“Oh no! That was a library book!”


When I was little, if our feet ever touched a book (or paper, or a musical instrument) we apologized to goddess Saraswati by touching our hand to our heads – a gesture of pranam. Goddess Saraswati was the keeper of education and all forms arts, and the paraphernalia of objects associated with arts were sacrosanct, especially books. We were taught to take care of books so as not to anger the goddess and get bad grades in school. I was very religious and always loved Saraswati with all my heart. Therefore, I was extra cautious about my actions when it came to taking care of reading or writing material. Who wants the wrath of the goddess of learning upon themselves? That could result in bad grades and that meant the wrath of my mother! Before exams, I always prayed hard to her to score brownie points. I would stand in front of her idol, eyes closed, hands folded in front of me – a picture of utter devotion. I took very good care of all my books and papers, partly out of fear but mostly out of love for this beautiful, serene, white saree clad goddess. My mother, who was not remotely religious, continued with the story of goddess and books to nurture my good habit. Whatever works, right?

By the time Saraswati ceased to be real for me, an innate respect for books and good maintenance of them had been well cultivated within me. To this day, I have a soft corner for this particular goddess of learning who is constantly overshadowed by her sister Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. And in a strange way, I feel I chose her in my life by finding a job at the library. Let’s face it, I am never getting rich working there.  And I say rich in a materialistic sense, of course. Lakshmi figured out my partiality to her sister and turned her face away.

I have tried my best to cultivate a healthy respect for books in my two children. Books are important and maintaining them well is necessary. I borrowed library books for them since they were very little. We came home, counted the books each had and placed them on a shelf where only library books could stay. Pages were not to be dog eared, they could not be upended, drinks and food had to be carefully consumed near library books and they had to be returned on time. The rules were clear. If they lost a book, they were responsible for paying for it. Needless to say, not one book has been lost so far.

When Ryan was around 4 years old, a dear friend came to visit us. Ryan instantly took a liking to him and stuck to him like glue. After playing baseball, after bonking our friend on the head with an accidental wild throw, after running around in the yard, after talking incessantly, Ryan brought him a book to read aloud. I forget what book it was, but I remember it had a dragon in it who was causing all sorts of trouble. As each page was read, Ryan got more and more involved in the story –  eyes wide, mouth open. After several misdeeds, the dragon lastly breathed fire and made a hole in the page. The story ended. And Ryan cried out:

Oh no! He made a whole in the page??? BUT THAT WAS A LIBRARY BOOK!!!!!!

An Immigrant and Carl


I was fresh off the boat those days when I landed a job in a downtown hotel as a Select Guest coordinator. New marriage, new job, new country – life, then, was a little overwhelming, very exciting and full of hope. I was trying to understand this new country – its culture, tradition and most importantly, the accent. There were many ‘aha’ moments and then there were ‘oh my goodness, is that true?’ moments. At work I was somewhat of a novelty. In the mid nineties, I was the only Indian in that company so the questions I got ranged from ‘did you go to school on an elephant?’ to ‘are you an Indian princess?’ to ‘are you so quiet because if you talked loudly the tigers will come and get you in your country?’ (yes, I have been asked this question in complete seriousness. And yes, I used to be very quiet once upon a time, mainly because I did not understand what people were saying, the accent, you see!)

They were days when I looked down upon unfamiliar American sports and considered baseball as a poor cousin of the king of sports, cricket and considered American football bestial. Sean tried a few times to expound the virtues of baseball (faster than cricket) and of his team Red Sox but I argued relentlessly to prove him wrong. He made fun of cricket and I made fun of baseball.

As a Guest Coordinator, I had to attend meetings every morning with the Assistant General Manager of the hotel along with the heads of reservation, front desk, hospitality etc. One time, the hotel was hosting a big event where love and pride of Maryland, the star baseball player of the state was going to feature. So at the meeting, I said, “So when Carl Ripken arrives….”. I was cut off quite rudely as the room erupted in laughter. There were loud guffaws all around me. I looked at them puzzled. What caused this eye watering mirth? The Assistant GM said, “What did you say? Carl Ripken? Hahahahaha. Guys, we have to take her to a ball game. We need to educate her in baseball! It is our responsibility!” More hahahahahas followed. I was still puzzled. “What is so FUNNY?” The head of Reservations was a very nice woman who finally wiped her tears and said, “His name is CAL Ripken and he is a legend in these parts!”

See, growing up in a country which was under British rule for many, many years, I knew the language relatively well and I was certainly familiar with names like Tom, Dick, Harry, John, Johnathan, Carl, Bill, William, even Julian (Enid Blyton, Famous Five, in case you are wondering). I was not aware someone could be named Cal. I thought my American mates said Cal but they just pronounced Carl in a different way than I did. And yes, I perhaps never encountered Ripken’s name in written words. There are many excuses I can provide but the bottom line is, I never lived down that story during the time that I worked at that hotel. I was often the target of a friendly banter about ‘Carl’ Ripken.

Cal Ripken is coming to my library for a book talk. I have a baseball crazy almost 11-year-old, who has read Cal’s books and would dearly love to see this legend and perhaps shake his hand, if he is allowed. The tickets to that event sold out in four minutes and I could not get him a seat. His face fell when I told him that. Now our only hope is to try to buy a book and see if he can get a picture with Cal. In between calling the library to secure a spot and trying online, I remembered this story from the past when I did not even know the name of this man at one point. And here I am, getting excited that he will use a room close to my office as his green room before he talks about his book, and I may get a glimpse of him. I have indeed come a long way!

I don’t think about it often, after living in this country for so long, but I realized yesterday what a daunting task it is for immigrants to any country to learn whatever they can about the cultural, social and political history of the land they have emigrated to. The venture is exciting, enlightening and yes, overwhelming.

Just another day at the library.


I was sitting up at the kiosk, looking at the book presentation that I have to do next week when a man came up to me holding his library card up.

Man: I want to sign up please.

Since he already had a library card, I knew he was not talking of signing up for one of those. I was confused.

Me: Sign up for what, sir?

Man (impatiently): Sign up for a computer!!

I smiled and said, ‘Oh, you don’t need your library card to use our computers. Just choose one and start working!’

He stared at me for full five seconds and then said, ‘Your computers don’t work, do they?’

I was, naturally, taken aback by this presumption.

‘They work fine sir. Just choose anyone.’

It was morning hours and the library was relatively empty. Just a handful of customers were using the computers.

He walked over to one, and as he pulled the chair to sit down, he said in a loud voice, ‘You are shitting me! Your computers don’t work!’

I turned towards him again and assured him in a most pleasant voice that they do work and he should try to use one.

He pushed the chair back in loudly, walked towards the elevator and told me loudly, ‘I am going to __________ County library, where the computers actually work!!!!’

All I could do was stare at his receding back dumbfounded.

I felt a surge of anger at the unfairness which was promptly replaced by hilarity as I shared the story with my coworkers.

Later, I thought from his perspective. Experience must have taught him nothing is free in life. If you are offered free service, it must not be just that good.

I wish he had given our free service a chance 🙂 ! But…..oh well!

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.

Teen 2.0


I am attending a training for my work. It, sometimes, is waking me up at night. The work is not difficult, it is simply intense. Yet as I turn on the computer, all I want to do is write blogs. So, instead of working on Young Adult’s readers advisory, I am writing a blog about it.

Me: Sahana, I am going to interview you for one of my classes.

Dying pterodactyl groan accompanied with a word I understand: Why???

Me: Because you are a teen and I need to interview a teen who reads and uses the library. You fit the bill.

Sahana: Yes, but I am not your average teen. I will give you deep answers.

Me: How are you not an average teen? What is an average teen anyway?

Sahana: I am just better than your average teen. I have maturity, common sense and lucid moments. Your average teen does not have those.

Me: Do you think you also suffer from the sin of hubris?

Sahana: Nope, I just say it straight. It is what it is. I am not an average teen. I am Teen 2.0. You know? The upgraded version!

My sweet little teen did not realize how very ‘teenagerish’ she sounded in that entire conversation! I was making marinara sauce in the kitchen for dinner. I did not even feel the burn of an errant spot of hot sauce on my hand, I was chuckling so hard. Silently, of course!

🙂

I need some madness.


I hear Midterm madness. At least, that is what the High school teachers are calling these exams. I am getting urgent emails from teachers about study guides being posted on the particular teachers’ pages, I receive invitations to attend meetings about mid term madness. I sign up students to use the study rooms at the library where I work, I help students look up books, resources for the subjects they are studying, I politely ask students not to block the isles with their laptops and books, where they have set camp since all the study rooms at the library are booked. There is a constant stream of students at the library, hard at work. I hear snatches of conversation, ‘dude that is not the component, look…’. ‘No, we have to balance the equation here…’! I look around and see preparation for battle. Battling mid terms.

But my house, where a participant of mid term madness resides, is a picture of tranquility. It is like that beer commercial which urges you to “find your beach” amidst the madness of life. My daughter has found her beach! There is no anxiety, no studying, no rush. There is, however, sleeping in, lounging leisurely in pajamas, waiting for breakfast, playing with Sage, bickering with brother, reading Sherlock Holmes and after half the day is done, retiring to her room with the iPad. The iPad, I am told, is necessary for reviewing. The music plays. As I turn it off, I am told, music is necessary for math. I leave the room in a huff!

I had read an amusing anecdote by one of my favorite authors, Nabonita Debsen, where Dr. Debsen, talks about her elder daughter preparing for her school final examinations. The story was written from a harried mother’s point of view who is appalled by the nonchalance of her teenage daughter before her important exam. I seem to be living that story.

I have lost count of the number of times I have reminded my high schooler, ‘Sahanaaaaaa!!! Mid terms!!!’

‘Yeah, I know!’

‘And?’ I leave an open-ended question.

She turns her beautiful face towards me and says, ‘I got this.’

I believe in that style of parenting where I vow not to nag and let her take the fall….if there is one. So I clamp down my lips and don’t let the lecture spill out that is so ready to not merely spill, but burst forth. I walk away, bursting at the seams with unspent anger and fury and gnash my teeth.

This ‘not to nag’ doesn’t come naturally to me, I have to work at it. Like most women my age, I am becoming my mother, for the better or worse. I still remember my mother’s shrill voice, ‘Porte bosho! Dudin baade porikkha’ (Go study, your exam is around the corner)! I remember the sleepless nights, the red eyes, the last minute cramming, the discussion with friends, the shared excitement of “oh I am so scared!”

The morning of the first exam, I wake up early to see her off to school. Her face looks pale.

‘I am nervous.’ She says.

I gulp down all my anxiety, bitter words, ‘told you so’s.

‘You will be fine. Just try your best. That is all you can do!’ I send her off.

My day in 2013.


Trust me, I feel lucky to be alive every day, but then there are days when I take a deep breath, look at the brilliant blue sky and the bright sunshine, I see the fresh green of the leaves and feel the gentle breeze on my face and say in my head, “Man, I am happy to be alive!” Mother’s Day was one such. After gloomy, rainy Friday and Saturday, when I kept my spirits up by constantly chanting, “Self, remember, all this rain is good for the plants. NOW REPEAT’ Sunday dawned bright and gorgeous. Nature smiled and hopefully so did most mothers and mother figures as they woke up to hand made cards, hugs and wishes of Happy Mother’s Day.

I was requested previous night and then threatened that I should stay in my room till at least 7.00 am. I tried to remind the children it was a Sunday and there was absolutely no need for anybody to get up that early. But 7:00 am it was, they had it planned and they were not flexible.

I heard the alarm ring at Sahana’s room at 6:30 am and groaned. I was awake and a captive in my bed. I heard the little brother being woken up. I heard the clash and clang in the kitchen. I flinched at the thought of the mess being made, even though I promised not to sweat the small things at least for a day. I tossed and turned and watched the minute hand drag. Finally, the door creaked open. The boy poked his head to see if I was asleep. He tiptoed over to say a quiet good morning and then seeing my eyes open climbed on to bed to snuggle.

I was invited to the kitchen table and saw this

IMG_8940

Sahana and Ryan stood next to it with brilliant smiles. I have to say my eyes glanced over at the kitchen, smile didn’t waver though. Seeing no imminent disaster, I inwardly sighed a sigh of relief. Cards were opened and read, kisses were exchanged, hugs were given. When I discovered my gift, the first realization dawned. The gifts were four packets of seeds. Two of them basil, which I love, one parsley and one sunflower. They explained the symbolism to me.

“We see you as the gardener, Mom, helping us grow. Nurturing us with your love. So we thought seeds would be a good gift. Also, it is spring, we should start planting!”

I smiled at the thoughtfulness of the gift. The morning was getting better and better. Breakfast was eaten. From my previous experiences of mother’s day breakfasts, I was ready for some crunchy egg shells in my fried eggs. I was also ready to take it in my stride and keep the expression unchanged and chew on bravely. The egg shells were absent. I, then, realized I have an almost fourteen year old in my house who is slowly becoming a competent chef. That was the second realization. Both of my children were growing up. The hand made cards are not mere scribbles but actual thoughts. The hand made gift didn’t quite carry the mark of an amateur any more.

But then things didn’t go as planned. The teenager who has to get up at the crack of dawn every day to catch the bus was irritable due to lack of sleep. Arguments began, and they were sent to their rooms. I went to the kitchen to clean up, only to discover that the dishwasher had been unloaded and the kitchen already cleaned up. The stony heart melted a bit and I went back to find them. Sahana was back in bed, fast asleep. Ryan was lying on the couch with a book. I called MY mother to tell her how much I love her and how much I miss her in my day to day life.

While Sahana slept most of the morning, Ryan and I took a long, leisurely walk with Sage. We held hands and tried solving all kinds of problems so the world would become a more wonderful place than it already is. We talked, also, about fantastic things like eating healthy and exercising. Ryan’s reason for doing so is somewhat different than mine. He wants a prospective wife to check him out at some point. I said eating healthy should be about keeping your health good. To that, he dismissively said, “Oh yeah! That too!”

We planted the seeds and tangled with Sage in the yard while Sahana slept on. I tried to figure out her logic of making me breakfast at 7:00 am and then sleeping the entire day. But who said teenagers were logical? She finally woke up around lunch time. I ended up making their favorite lunch, I ended up taking Sahana to the library to work on her project, I ended up taking Ryan to his baseball game, and then finally, I ended up making dinner for all.

In every way, the day was business as usual, except the morning celebration. But then again, it wasn’t. The unexpected hugs by both the kids made it different, the beautiful note that my husband sent me from a far away land made it different, the runner duo who we met on our walk wishing me ‘happy mother’s day’ as they ran by us made it different, the gorgeous sky, bright sunshine, birds chirping on the trees made it different. As I high fived Ryan on his brilliant catch and double play in his baseball game, he nodded shyly and said, “That was for you mom. Happy Mother’s Day!” That made it very different. I came home with a heart full of happy songs.

I was a library grandparent once.


I was at our local library talking to the volunteer coordinator about my volunteer application. She looked at it and turned to me and said, ‘We need a few library grandparents, would you be interested in something like that?’

‘What exactly does a library grandparent do?’ I asked, bewildered.

‘You will read to the children!’

Yes, I would love to read to the children but being a library grandparent didn’t seem that grand to me. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a grandparent….one day! Maybe, twenty years from now! Sahana, are you reading this? Anyway, to show I wasn’t really that old, I said, ‘I can only volunteer during the morning hours since that is the time my son is in PRESCHOOL!

Lady, my son goes to preschool, I am the mother of a preschooler, don’t make me a library grandparent!!! The sweet woman was very accommodating. She figured out a time that fit my schedule, smiled, thanked me for being a library grandparent and sent me on my way.

That evening at dinner table I proudly told the family that I will be volunteering at the library once a week. They said awesome, what will I be doing. ‘I am a library grandparent!’ ‘You are what??? Hahahahaha! A grandparent?’

The day I went to volunteer, the coordinator took me to the librarian in the children’s section and introduced me as ‘This is Piyali, she is our new library grandparent!’ The children’s librarian looked at me, chuckled and said, ‘She doesn’t look like a grandparent to me, may be we should call her something else?’ Thank you!!! But the coordinator had better things to do than get into the nitty-gritty of names. What’s in a name anyway? So there I was, serving the community as a library grandparent for two years.

I loved being the reader in the library. I took my book and read quietly on a rocking chair till I felt a little presence by my side. It was fun to watch the different personalities of children. There were the outgoing ones who brought the books of their choice to me and wanted me to read them, then there were the shy ones, who wanted to hear a story yet didn’t want to make the first move. At first, I asked them if they wanted to listen to a story, some said yes and came to me, others said no, yet stayed close by. I picked up a book from the table turned the pages and started a soliloquy about the illustrations, characters, words, colors. Slowly, I felt the little body sliding closer to me, I didn’t make eye contact but kept looking at the pictures and talking about them, when the child was next to me looking at the pictures, I went to the first page and started reading the story, he or she stayed. The parents gave me a grateful smile and wandered around looking for books or sat nearby, taking a break.

The biggest perk of being the library grandparent was bumping into my library grandchildren in stores and supermarkets. Familiar faces came up to me to say hello. I, of course, with my swiss cheese brain couldn’t place the faces till they reminded me I read to their children. It definitely made standing at the check out counter in the supermarket a little sweeter when people came up and told me that their child would like to come back for more book reading, which day did I  read at the library.

Now I work (read volunteer) behind the scenes in our new, swanky library. For company, I have a staff member and a scary, loud machine that spits books into different bins to be sorted and interfiled. It often shrieks “System Jammed” in a mechanical voice (oh, yes, it is a machine) till somebody flicks a switch. I am surrounded by books and the smell of books, I get the first pick as well. This job has its own perks. I am learning a new skill and developing a renewed respect for librarians. I had no idea so much work goes in to provide us with shelves full of lovely, wonderful books. Love that. But I do miss my library grandchildren.

Eventually they changed my name or designation from “Library grandparent” to Guest reader. How boring!

Can’t end this post without a bow to my man, Ben Franklin. Ben, you are “The man!” Thank you for creating the first free libraries in the U S of A. I fell in love the day I walked into the Enoch Pratt free library in Charm city and the love saga continues!