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.

It could have been my story…..

It could have been my story but it isn’t because of an accident – the accident of birth. I am going to write a story today. A true story that shook me to the core. This story didn’t make the newspaper but it didn’t stay within the neighborhood where it took place either, it spread word to mouth and it reached me here, in America.

Not too long ago, a young woman, who we shall call Reena, was dreaming of a happy home with a loving husband. She didn’t belong to the emergent middle class in India, she was from the lowest strata, living in a simple home in a slum in Kolkata and dreaming of a simple, but content life with the man she was about to marry. It didn’t work out as she had planned, like it often doesn’t! Her husband didn’t share her dreams and didn’t want to share his life with her either. He drove her away after a few years of marriage. The reason? Who cares about it? She is just a woman and she is absolutely replaceable.

Reena came back home broken, abused. Her family did not welcome her with open arms. Why would they? She was just another mouth to feed and their resources were meagre. She had taken her share of the family inheritance in her dowry. When she returned empty-handed, she found she had no support in anyone or in any form. She was stigmatized since she was returned by her husband. It was her shame, she must have been at fault, of course! One day, during a quarrel, her brother said her life was not worth living. She was a burden to them, she was a burden to the world. The woman was emotionally vulnerable to begin with, she broke down completely and set herself on fire to end it, once and for all.

She couldn’t finish the job that she started though. Neighbors rescued her and took her to the hospital. Instead of succumbing to her injuries, she hung on to life. Reena survived. She walked out of that hospital with a misshapen face, disfigured with horrendous scars. She withdrew within herself, hid in the house for a while, covered her face with the pallu of her sari. But for some strange reason, she rediscovered her will to live again. This experience transformed her…gave her a will to try one more time, to take a shot at life. She didn’t talk to a therapist about it, she barely had two square meals but she must have figured out what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, for she came out of her house swinging, determined to make it!

She was always a hard worker, she started looking for a job as a domestic help. But faced rejection, yet again. People didn’t want to look at a scarred face in their house doing their chores. A retired couple were divided on this issue of hiring Reena. Mrs. Basu wanted to give Reena a job on humanitarian grounds, to give her a chance at life again, while Mr. Basu feared the grandchildren, when they came to visit, will be scared by her. He was sympathetic to what life had dealt her but wasn’t ready to employ her for her deformity.

My India is shining brightly for many. We are hosting the Commonwealth games, beauty pageants, the Formula 1 car racing! It is an exciting time to be in Inda with its trendsetting fashion, booming IT industry, entertainment industry, the telecom industry. The glittering, sparkly malls, the retail therapy that my friends do to pick themselves up when they’ve had a rough day, the big decisions they make whether to buy the Prada handbag, the Jimmy Choo slippers, the latest iPhone or Mac Air. By saying this, I am not passing any judgements on anybody or trying to act holier than thou. If I didn’t dislike shopping with a passion and I had the money, who knows, I would probably do the same! We have been free from the British rule for only 65 years and look where we have come! I applaud the efforts of my country women and men. Hard work, perseverance, grit, determination, talent – a combination of all these have propelled the country forward despite the snail paced bureaucracy and corruption. But there are these pockets of darkness that we need to, yet, illuminate. Many, many good men and women are working hard to make a difference. I have had the good fortune of meeting some of them and seeing the fruits of their effort. While it is certainly encouraging, we still have a long, long way to go. So many women, urban and rural alike are underprivileged, uneducated, and are still at the mercy of societal indifference, neglect and discrimination.

I was discussing the state of women with some Indian friends, while sitting in a beautiful home, eating delicious food, when one of my friends commented that we are not in a position to criticize India. We left the country a while ago and what exactly are we doing to change the situation? We have lost the right to criticize the day we boarded the plane to leave for good. That brought me down from my lofty, all-knowing state and dashed me to harsh reality! My friend was right! It was so easy for me to criticize and point out the problems at a social gathering and then do nothing about it but just return to my comfortable home, to get a good night’s sleep. What a hypocrite!

I couldn’t do a thing to change Reena’s situation but I wanted to try. I spoke to Mr. Basu pleading with him to employ Reena for her skills and not reject her, yet again, this time for the deformity of her face. Children are sensitive, and by giving Reena a job, he can actually set a great example for his grandchildren. This is a perfect opportunity to teach his grandchildren the important lessons of giving a fellow human a chance, to teach them everybody deserves a chance, the lesson of looking deeper for beauty than what is visible to the eye, the lesson of compassion and empathy, the lesson of acceptance of others who may be different! His grandchildren will be enriched by this experience. They will learn from her that if life gives you lemon, make some lemonade. I do believe I have convinced him. I just may have a good night’s sleep tonight.