I learned about the magic of words in school, as ironic as that would be for me. The journey started with stories in the English literature textbook. I had a habit of reading all the stories from the Hindi and English literature books after a few days they came into my possession. I enjoyed those stories. They were short and crisp. These books carried vivid details of people and the world that I might never come across in my life. I couldn’t read the serious ones, though. Premchand or Mahadevi Verma never interested me. Those were “sob stories,” as I later named them. And perhaps that was the reason that I was slightly put off the Hindi literature during my childhood.
However, in those days, I wasn’t reading any novels. I wanted to. I had heard about famous movies that came from good novels and stories. A Christmas Carol and the Treasure Island were one of the few, thanks to Cartoon Network. I wasn’t reading, though. I just had knowledge about books and stories through television.
In sixth grade, there was a small library in our school and I can’t remember for how long, we also used to have a library period once a week. The librarian was a nice, polite lady, a quality that I always used to judge the teachers upon instead of how much knowledge they had. Mostly, the library periods consisted of the librarian coming into the classroom and sitting there while the students tried to finish their homework in advance or just talked quietly among each other about whatever sixth-graders talk about.
I was more interested in books. I remember squabbling with two of my classmates over a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Thumbelina, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and much more. It was a treasure. I had to have it and waited almost two weeks to take that beauty home. Took me about two days to finish it. I kept it with myself for a couple of more just to enjoy its company. The librarian, though, not an avid reader herself, had admired my passion for reading and knowledge about books, which if not much, was still a lot more than any of my classmates. They excelled at other things: mathematics, social studies, public speaking. I was the one who flunked in moral science and topped in English literature. Perhaps, it was the pleasure of showing off to my elders and the idea that I can at least be good at something was where my love towards writing and books blossomed. A long dry span of almost no reading followed those periods.
My family didn’t have enough money to keep me and my brother in school. Our fees were due for more than six months. I couldn’t even afford the thought of buying books. During that dry span, which lasted for a couple of years, for a brief amount of time, we visited some of our relatives. The period of financial depravity grew stronger with time. Therefore, the idea of the visit wasn’t to meet the distant relatives, but to live at a place for a while where we would have food at least twice a day.
In that visit, I received a token of gift from some of my relatives. (Bless those days of childhood when relatives gave you money. Though, I’m not sure if that was the substantial form of elder blessing or mere gesture of pity because the parents of these poor boys can’t afford to feed them. I was a child, not so much deft at understanding adult thoughts.) So, I had around three hundred rupees in cash and by then, I had started writing stuff. Some kind of a fantasy novel. I was also carrying with me a few of my English textbooks for they contained some of the favourite stories and poems. All this to mark that people had a fair idea about my growing and developing love towards books. As a result, they took me to a bookshop. Though, I had mentioned that I wanted to buy a book on physics, something by Stephen Hawking, preferably. It was during High School, where my fondness in the subject was still somehow surviving. Also, I had asked for a book on physics because I never considered gifts as my property. I always believed the idea of a gift as a right to use someone else’s belongings. Especially if it was about money. And due to the deep roots of responsibility drilled in my senses, I had to use that money without disappointing anyone.
We didn’t find any book by Stephen Hawking. There were academic books on physics, which were beyond my average High School brain’s ability to grasp.
They asked me to look around and select one of the books I’d like to buy.
There were books all around me. Thousands of names and covers adorned the shelves in that small shop. Wooden shelves reaching up to the ceiling and covering all the walls around me. I had heard about maybe a dozen of them. Countless other that I never knew. I was Scrooge McDuck, diving in his pool of money. I don’t remember much details about the bookshop (it was eight years ago), but I know with a sincere guarantee that I picked up a fat one from the bottom of a shelf near the entrance. It was thicker than my palm. On close observation, I realised that there were two books in a thin cardboard case, wrapped in a plastic film. The case and the spine of the books were dark, wooden brown with a texture of classic paperbacks. The title proclaimed that I held in my hand The Complete Sherlock Holmes. My heart had skipped a couple of beats as I stood there, adoring the beauty in my hands.
My heart did another trick when I turned the book over and around and saw the price sticker on the back. Two-hundred-and-ninety-five rupees, it said. All I had was three hundred. We were surviving on less than five thousand a month. Borrowed money from the generous sources around us. I hadn’t brought a single set of clothes in the last three years, even when my grandparents insisted on it for hours every time they saw me. Spending a sum close to three-hundred on books, when you have hardly enough to eat was not only ridiculous but also close to insanity, I suppose. This is the same thought I have now, every time I look at the copies on my shelf.
I don’t know where I would have been if that day I hadn’t made that decision. I had been frequently watching the TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on History Channel starring Jeremy Brett. I was a fan. My affection was singing in my ears all that while I stood there.
In that very moment, I knew that even holding that book in my hands and standing there in that bookstore was no less than any artistic description of a sunrise in the foggy mountains. The serenity just doesn’t fade even as the day grows on you. I had recovered myself from the bout of sadness, took me a second or two and then looked around. My aunts were chatting near the doorway with my mother. Some of my cousins were talking and stealing a glance here and there, almost uninterested.
There is only one more thing I remember. An elder cousin came up to me (an avid reader himself) and asked me if had selected something. I showed him the book and mentioned the price. He said there would a discount.There was. Even though ten percent didn’t make much different and I was still spending a lot of money, but I don’t know how or why I went forward with it. I gave away all of my money for that collection of Sherlock Holmes, the four novels and fifty-six short stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t remember much afterwards. My actions, that is. I just know that I had somehow overcome the turmoil of anxiety and dilemma I had in that moment. I could have given that money to my mother and she could have saved it up for the bad times ahead (as if we didn’t already have enough of them), but I didn’t. I won’t say that I regret my decision. I never did. That was the first day when I chose a book over everything else. And that has made all the difference.
There was. Even though ten percent didn’t make much different and I was still spending a lot of money, but I don’t know how or why I went forward with it. I gave away all of my money for that collection of Sherlock Holmes, the four novels and fifty-six short stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t remember much afterwards. My actions, that is. I just know that I had somehow overcome the turmoil of anxiety and dilemma I had in that moment. I could have given that money to my mother and she could have saved it up for the bad times ahead (as if we didn’t already have enough of them), but I didn’t. I won’t say that I regret my decision. I never did. That was the first day when I chose a book over everything else. And as Robert Frost so famously quoted, “that has made all the difference.”
It took me about six months or so to finish that book. With each chapter, I learned about thirty-to-forty new words in the English language. I learned the craft of constructing paragraphs and dialogues. I had started writing long before I had learned the basics. I learned about the England of Victorian times. And I learned that books (or any other kind of art form) can take away a little of your pain. I know that the next six months I had spent completely engrossed in the conversations of Watson and Holmes, solving mysteries and travelling to low and high areas of London and around. I had forgotten that we weren’t eating much, our family was going through a rough phase, and most of our relative had started to dislike us, if not hate. I didn’t care. I had books. I was happy.