My grandmother was a collector. She collected stamps, coins, postcards, letters, souvenirs, photographs, diaries and books. I was not allowed to touch any of that. At the most, she’d let me play with her jar of coins under supervision. But her books were never off limits. They were mine for the taking. She was an ardent reader. I treasure her massive collection of books. It mostly consists of classics, mystery, fantasy, romance, crime thrillers and philosophy. She stacked her books in a large hidden closet that had a full-sized mirror for a door. That mirror was the rabbit-hole I was so desperately ready to tumble down. She bought books from everywhere – from the airport, the bus stop, the railway station stalls, the posh bookstores… She’d even stop to buy a few from the used book-seller on a bicycle and from the roadside bookwallahs. She was a generous reader too; sharing her books with friends and strangers alike. She never left the house without a book in her bag. She was a gynaecologist and between a crazy day-and-night schedule full of patients and surgeries, she would find time to stand in a corner of the OT and open a random page of The Reader’s Digest to read snippets of this and that, shutting out the noise and hustle around her. I know of times when she managed to read a few pages standing in an overcrowded local train in Mumbai; one hand swinging on the rod above and the other, clutching on to her book tightly.
She brought magazines and comics into my life. Every other day, on her way back from the hospital, she would stop and buy some magazines for herself and comic books for me. Tinkle, Champak, Richie Rich, Amar Chitra Katha, Tin Tin, Panchtantra, Shaktimaan, MAD, Chacha Chaudhary, Spiderman, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Akbar and Birbal and Archie Comics filled my childhood with colour and cartoons. I devoured the books, flipping through pages with wild excitement, as I usually got to read them as an incentive for finishing schoolwork early. Characters like Suppandi, Tenali Raman and Jughead really cracked me up. I read of mythology, history, fables, fairy tales and superheroes. I approached different kinds of comedy with big, bright eyes and a crooked smile – satire, caricature, parody, farce, repartee, slapstick, irony. She’d riddle me often, “Who has a brain sharper than a needle…” I’d cut her off with a silly grin, “… and faster than a super-computer, of course it’s Chacha Chaudhary!”
Seeing her sitting on the floor reading a book, with legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and her back resting in the cozy curve of the couch in the living room was the most familiar and common sight in my house. As her eyes got weary with age and her patience to read the thick novels that she once enjoyed faded, she slowly made a shift to lighter, comic or inspirational literature – short stories, anecdotes, novellas, magazines, poetry. But she never stopped reading.
I don’t remember the instance when my love for books first developed or when my urge to tell a story took form on a paper but as far back as I can recall, I’ve been the happiest when reading or writing. In early school years, the only times I felt genuinely proud, with a sense of accomplishment was when I got an A grade on an English essay or when my poem was published in the school newsletter or when I won a medal for recitation. The only tests I was always gladly prepared for were reading comprehensions, spelling bees, dictation and essay writing. My favourite spot in the entire school was the corner table by the window in the library where I would sneak to, every chance I got. I always carried a book under my arm and often read during classes too. Especially math classes. A teacher once wrote a remark in my annual evaluation report card that said that I had potential and I could do wonders, if only I’d show as much interest in reading textbooks as I did in novels and other books I read for pleasure. I took that as a compliment and went around showing everyone what a wonderful note I got that year.
The only person who was as happy about that remark as I was was my grandmother. When my parents weren’t around, she would have to sign school notes as my guardian. I saw the pride in her smile as she signed that particular report. She gave me a new book that day.
Little did I know then that I’ll read and write for a living. I’ve often wondered if this is what I was really meant to do in life. If this was my calling. Stressful deadlines and lack of inspiration often push my buttons. There were times when other things caught my fancy and I was tempted to take up more lucrative opportunities instead of the low-paying writing jobs that came my way. I did find creative satisfaction in most of the work that I did, but sometimes, that wasn’t enough to go on. Then I’d look at my decked up bookshelf and find immense pleasure in the mere sight of books. The pattern of how everything I ever did through these years led me to books and writing has left a clear trace that makes all the sense in the world. It is a part of me that is intact, solid and unwavering. That is who I am, and this is what I know. Perhaps, this is all I know. And that, it seems, will be enough.
Sometimes, all you need is that proud signature on your report card to keep you going. All you need is a guardian.