I wonder what would have come of me without books. My thoughts would have been as disorganized as they had been during the major part of my formative years. The love for books and literature was always there, albeit just below the surface. It never had the inducement it needed to bloom. I knew the classics had something important to say, but either because of my laziness or my timidity or due to their sheer inaccessibility to me, I was never able to engage with books for any meaningful time. You need time for the beauty of words to grow on you.
But bloom it did, quite by accident and much to my regret, quite late in life. It was towards the end of my third decade that I stumbled into a book store, in the US, that had all the books by R K Narayan that I ever wanted to read. The enthusiasm with which the employee showed me to the neatly stacked rows of books in various editions was the closest, with any degree of certainty that I can say this ‘journey’ started.
Once I stumbled onto them, I knew I found something I wanted to hold on to for dear life. Some chord deep inside me was struck when I was in the company of Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Narayan, Tagore etc. This ‘journey’ took me to the ideas of many other eminent thinkers. On the way, I came to terms with some of the deepest questions bothering me. In the interim, my thinking became lot more lucid. I had greater clarity on what to do and where to go .I haven’t been without them ever since. This ‘journey’, started ten years ago, now reached a stage where I want to put into words the feelings inside me. Whether I am any good at this, only time will tell. All the same, I am happy that I am doing what I wanted to do.
On another note, why is it that I read? What do I gain of it? In the initial days, I read just to search for the answers I was looking for. The first few books could have been much harder but for the authors I had chosen. R. K Narayan is one of the easiest authors, in my opinion, to get initiated into reading. Most of his books are small in comparison. In fact, ‘Swami and Friends’, his most delightful of all, is just over a hundred pages. Starting with Narayan, I progressive began tackling much bigger/complex works. To my surprise, the more I read, the easier it got. By the time I got to ‘War & Peace’ I as devouring books; I was flying. By then reading was so natural to me that on occasions, it was very difficult to tear myself away from a book. So engrossing was the narrative. ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ was so exhilarating that I liken it to white water rafting. I was so caught in the words dickens was weaving that I did not know what turn it was going to take. Nor what I was going to hit. I was awash with water all over my body, so exciting was the ride by the time I reached the climactic last scenes. This is the roller coaster ride of my life. I was dazed, exhausted, overwhelmed. It took me a while to get my composure back.
The pleasure (or intense moments such as above) is only one part of what reading gave me. As I had alluded, it gave me a sense of direction; it cleared my head of a lot of non-sense. It allowed me to see things much more clearly. Most of all, I realized that the problems I was grappling with were not unique. These are the same issues that most of the humanity had to contend with. The more I explored the more I realized that I had more in common with the rest of the world than not. Regardless of time and space, most suffered, loved, lost, won as I had suffered, loved, lost or won. That was reassuring and comforting.
Reading also gave me a familiarity of the language and its usage. I am now able to articulate many thoughts much more clearly than what I had hitherto been able to. No longer am I a by stander. Not only was I enjoying my interaction with the rest of the world, I was also influencing it. In small bits maybe, but influencing it never the less. Until then, I was seen as a serious and withdrawn person. Now my language skills gave me the impetus to approach people and strike up conversations. There was no topic I was shy of. Before, I sought refuge in the background; now I was readily seeking limelight. And to my delight, the world was making way for me. Articulation opened many windows, both personally and professionally, that I never even knew existed.
Through the characters and situations in books, I was vicariously able to live many lives across many ages. No longer was the Russian peasant of the 19th century unknown to me. I ploughed with him in ‘Anna Karenina’ as I had waded through the drains of Paris in ‘Les Miserables’. American landscape in the early 20th century (‘My Antonia’ and ‘Grapes of Wrath’) or life in 2540 London (‘Brave New World’)? India after independence or Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg? Been there and done that. No aspect of life surprised me anymore. I now approach situations with much more confidence because my mind lived through many more experiences than what the daily reality has in offer.
Now how could you weigh the worth of this education? Is there any curriculum in world that can teach you this? If at all anything can, it is reading. It is for these reasons, among many, that I read.
Another happy consequence is that it can pave the way into the world of writing.