As a child, books represented a wondrous world to me. They opened the doors to mystery and imagination. Talking birds, wise elephants, beautiful princesses, brave and adventurous knights, audacious scientists and smart, tenacious detectives. They all beckoned me into an iridescent universe and held my hand as I ventured through dark woods and bright valleys, avoided long serpents and murderous villains, and searched for elusive clues and demure damsels.
I have some charming childhood memories, but none compares in charm or luminosity with my recollection of listening, ensconced in a soft gray-green blanket in mother’s bed, to her dulcet voice reading magical little folk tales of lordly lions and foxy foxes, pompous priests and kind villagers. Or, a little later, my aunt reading heart-rending tales of a hunchback atop an ancient cathedral or a lover braving the guillotine for his unattainable beloved, while my brother and I lounged, raptured, on an aging sofa.
Hence, an unending search for books. My mother recalls jocularly my disheartened remark at the end of a birthday party, “I got only five books as gifts!” Shirts, shoes or sweets did not rank high in my estimation; all I wanted were books and more books.
Father was friendly with the local doctor, and Dr. Bose encouraged us to consult him for any problem. Once I noticed a luscious detective novel on his desk and quickly initiated a conversation on the subject, hoping to borrow it. He ended it quickly, “I never read such books. They are my wife’s obsession.”
In a remarkably lucky break, his wife returned from marketing five minutes later and dropped in to pick up her book, on the way to their apartment a flight of stairs up. The doctor handed her the book and said, “This young man was asking about the book.” As she gave me a quizzical look, I said, “I love detective novels.”
“Really?” she said, “I am crazy about detective fiction. I have a large collection.”
My eyebrows must have lifted in admiration, for she added, “You want to see?”
In the apartment upstairs, the shelves were bulging with books from every author I knew. I went reverentially touching them, opening some, and simply gazing in awe.
“You have a fantastic collection,” I said in genuine appreciation.
Along came the magic words I was longing to hear. “You can borrow some, if you want to.”
That day, and many days after that, I steadfastly borrowed books from her, two or three at a time. In fact, I kept developing coughs, cold and other complaints at regular intervals just to be able to visit the doctor and then make an excuse to visit his wife upstairs. I returned invariably with a handful of books.
Eventually, my diligent pal, Prasanta (who was later to prove his diligence, with a massive and well-regarded biography) and I joined to create a circulating library, with donations from friends and sympathizers, while some acquaintances joined in with a modest membership fee. That library was a life-saver for me: I met book lovers, reading enthusiasts and people who liked talking about stories, poems and ideas.
Doomsayers lament people aren’t reading anymore, newspapers look like cheap tabloids, good magazines wilt and wither. I am still heartened by an afternoon’s memory of eager eyes, plentiful books, earnest talk and sheer, breathless enthusiasm.
Perhaps I am not the only one with an irrational, enduring affair.