I was a few chapters through ‘Periodic Table,’ a masterpiece from Primo Levi, whose work I have been absorbing and tremendously appreciating, this past year. It is my habit to write down my name on the first page of a book I own, but I do it only once I am in the process of reading it. This is not a conscious decision. More often than not, I begin to read a book, a while after I buy it. Maybe a couple of months afterwards, maybe immediately after I finish what I am then reading. Anyway, when I am a bit into the book, enjoying its company, marvelling its content, I tend to feel proud of owning it. My chosen outlet for this swelling pride of ownership, is the act of scribbling down my name on the first pages of the book. Something along the lines of, ‘belongs to Anjana,’ followed by a brief one line description of the circumstances when I bought the book. I imagine myself, or someone else, far ahead in future, picking up the book and remembering or fantasising the event of me coming into possession of this literary gem. But this time, while I was in the middle of writing down these details, on the blank space on page two of ‘Periodic Table,’ I stopped for a moment and began to wonder, would she have done it this way too? Or would she have written down her name on the book the first thing after she acquired it? Or did she sit down to read the book immediately after she got it, unlike me who can spend months before getting around to reading a book that I buy?
While I grew up with my grandparents, in our old ancestral home, I was shielded from the knowledge that something was missing: a certain crucial element, which, just because of the timing of my entry into their lives and because of the aforementioned concealment of facts, had no discernible impact on my early life. But as soon as I grew enough up, to be precise, as soon as I outgrew Enid Blyton, and began to comb through the enormous collection of English literature in the attic, I was face to face with exactly that. Amidst all those classic crime thrillers of 80s and 90s, amidst Mario Puzo, Ken Follett, Sidney Sheldon, Colleen McCullough and the like, I found her. All this while, I had been too young for these books. All this while, I had been too young to notice the incompleteness in the lives around me, in the home around me.
The books in the attic had her name on the front pages. A name that rhymed with my mom’s and my aunt’s. Some of those books, which were school or college textbooks, told me that she studied in the same school as my aunt, and did BA English in college. The books that she owned, all ferocious titles, were the most loved thrillers of those times. And her handwriting resembled Mom’s.
I did not ask anyone about all this. But then on, my family, that I had believed to be perfect and content, corrected itself in my mind, into one that had the possibility of a happier reality. A reality that I am not familiar with, because of the times into which I was born. At present, it is alright, it is doing good, but I think, it is slightly more lonely that it needs to be.
I read some of those books. Some I left unread for whenever I come back, because they are not going to go anywhere. Today, when I see some of those titles, elsewhere, I do not pick them up, or borrow them from friends, because, I know my aunt’s copy awaits me back home.
I wish she had the idea to write down more than her name on those front pages. I wish she wrote a line, just a sentence, explaining how she got the book, why she picked it, or what she thought about it. I could have gotten to know her that way. Right? I could have agreed with you on your opinion about ‘The Thornbirds.’ I could have had bookstores to run to when in Madras or Bombay, if I knew where you shopped for books. I could have gauged how similar you are to Mom, if I knew how much your reading choices and opinions overlapped with hers. I could have had gotten so much more out of those books in the attic than what their authors had intended.
Despite that, despite not knowing you, tears flowed when I was writing about you. What could that mean? Not knowing you is no excuse to not miss you.
I will write my name on all the books that I buy. I will also write a word about what I was when I bought that book. In a world where reading as well as human connections are being slowly pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities in life, if someone in future picks up a book that belongs to me, I hope they catch a glimpse of me in there.