Book Evangelist


In this blog I will write about my two annoying habits. I am living the age old adage, ‘old habits die hard’ but I am making an effort to change – at least one of them. I will start with the one I am unwilling to change.

The first habit (or perk) is my obsession for checking out books from the library. For my work, I subscribe to different publication houses and I also do a fair amount of handling books – shelving, pulling for requests, scanning. Yes, you guessed it, I work at a library. As I shelve a cart, at least 3 or 4 books from that cart end up coming home with me. Do I have time to read all of them? Nope! But the possibility of perhaps having the time to read them is wonderful. Then after 3 weeks when I cannot fit any more books on my book shelf designated to library books or my bedside table, or the coffee table in the living room, I put some unread books in my work bag, go to work and sadly check them in. I have analyzed this habit and I have decided it is an addiction. An addiction for which I will seek no help. I will live in that wondrous possibility of being able to read all those books that I bring home – one day.

The second annoying habit is showing my disappointment on my face when someone does not share the same enthusiasm for a book that took my breath away. I do quite a bit of reader’s advisory for work and also outside of work. I give completely unsolicited book recommendations to folks who have not even asked for suggestions. If I have read one of THOSE books (you know what I am talking about, the books that you cannot stop thinking about), I make Facebook posts about them. Talking about books and sharing book suggestions is my way of connecting with fellow humans. If you don’t read, I am sorry, are you even worth connecting with? Just joking!!

When I was young and naïve, this is how my reader’s advisory played out. I would swoop down on an unsuspecting victim, start talking about the amazing book that I just finished, gush, gush, gush. I would talk up the book so much, the victim would often times read the book just to shut me up. The next time we met, I would ignore the victim’s shifty eyes, not question why s/he was not making eye contact with me but delve right in, “So what did you think?” I would also have a wide smile and expectant eyes. Most folks would simply say it was good (many would have loved it as much as I did) but of course some did not love the book at all. And they would say to me. “It was okay. I did not love it!” Before I became conscious of my annoying habit, I know I showed my feelings on my face. The judgement on my face was evident. You did not love the book I adored? That is it! I am judging you.

I spoke sternly to myself about this as part of my personal growth. Not everyone likes the genres I enjoy, not everyone relates to the story/facts the same way I do, not everyone interprets/perceives the events in the book like I do. And that is completely fine. I loved the book. That should be enough. I do not need to be a book evangelist.

So I want to apologize to all those folks who have been subjected to my judgement because you did not share the same enthusiasm as I did about a certain book. I still love you. We are still friends.

Here are a few (very few) titles that took my breath away. I am not evangelizing mind you, I am simply giving suggestions, and yes, unsolicitated.

The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman

Once Upon a River by Dianne Setterfield

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

I will stop here…… for today.

Pilgrimage, no less…


A happy coincidence occurred in my life recently. My friend’s daughter sent me a questionnaire for her summer holiday project. One of the questions was ‘Name five people who have influenced you and why!’ I didn’t have to think much when I wrote the name of my class teacher. One of those five people, who has been most influential in my life is my class teacher of 5 years, Miss______. Guiding and inspiring a class full of hormone imbalanced teenagers must not have been easy, but Miss (that is what we called our teachers in India) did it with an ease which amazes me now.

A few days after writing the answers to the questionnaire set by my friend’s daughter, I found my teacher back in my life after 23 years, thanks to Facebook and efforts of a very dear girlhood friend, who kept on searching for her. Her efforts paid off, Ms _____ was found. We were told in her excited status update, to send in friend requests. After my initial doubt of is she the real one, I sent in a request and got accepted as her friend right away. From student to friend. Life has come to a full circle. I have grown up! I instantly wrote to her as I excitedly told my family,

‘I can’t believe it, I found my teacher on Facebook. I am messaging her right now! This is surreal!’ Yes, I am one of those people who overuses the term surreal.

Her influence in my life has been twofold. The first one being that of what educators dream of – instill the love of learning. She ignited in me the love for languages. She taught us Bengali for five straight years, and in those five years she held open the door of Bengali literature for me. I peered in and saw the treasure. And then there was that point of no return. She let my imagination soar, she waved the magic wand and opened my blind eyes so I could immerse myself in the prose and poetry of Bengali literary stalwarts. She taught me to think on my own, she gently let go of my hands, stood back and watched as I took hesitant steps towards appreciating literature. Appreciation of literature transcends language barrier. Love of Bengali literature paved way for love of English literature and translations of literature in other languages. She taught me to express my ideas coherently while writing. Well expressed ideas got kudos, a satisfied smile and a nod of the head. Badly written assignments got this rebuke,

‘Eki mudir dokan er bhasha? ‘ (This type of language belongs to grocery stores)! Why grocery stores? Don’t ask. 🙂 !

Some of the phrases she used for us have become legends in themselves. I will not even try to translate them in English (they were delivered in Bengali, of course) except one. As she asked us Bengali grammar and each of us gave wrong answers and kept standing, she said to us, ‘Bokader jodi kono building thake, tumi tar chile kothay thakbe’ (if there is ever a tall building for fools, you will be given the penthouse suite!) Since 20 of us stood in the class somewhat shame faced at our failure to provide the right answer, this statement caused considerable mirth. But we dared not bring any smile to our lips, so as not to be disciplined further. All the laughter was reserved for after the ringing of the bell. As we filed out into the corridor to go back to our classroom, laughter erupted like a dormant volcano. We imagined 20 skyscrapers of fools built next to each other and all of us looking out of our penthouse suites. It was a collective shame which turned out quite humorous at the end of that period.

Educators have one of the most difficult jobs, I think. They have the responsibility of inciting in their students this love of learning which is (or should be) the primary goal of education. And they have to do this within the strict parameters of set curriculum, standardized testings and the numerous other set of rules that different boards of education dictate for them. Miss had to stay within those parameters, she had to finish the curriculum, despite all the rules, she inculcated in us the love for the language that she taught.

She never had to raise her voice to bring the class under control. Her personality was such that before she entered the class, we sat up straighter, looked attentively towards the front of the class and made ourselves ready to listen and learn. We tried hard for her. I remember, our class got the trophy for being the best class in whole school. I have a proud picture of her holding a trophy with all of us around her, a thin, bespectacled me all the way at the back, peering at the camera. She encouraged us to participate in dramas, public speaking, debates, music. We went out and won inter school competitions in those. She was the wind beneath our sail. She pushed us so we could soar and reach our potentials. I am unsure of how the child psychologists would rate her method of disciplining us, but I, her student, would attribute her disciplining to that what Rabindranath Tagore talks about when he says,

“Shashon kora tarei shaaje
Shohag kore je go”

(The discipline that is infused with love is the best form of discipline)

It certainly worked for us. We felt her love and carried the love with us as we moved on and grew up.

I have so many happy memories of play practices and performances under her leadership. After 23 years, she remembered. Her first lines in my inbox was “Kemon acho? Ekhono natok koro?” (How are you? Do you still act?)

Her one particular advice came back to me after I became a mother and my children started going to school. She had said to us, when we were in eighth grade, ‘Do me a favor. When you are parents and your children go to school, instill in them a love of learning. If family and neighbors worry about the grades they are getting, lock yourselves in a room and throw the key away. Do not participate in the race for good grades but teach them to think for themselves, make sure their curiosity and thirst for true knowledge is satiated.’

Whenever my children truly enjoy a book and excitedly tell me the new information that they learned in school, I see their glowing faces and think of the advice I heard at age 14. I admit I haven’t been able to step out of the race completely, I have partially given in to societal pressure. Yet, I try not to. I try to talk about what went wrong, what they could have done better and most importantly, what did they learn?

All this happened a couple of weeks prior to my short trip to India. And I knew right away that going home would remain incomplete if I didn’t visit Miss. As two of my friends and I rang her doorbell, we became 13-year-old for a few moments, slightly unsure, apprehensive. There she was smiling. Our beloved teacher, now our friend. Three of us went to meet her with our children. The young ones sat silently with a grin on their faces as their mothers dissolved in laughter, again and again. There were, of course, a lot of ‘remember when’s! There were 23 years of life to catch up, so many laughs to laugh, so many memories to remember! My two childhood friends, who went with me to meet Miss are now educators themselves. I sat there quietly listening to them discuss their profession with their teacher, who perhaps, had some influence in their choice of career. They certainly have a wonderful role model to draw inspiration from. As we headed home, my daughter looked at my glowing face. ‘Mom, you are so loved!!’ She said with wonder and admiration in her voice. As I drowned in a beautiful feeling of contentment, I realized I am. I am so blessed to have been loved so.

Now all my visits back home would include a visit with my teacher. It is a pilgrimage, no less. After all, we are ‘her girls’! Every single one of us in that class.

You are weird, I like you!


I wouldn’t dream of generalizing, of course, but can I please say the above lines to all the middle schoolers out there? ‘You are weird, I like you!’

I found this sentence on my thirteen year old daughter’s i Touch welcome page. The conventional me frowned at this and condescendingly shook my head, ‘Kids!’ I patronized.

Weird, in our days, was used mainly as an insult. A brief history of the word ‘weird’, according to Oxford Dictionary is this:

Origin:

Old English wyrd ‘destiny’, of Germanic origin. The adjective (late Middle English) originally meant ‘having the power to control destiny’, and was used especially in the Weird Sisters, originally referring to the Fates, later the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; the latter use gave rise to the sense ‘unearthly’.

The ever evolving language had changed the meaning to the ones we know now – bizarre, odd, something preternatural or supernatural. The teenagers seem to have embraced the original meaning of the word, and are bowing to this power to control fate. They are slowly emerging from the cocoon of their innocent childhood and looking at the huge world around them with a fresh pair of eyes and newly formed sense of self. They are trying to make sense of the chaotic world in their own terms. According to them, the possibilities are endless, they are in charge of their destiny. They are slowly letting go of their parents’ fingers as they test the waters, push the envelope. They believe they have the power to control their fate, they are weird and they like it. At this junction of my life, when I am mostly tired and wilting, I look up to them to draw energy. They are my sunshine, so bright and radiant. I celebrate this age along with the poet Sukanto Bhattacharya

এ বয়স জেনো ভীরু, কাপুরুষ নয়
পথ চলতে এ বয়স যায় না থেমে,
এ বয়সে তাই নেই কোনো সংশয়–
এ দেশের বুকে আঠারো আসুক নেমে।।

E boyesh jeno bhiru, kapurush noy
Poth cholte e boyesh jaye na theme,
E boyeshe tai nei kono shongshoy-
E desher buke atharo ashuk neme.

Unfortunately, I am no translator but the gist of the lines is this:

This age is not one of cowardice,
This age is unstoppable in its pursuit of its dream
This age has no doubt or fear
Let this age bless our country.

Often times, when the children were young, they would pass a judgment on a peer ‘Mom, so and so is so weird’ only to be reprimanded by me, ‘nobody is weird, people can be different and that makes the world so much more exciting.’ The word ‘weird’ was not entertained in our household, precisely because the mother and the father grew up disliking the meaning of the word. It stood against our value of celebrating our differences. It reeked of segregation, disrespect.

But language is called fluid for a reason. My daughter likes someone who is weird. What does the word mean to her? Weird is someone who is non conformist, who thinks outside the box, who pushes the boundaries without hurting others. Weird is the new word for visionary. At this age, teenagers form a band – the band of the misunderstood, the victims of their parent’s persecution and unfair curfews. They break free from what the parents think is normal. Normal is so relative, I am reminded often. Being weird is a good thing, I learn and accept.

I like this weird generation a lot. Yes, despite the eyerolls, the grunts, the exasperated sighs, the trance like state when they are busy communicating virtually, I simply love them. I love the excess of emotions, both tears and laughter, (and yes, there are frustrations sometimes). I love the positivism, the self-reliance, the emerging independence. I love their view of their world. I love their new-found ability to peel off the surface and look beneath for deeper meaning of life, of world. They are vulnerable still, they are still malleable, to some extent, but not for long. They are a work in progress still, but inching closer towards completion.

The poet who I turn to again and again to find a way to express my emotions, Rabindranath Tagore, celebrates the youth with these words; and he too uses the word adbhut, a Bangla word that can be loosely translated to…..wierd!

Amra nutan jouben er i dut
Amra chonchol, amra adbhut.

We are the messenger of New age
We are restless, we are strange;
We are the messenger of Youth.

Strange denoting different. Different is good, different should be revered, celebrated. Isn’t that what we teach our children as well?