Our beloved books
Caught up in the Corona virus lock down in Vadodara, India, I begin to catalogue and rearrange my bookshelf. When I got married seven years ago, my husband and I decided to merge our book collection and since we moved from one place to another, often living in tiny, match-box like apartments, we decided to leave behind our books at his mother’s place.
We have missed our books. Here in our bedroom at my mother-in-law’s place, they surround us, giving our room a personality, a presence. D H Lawrence rests with The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Orphan Pamuk with Ian McEwan. It is as if, our books speak to each other and to us.
While dusting, rearranging and cataloguing our books, I found little nuggets of my past, memories that had gently laid out their wings and were resting between the pages. Especially in books that were gifted.
Here are a few.
Vasilisa the Beautiful – Russian Folk Tales
Dear Prerna, From Manoj uncle, Mala Auntie & Shweta
It says on the page inside.
Manoj Uncle was my father’s student. My father was a professor of paediatrics. He visited us often and always got me a book. Thanks to him, I had a number of hardbound editions of Russian folk and fairy tales. During the 1980s and 90s, Russian literature was widely available in India, and there was also the magazine Misha with its beautiful, colourful illustrations. I really looked forward to Manoj uncle – he also gifted me my first Mills and Boons and this book reminds me of a time in my life when long, summer afternoons were spent reading and napping, with occasional breaks to the kitchen for chilled homemade nimbu paani. We owned a black and white Onida television then, and I spent more time with my books than in front of the telly.
Madhushala – Harivansh Rai Bachchan
I briefly attended an art tutorial class after my class 12 exams. I wanted to appear for the entrance exams to gain entrance to the BA in Fine Arts degree, at the M S University, Baroda. At the art class (it was a two-month long one), I met this guy – he was one of the tutors. He was a Civil Engineering student and a couple of years my senior. I fell for him. And you could tell that I had fallen for him. It was obvious. If there was even the slightest doubt in his mind, it was settled the day I invited him home for lunch and my mother said to him – you must come home every day because that way Prerna will wake up early, venture into the kitchen, and also tidy up her room.
He introduced me to the writings and speeches of Osho (Rajneesh) and Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poetry. He gifted me this particular copy on my birthday, In it, it simply says, 5th June 1998, Dear Prerna – (his name). This book brings memories of a heady time in my life. I was young, absolutely infatuated and poetry appealed to me. Never much of a reader of Hindi literature or poetry, I was grateful that I had this copy. How do I remember this time of my life? I remember myself as young and a bit gawky, and encountering one of the more serious infatuations of my life.
Maximum City – Bombay lost & found – Suketu Mehta
For Prerna (Pesky) – A city without layers is always non-exciting. But Mubai is always as exciting as you are. There’s always a story to tell about you. Love – lots. Deepika (Duskydi), Vadodara, 13th Dec, 08.Deepika Sahu
Reads the inscription.
Deepika was my senior at The Times of India. When I first met her, I was still studying for my course in journalism, and I had been to The Times of India office to interview some women journalists as a part of my dissertation. I remember her wild curly hair, her easy laughter. She answered my questions, helped me source a book and was very helpful. Later, when I joined The Times of India, I worked under and with her.
We soon became very good friends. I was, in her words, ‘a teapot’ when I first joined the features department of the newspaper. I wore long-sleeved kurtas, oiled my hair, was easily scandalised, and coming from a sheltered, middle-class, only-child-of-the-house background, was sometimes in tears when I got a scolding from my editor. She came to my hometown in Vadodara, took me home to her apartment in Ahmedabad. Fed me, was fed by my mother.
It is a friendship that has endured since 2002. She has given me many books, time and again. But Maximum City was to be the one that played a bigger role in my life and about that you will know, dear reader, when you get to the end.
An Equal Music – Vikram Seth
Inscription on page 1Prerna Shah
14th May 2005
There goes a Pantaloons top
and a leather purse
But, oh the pleasures of buying a book.
Inscription on page 2Vikram Seth
With all good wishes for a new leather purse
So when I was younger, I wrote sheepish little lines on the first page of a book when I bought it. I remember I was saving up some money for a new top, and a purse when I decided that these could wait and went ahead and bought a few books instead. An Equal Music was one of them.
I absolutely loved Vikram Seth. I also wanted to marry him. After I realised that I couldn’t, my love for his work remained by my side like a constant, comforting companion. So when I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2009, all I wanted to do was to be able to meet Seth and to have word with him and get my copy autographed. I did manage to speak to him, I could also, to my utter delight, be seated next to him during the course of a talk (he was in the audience for that one). I could ask him questions about the ending of A Suitable Boy, about the illness that plagued Kabir’s mother in the novel and a lot of other things. Afterwards, I asked him if I could get my copy autographed. I hoped he wouldn’t read my foolish, cheesy, inscription. He did. He asked me if my sacrifices of forgoing clothes and a purse were worth it? I laughed and said yes. When he returned the copy to me, he inscribed the above mentioned lines.
This book brings memories of Jaipur – a golden, never getting dull sun, the lawns at the Diggi Palace, of the fresh fruits that my professor Susan Bhatt would bring back from her morning walks, the folk singers that sang at the literature festival… And a man that I couldn’t marry but will love forever!
The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
There’s no inscription on this book, but it was given to me by someone whom I dated long distance. This book makes me uneasy. Because our relationship, even though, long distance, was rocky and when I look back, I think I could have done better – at least in some areas.
When I met him, he told me that he was bipolar. I remember I was so ill informed at that time that I first mistook it as being bifocal, as in, someone who needed bifocal lenses. No, no, he said, that’s different. It was very foolish of me because as a literature student, I should have surely known what bipolar meant. I had studied Virginia Woolf during my graduate years and I did know a bit about the works of Sylvia Plath as well. How could I not know what bipolar was?
In hindsight, I felt that I could have been more sensitive, especially when he shared his journey in detail with me – from the time of his first episode to how it all affected his life thereafter. This copy is a reminder to me, of my immaturity and of a time in my life, where I could and should have conducted myself with more empathy and understanding.
A Wild Sheep Chase – Murakami
Now this book doesn’t really have an inscription, or a note. But the memories this one stirs up are from the time I first met my husband. We had been corresponding with each other for over a year. Chiefly over emails, and google chat. There had been one brief phone call and we had never seen each other in person.
The day we met, he came to pick me up at my place. He borrowed a book from my bookcase. It was Maximum City. At that point in the afternoon, I did not know if I was going to see him again, least of all marry him. And the book he borrowed from me was a gift. I did not want to lose it. So he offered to give me one of his, as a sort of surety – that his book would be mine for keeping, until he returned the one he had borrowed from me. We went to his place and he asked if I would like to read Murakami? I had never read one before and so I said yes.
At the end of that evening, no, actually, midnight, we decided to get married. We got engaged in two weeks. In In four months we were married. Our bookshelves merged. I didn’t have to worry about him vanishing with my Maximum City. His Murakami was safe with me too. There were no books that we needed to chase.
Here are some of my memories. I still need to go back and work on our bookcase. The memories have been in hibernation for so long now. I need to dust out their sleep.