Books as the last refuge.

When I’m at home you’re most likely to find me sitting on a sofa in a windowless room in my basement, barricaded behind shelves and stacks of books. This is my refuge. This is where I come after fighting against the world. Without knowing it, in this respect I’ve turned into my father. He had set up part of the house where I grew as a personal library.

Many of the conversations with my father that I remember most vividly were around books– not only their content, but in which distant city he had bought them and for how much; the marginalia and the editions. I never had much small talk with him. But he would share his excitement whenever he found a rare book. He was a consummate collector and a voracious reader, up most nights reading.

As my father got older, his eyesight began to fail him. He would keep a magnifying glass on his table next to the table lamp. His recurring nightmare was no one would take care of his books. This was his “Après moi, le déluge“. I brought over to the United States some of the books he had collected- the moth-eaten copy of Tagore’s “Hungry Stones” he won as a prize in school, the yellow-paged “Kobita Shomogro” of Bishnu Dey he bought from the Kolkata Book Fair.

Instinctively, I understood. When my basement flooded a few years ago, my first concern was “what will happen to my books?” Fortunately, the damage was minimal, though the concern remains.

What is a home anyway? Home where your books are safe and have space. Home is the permanent address for your books.

When I visit the house where I grew up, I still find my bearings. The books on the shelf are exactly as I had placed them decades ago, their pages slightly dusty and worn. And it is comforting. In a world where nothing exists and no one can be relied on anymore, books offer a sense of security and escape, false perhaps, but much needed.

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Oh, the luxuries of traveling by car!

Travel by car is relatively comfortable in India these days. The roads are improved and the cars are modern. That was not always the case, and certainly not when I was growing up. There were two kinds of cars- the Hindustan Motors Ambassador and the Premier Padmini- and neither had been updated with creature comforts in decades. The seats were reasonably utilitarian but sofa-like. But you hardly ever enjoyed the seats. The cars were always loaded with more people than there were seats, so you sat on someone’s lap or someone sat on yours. Few cars had air-conditioning. No matter. We were all lucky when we were in a car instead of inside an infernally hot and crowded local bus.

Of course, there was no certainty in traveling by car back then. Hovering over your head to be uttered by the driver at any time were the three magic words- “gaari jabe na” (car won’t go). There was never any point asking why. It could be any number of reasons. Maybe the shoddy car had lost a part on the road. Or maybe the car had overheated. Or maybe the road had washed away in the rain. Or perhaps the road never actually existed anywhere except in someone’s imagination. It was something you accepted as an Absolute Truth.

If the car did go, you could not take for granted that you would arrive where you wanted to when you wanted to, since you were completely at the mercy of the driver. No Indian man has ever admitted that he does not know the way to get somewhere. The driver is too proud, and the villager is too keen to not offend. If the driver stops to get information, it is rarely reliable. Left may be right. Five minutes may be fifty. Time and space are elastic concepts in the expansive worldview of my people.

Just like the parable of blind men describing an elephant, you could ask five people for directions to a place and get five different answers. It does not really matter that that none of them know the answer or have been there: one had heard that the road was closed. Another had heard of dacoits stopping people. Yet another has heard about a new bypass. Someone else might stop you with a log across the road until you pay up for the local puja. Destination? What is a destination? Everything is maya.

Drivers also made it a habit of not telling you about problems with cars, or when they were running critically fumes until it was too late to do anything. I remember one time I was riding in an Ambassador that was so low on fuel that it stopped mid-river on a wood and bamboo fair-weather bridge. We had to gather villagers to help us push the car across the bridge- which fortunately did not collapse under the weight of the car and the mob pushing it- after which went then went with jerry-cans to fetch petrol.

Time was a flexible concept also. One time, we were going to a wedding in Kharagpur. As we arrived at the destination, we realized that we had arrived before the bridegroom and his party. There was a jubilant mob that approached up with “bor esheche! bor esheche!” (The bridegroom has arrived! The bridegroom has arrived). Thinking on his feet, my father immediately summoned us to get in the car and barked at the driver to drive off. Running a recon mission later, from a distance, once we observed that the actual bridegroom’s retinue had indeed arrived by bus and that the coast was clear, we headed back. It was a narrow escape. 

Things are much different these days. Everyone knows exactly where he or she is just from looking at a phone. You can call or text to say how long it will take you to arrive. There were no such facilities back then. Certainly, there was a lot more guesswork, especially at night. After a long bumpy journey, many a time I was relieved to think I had finally arrived at my destination, only to find that the taciturn driver had only stopped by the road to relieve himself.

Learning

Open the door of the closet you have been hiding in and take a look. There is sunlight streaming into the room. The monsters are gone. It is now safe to come outside and learn the stories behind the dry facts and formulae you were forced to commit to memory as a child.

Leaving your assumptions at the door, you enter.

A fact presented as a fait accompli is not a truth. A theory that has no predictive value is useless. If you cannot get an answer to “why?” you keep exploring. This is the classroom you deserved as a child, but have discovered as an adult.

“I need an answer now.” The impatient world rudely intervenes.

“Make up your mind. We have no time.”

“Time is not ours to own,” you want to say. Instead, you smile.

The order is repeated. “Make up your mind.”

You look at a slurry of dreams and memories. You mix in experiences and aspirations. You are taking your own sweet time. You making up your mind on your own terms.

You are finally learning.