Sunday, September 19, 2010

Winters And Libraries

What sucks you into the past, drawing you inexorably into a vortex of mismatched memories pulled out of forgotten niches, a patchwork quilt of uneven squares put together effortlessly without your knowledge?

A little while ago, thanks to an untimely power-cut, I ended up on a chair by the open door, reading in the light from the corridor. A familiar fragrance hit me hard- a perfume I've used earlier, I think, but it was so strong and so pervasive that I was rather distracted from my reading, riveting though my book was. It carried the memories of a particular winter when I'd used it, also reminding me of welcome mild sunshine on misty mornings, yellow sun-dappled patches and moving cloud-shadows on rocky hills. Grumble as I might at having to force myself out of the sheets on cold, unforgiving mornings, I love winter.

I have been reading almost all day today, and now I am on the smaller of our two sofas, leaning against one armrest, feet propped up on the other. A chill wind, reminiscent of distant winters, blows in through the wire-mesh across the window. Of the jumble of winters in my head, the one I remember most clearly is that of my last year of school- when I had a complete volume of Sherlock Holmes presented to me (yes, I was quite old by normal standards when I read Arthur Conan Doyle) and I dipped into it, one story a day, eyes straining at the small print, nose burrowed in to take in the intoxicating fragrance of paper and print. I’d run my fingers over the illustrations, feeling the sticky texture of the inky black figures, losing myself in the lamplit fogs of Baker Street and London. I’d pick the stories out by title, trying to guess at their propensity to intrigue and astound. Exoticism helped, of course, and terms like “Greek Interpreter” and “Red-headed League” were met with eager curiosity.

That was a winter when my grandmother stayed with us. For some reason, it stands out in my memory. Was it the happiest winter of my life? I was preparing for my Board Exams then, so it wasn’t a particularly exciting period, but there was the feeling of standing on a threshold, girlish hope meeting serious ambition, the sense of a milestone about to be crossed. I was definitely nervous, but also quietly confident. Yes, I’d like that winter back- life has never been quite the same since then, ever since I finished school and entered the hellhole of Junior College amidst people so parochial they’d give the khaap panchayats a run for their money. And no, there isn’t any flippancy to this statement, because it is true, and I was extremely surprised, that even to this day in India, the girls of a college can be forbidden from standing on a balcony for some fresh air; the boys in the opposite building had full freedom to do as they liked, of course. Wear your dupatta this way so you are properly covered up (a group of seductive temptresses that they considered us); don’t talk to boys (a sure way to have the most serious aspersions cast on our characters); don’t go home even if you are very ill- all that matters to us is that we can use your rank in the entrance examination to rake in the money.

The long hours of grinding notwithstanding, I had to have my books. I’d strain my eyes on the bus to catch those few precious minutes of reading. A break from studies meant going back to Rob Roy’s adventures or Buck’s travails- I loved my books with a fierce intensity then, because they seemed the only thing to look forward in that bleakly competitive period, where people fought for dubious laurels and the only skill respected was that of learning by rote.

There, I’m done ranting. Now for a bit of excitement.

I enrolled with Just Books yesterday, the library in the neighbourhood (and I’ve been living here five whole months!), and came home with a rich bounty. They have almost every book that would, in a bookshop, result in a double-take or a sharp intake of breath when you look at the price tag warily, with one eye open, hoping it won’t cross that Scrooge-worthy budget of yours- because, after all, you are a girl of slender means (thank you, Muriel Spark!). I’ve chosen the option that allows me to order books online and provides home delivery and pick-up, twice a week, and I get to borrow four books at a time. So I have a fleeting feeling this is going to work out more conveniently than it did in Singapore- plus, they have a magnificent collection. There is no cap on the amount of time you can keep the books for (which detail I’m not going to succumb to- I want to get through as much as I can quickly), and one round of cursory browsing has already sent me into a dizzying spell of indecision.

Here is my first reading list:

Disgraced - JM Coetzee (finished in one sitting today, review coming up soon, though I suppose I’ve already dropped a hint now about what I think of it)

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (reading it now, and I think it’s going to be fantastic)

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortensen/David Oliver Relin (Airborne's recommendation, looks promising)

Nine Lives - William Dalrymple (which said Airborne has already staked a claim to, and that I have yielded to him without a murmur of protest- partners-in-crime deserve some gratitude at times)

Whoever says that the Kindle and all other fancy electronic devices spell the destruction of books has his head screwed on in the wrong place.

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