A friend shared this beautiful quote with me, which I promptly shared with my book loving daughter, as well as my book loving friend:
“There is space on everyone’s bookshelf for book you have outgrown but can’t give away. They hold your youth between their pages, like flowers pressed on a half-forgotten summer’s day.”
I left my country for love with simply the clothes on my back and just a couple of books that I could not leave behind. And then, I brought back books after each trip home. I think hard on which books made the first trip with me, but unfortunately I don’t remember. They are mixed in with all the books that I have accumulated over the years. I wish I could remember.
However, I have brought back books that transported me to their worlds temporarily during half forgotten summer days in my youth. Books like Adorsho Hindu Hotel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay holds my youth within its page. Tenida Shomogro by Narayan Gangopadhyay holds my youth like pressed flowers within its pages. There are too many to name – Chander pahar, any book written by Nabonita Debsen, Shirshendu Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Ashapurna Debi. Along with these stalwarts of Bengali literature reside one and only Jane Austen, Gerald Durrell, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton….
Memories of devouring the pages of Adorsho Hindu Hotel is always a soft place where I land when I think back on my reading memories. I remember our cool first floor room darkened by thick curtains to keep the angry sun out during summer afternoons, and I, half inclined on our bed, reading about Hajari Thakur, a cook in a cheap roadside restaurant in rural Bengal – a man invisible to society due to his poverty, slowly becoming visible because of his humility, work ethic and integrity. It is a story of the success of ‘everyman’ without compromising his ethics. Weaved within the story is the fabric of humanity, complete with love, greed, exploitation and opportunities. The story pulls at my heart string to this day when I think about it. And when I think about the book, I think about my mother. They are synonymous because in my mind’s eye she is always present next to me when I am reading this book. She reads her own book as I read mine. I see this scene vividly when I close my eyes.
I did not ever think, as I was growing up in hot and humid Kolkata, that I would look forward to summer. Due to strange twist of fate, life brought me to a land where many of us get through winter with the hope of sunny days in the horizon. In Kolkata, we looked forward to the winters because out of 12 months, 11 were hot and humid with some respite brought on by monsoons. Perhaps this is old age, perhaps this is because I am physically far away from the discomfort but I was reminiscing about my summer afternoons as a child. I hear from Khushi’s mom that it is more and more difficult to make Khushi take a nap during the hottest part of the day. Her mother, after working hard in the morning, lies down for a well deserved siesta but for a little girl, that is sheer waste of time. I know. I was that little girl once.
The norm was to take a nap in the afternoons when the sun was at its hottest. Only stray dogs roamed the streets, looking for shade along with an erstwhile beggar or vagabond. Peddlers still walked the streets with their ware, offering to refill our mattresses, selling fruits or pushing an ice cream cart. I lay down next to my mother against my will, fidgeted, got scolded, tried to lie still after and then invariably and stealthily tiptoed out of the dark and cool room to read a book. Those afternoons belonged to Noddy or The Secret Seven or Thakurma r Jhuli. The colorful pages of Amar Chitra Kathas took me back in the world of myths so I could watch Krishna kill the snake Kaliya or Ganesh defy his father, Shiva, to protect his mother’s privacy. Those afternoons were for time travels. Those were the times when a little girl living in the congested city of Kolkata went to country side of England and adventured with George, her dog Timothy, and her cousins, or in New England where Jo vowed never to marry and Beth played the piano as Marmee went out to help the community and share their Christmas dinner. Those summer afternoons were magical till mother woke up and chastised for not taking an afternoon nap. After siesta, it was teatime for grown ups, and dreaded glass of milk for me.
I hear Khushi tiptoes out from her mother’s side, after her mother falls asleep to find my father, her dadai (grandfather), and complain to him about the gross injustice of having to sleep in the afternoon when she is not sleepy at all. And my father totally agrees that grown ups are no fun whatsoever. With his approval she quietly loses herself in the imaginary world in her head. She sings and converses, she sometimes dances and smiles. She knows when her mother wakes up and scolds her for not napping, she will have an ally in her dadai, her adopted grandfather.
I smile as I hear this. History repeats itself.