A single shelf takes up most of the eastern wall in my room. There was a time when it was tightly packed, radiated something of a military aura. Books standing erect, practicing self-discipline. Now there are gaps, like a wicked grin on an aging man's face. Whatever remains of the books now recline on one another; some tilt towards the left, others towards the right. All intoxicated beasts. A few of the thinner volumes crowd surf atop their friends.
There is a vulgarity about the way the books look at me. A haunted house? No, they don't speak the language of death. Abandonment is the word that most comes to mind. A spillage of half-attempts have made their home in different parts of my 12x14 room. Wobbly towers of different heights decorate what can be called a very messy room. I'm not much of a reader, you see. Just a hoarder.
My self-constructed idea of organised chaos tells me the very tall pile of books next to the shelf are the ones I'd like to read the most. Yoga books, books on poetry – Tagore and Rumi, some Thich Nhat Hanh, a Totto-chan. A smaller pile, hidden beneath a debris of paper, bills, and envelopes, has a Kurt Vonnegut and the diaries of Kafka. And since much of what Vonnegut writes is surreally autobiographical, why not call this the Column of Biographies? The five books on my table, sleeping under a tiny version of The Little Prince, are mostly books on Buddhism and buddhist practices. That's my spiritual reading pile. It's a really neat pile. Doesn't get touched much. At the foot of the bed is my collection of young adult fiction. The latest addition to my burgeoning city of unread books.
One pile – a random assortment that's taken a significant portion on the top of the shelf – is not my doing at all. It is the work of who can perhaps be called the only real reader in our home. There was a time when the contents of that pile would rise steadily. On a daily basis grandfather would pull out a book from the shelf and stack its predecessor atop the pile, making it rise higher. At one point, it became so tall I had to shove half the books back in the shelves below. But remnants of his reading still remain. India After Gandhi. Beat Diabetes Naturally. The BFG.
I continue to be baffled at the obsessive manner with which grandfather would gobble up every single book that came his way. It must have served some kind of need, but I've never met anyone be so dispassionate towards something they invested so much time doing. There is nothing to be said of his sensibilities looking at his indiscriminate encounters with the written word.
I've had weeping fits, sleepless nights, frantic dreams, nightmares, revelations, multiple conversations with friends, often a crazy impulse to write, reply, return the favour to the writer, while reading just some of the same books. But not him. Books had to be read and that was that. He never talked about them afterwards. There were no favourites. Favourite genre. Favourite author. Favourite book. He consumed them with the same steady deliberation with which he would take his diabetes pills. It was the same with the newspaper, the latest edition of the Engineering Association's journal, electronics manuals.
There are only a handful of instances when he has stated that he has not liked a book. From them I can gather that he is not a fan of the Morrisons, the Gordimers (“I don't understand how this woman won a Nobel prize in literature,” - his response upon reading Something Out There.) or the Murakamis of the literary world. Having read a handful of Murakami myself, I can understand his unease with the author. Pages of meandering storytelling that cheats the reader of any tangible conclusion. If I were to pinpoint, that is perhaps the only thing that binds our literary interests. A confusion over what to feel towards this writer called Murakami.
That's little. Maybe I'm trying to hold on to it as a way to subconsciously bond over grandfather beyond familial ties? Being family, by default, means living in the same household with the minimum of intimacies. Faces approached at face value. There is neither occasion nor interest in exploring other possibilities. Families don't sit and reflect on how they relate to each other. I always felt like there must be another side to him though. A side blindspotted by the things I am expected to understand, appreciate about him. Did Murakami help me see him as a person, like myself, independent of the myriad of roles he had to play? It was little, but it was something.
Things have changed now. On the table in the living room lies Gao Xingjiang's Soul Mountain. It's a slightly tattered copy I bought at a secondhand bookstore in Thamel a few years ago. Of course, I haven't read it. That's not what I do with books. I'm a buyer, a hoarder. Not a reader of books.
An airmail envelop, folded in half, serves as a bookmark for the 500 page-long novel. It's been slipped somewhere within the first 100 pages. It's been there for a while. Looks like grandfather isn't going to finish this one.
Elsewhere on the same table lies the real cause of grandfather's divorce with books. In its glossy rectangular casing, the laptop may be touted as modern man's greatest inventions. To me it's nothing more than an electronic contraption that houses all the demons known to destroy humankind. That wretched pandora's box. Modern man's greatest affliction.
It all started with innocent visits to setopati.com. Reading was what he was hungering for, after all. And then Google Chrome gave him access to the world's largest collection of videos. All it took was one click of that seductive red button, one pursuit in the direction of that unwavering white triangle, and he'd fallen into an abyss.
At first, evidence of his visits to YouTube would echo through the whole house. Following the devious breadcrumb trail YouTube laid out with its recommended videos, grandfather went through his share of whacky homespun videos. There was a time when, to my horror, he stumbled upon 'Top 10 Sexy Female Aliens'. It didn't bother him in the least. But I got him a pair of my old earphones. He could keep his YouTube exploits to himself.
To his delight, he soon found Hindi films. Then Tamil films, Telegu films, all dubbed in Hindi. Then Maithili and Bhojpure films. As with books, quality has never been a concern. Quantity is the priority. Which means he'll watch almost anything. It started with one screening a day. Then two. Now he watches up to three movies a day.
Has the internet and its evils ensnared grandfather? Sometimes, when the internet connection is slow or disrupted, grandfather becomes a bit of a bumbling fool, pleading me to help him connect to his YouTube account. There is a childlike restlessness to his demeanor. Newfound cravings have changed him.
On the one-seater next to him sits grandmother, effusing a self-discipline wholly missing in the old man. All day, while grandfather dips in and out of a sea of user uploaded videos, grandmother, hearing aid tucked into one ear, makes an art out of listening to silence.
There was one point when she could not stop saying, “Kati hernu hunchha. Aja lai pugi halyo ni.” By now she's stopped complaining. Resigned perhaps to the fact that she's lost her husband to a machine.
As people age, they lose themselves to physical ailments or dementia or senility. My grandfather's fate is of his own choosing. Sleepy siamese serpents slither across his belly and plug themselves into his ears, doing the devil's work. Slowly but steadily, they pluck away at grandfather's consciousness.
More than once I've seen him dose off whilst plugged in. A hand still holding the chin up, eyes resolutely shut. Sitting upright but unconscious. Like something picked from the garden and placed in our living room. My grandfather. A degenerating vegetable.
Recently I found a copy of Train to Pakistan that I'd hidden in a drawer from long ago. It was brand new when I bought and hid it. Unopened as it was, the book still looked compact. But the pages had begun to yellow. Abandonment. The fate of all my books. Not only had this one been abandoned, it had been imprisoned as well, in solitary confinement no less, to please my whims.
I'd been protecting the book from my incredible book eating grandfather. I was greedy about devouring a book in its newness. Its crisp, virgin pages, I'd wanted for myself. Deep down though, I should have known I wasn't going to read it. Ever. I've never been much of a reader. Just a hoarder.
Now Train to Pakistan lies within grandfather's reach, on a shelf in the dining room. But that copy is never going to be read, is it?
Maybe this would have been the one book he would have loved. Maybe this one he'd have held up to me and said, “Nanu, this is a great book. Do you have any more books by this writer?”
These days, I'm afraid of entering bookstores. The sweet smell of new books call to me. My hands itch to buy and hoard. Lifelong habits die hard. But I resist. There was a time when the comfort of knowing grandfather would certainly get his hands on my books would propel me to place one more book on store counters.
Now I resist. There's no saying for sure the books I buy will get read anymore.
(From Read Magazine, Sept 2014)