My father was known to be careful with money. Yet I recall his one thrilling, flamboyant gesture of extravagance. It was the time he walked into College Street in Calcutta and bought 60 books on one day, in a single transaction, from one kiosk.
I was eight years old then and had already been influenced into the belief that fiction was the unfettered exploration of the human story.
It was a visceral delight to see the books being unloaded from the trunk of the beat-up Herald. Page upon page of words and expressions mined into a relevance that I had no clear understanding of yet, but still found significant. The books were piled on shelves that had been dusted and readied for their arrival.
I grew to call them my companions—the Shaws, Hardys, Maughams, Tagores and many others; all leather bound and inscrutably constructed.
Then one warm afternoon, I felt the urge to express myself to them. So, using an unseasoned running hand, I assigned a classmate’s name and particulars, in indelible ink, with no thought to neatness, to the first page of the books.
Upon my father’s return from work, he caught me laboring on the 24th of the 60 books.
Young as I was, I caught the flash of horror on his face. I burst into tears and remember him picking me up and trying to explain the significance of the books. In his carefully chosen words and the gravitas of his delivery, I understood what they really meant to him.
Literature, I came to realize, was not mere imagination; it was the experience of imagination. Characters, real or imagined, are powered by social and emotional currency and authors shape them for our experience. For readers, like my father, it was pabulum for a private narrative.
Word soon spread about my father’s treasure trove and friends began to drop by to borrow a book or two. A few years later, I looked at the empty shelves and realized that my companions had inevitably grown up and gone their way.
When he turned eighty, two months before he passed away, I asked my father if he remembered the incident of my vandalism and the subsequent disappearance of the books. I saw a fleeting trace of his youth and vibrancy as he smiled and nodded. “The books are not gone,” he assured me, “we still own them.”
It is remarkable how our memories are illuminated by the people and characters we encounter. Some remain larger than life, long after they are gone.