rays of Kolkata sun illuminated the splendid marble architecture. Kolkata is a city where I was born, I have many pleasant memories of it. But the streets of Kolkata, that I roamed with the special man by my side will always have a special place in my heart. It was on those streets that we explored each other fully and discovered each other’s thoughts, views, core values. We found commonality and we found differences. We learnt, we grew and we fell in love.

Almost seventeen years and two children later, we are here today. Silver highlights in my black hair, and there is stylish grey around his temples. The love notes that we used to write to each other every day have been replaced by grocery lists, sticky notes saying ‘there is food in the oven’, quick texts saying when the kids need to be picked up and from where. I mourn the loss of the wild rush of the romance of the first few years. What happened to those days of listening to love songs, day dreaming, walking the streets of Kolkata and later Baltimore, endlessly, completely lost in each other, sighing over poetry of Pablo Neruda, candle lit dinners and serenades? G.B Shaw is spot on when he says:

When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. ~G.B. Shaw, Getting Married, 1908.

We did not remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously. Who does, after seventeen years? The most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions have given way to steady rhythm of gentle companionship and a deeper bond of trust, love and understanding. We have both learnt to recognize and appreciate the different manifestations of love that is not limited to love notes, love songs, moon sightings and passionate sighs, but goes way beyond that to make one feel truly cherished.

Some nights I come back home from work to find him fast asleep or semi asleep. I open the refrigerator – my dinner is waiting to be heated up, the dishes are done and the kitchen is sparkly clean. I feel completely loved then – more than love letters, diamond rings or flowers could ever make me feel. I wake up in the morning after a night of snow to find the driveway already shoveled and my car cleaned so I can get out without worries. Most mornings, I feel him covering me up with my kicked away blanket and tucking me in so I can get a few more minutes of sleep as he gets up to do his exercise. In my semi awake state I hear him softly shutting my door and whispering to the children, “Don’t bother mommy. Let her sleep in!” Children, schedules, home works, activities, jobs take up most of our time these days. Mortgage, bills, college funds have replaced thoughts of Neruda, Dali, Simon and Garfunkel. Most days we don’t feel it, yet some days, while taking a hike among nature, when we have a moment to pause and take stock, we look at each other and find fulfillment. We are in it together, we built our life together, creating a family, nurturing our young ones and taking care of each other in sickness and health.

Despite all our responsibilities, I still find time to put my arm in the crook of his elbow when we go for a walk, he still makes me feel like a giggly girl when he flashes a smile and teases, we still banter like we used to which seem very amusing to the children, he still calls me out to show a splendor of nature – like the sunlight creating a rainbow in a spiderweb on the side of our house. I still don’t enjoy any experience to the fullest unless I have shared it with him. It was simply wonderful to be young and recklessly in love. I am so glad we have those memories. But I am indeed glad to grow and mature in this relationship with my spouse where a few stolen moments in the morning before the craziness starts see us through the entire day.

I love being married for all the right reasons. I love the man in my life for the man that he is. I love the feeling of being the only one for him. I also love being married for the reason Rita Rudner says here.

It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life. ~Rita Rudner

Indeed!