Ninety Five

My favourite hangout has always been my grandfather’s room.

It has always held all the things that have ever held allure for me. The tapes of Disney movies of endless repeat value. Chocolates “from foreign”. Stationery “from foreign”. Ornamental bottles of perfume (and other ethanol compounds) “from foreign”. Money to go watch movies. The magic Godrej out of which certificates, wedding and vacation albums, shawls, and an assortment of family heirlooms flew. The snuggest sweatshirts. The computer. The internet connection. The coolest cellphones. Secrets.

And – the books.

I blame my grandfather for my whole wordy affair.

When he was just rolling his sleeves up, the country was stirring into a republic. The British were leaving, and had given Indians an unbelievable currency to seek their place in the world: the English language.

My grandfather has a knack of picking up things of longevity. That explains why he worked at building an immaculate English vocabulary, by building in his house the most solid foundation for it: a library.

That explains the bound volumes of Asterix, Tintin, Amar Chitra Katha, Commando, Beagle Boys, Nat Geos dating back to 19 freaking 70, timeless tomes of classics. The Westerns (he’s got the whole collection of Oliver Strange’s Sudden), The Epics (Rajgopalchari’s Mahabharatha and Ramayana, Mario Puzo’s Godfather). The big fat encyclopedias. The Kannada-English dictionary. The English-Kannada dictionary. The ladies – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, Ayn Rand. The shameless James Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming. The ceaseless John Grisham and Robin Cook.

In his shelves, I have found the right books, when life needed me to find them. The Brothers Grimm as a tot. Gone with the Wind in High School. Leo Tolstoy in Pre-Uni. Satyajit Ray in College.

My mother says he gave away over two-thirds of his books before I was born, because, well, he didn’t see anyone else using them.

Roughly six years later, I gleefully hopped on an ironing board, placed my right arm against the still-hot iron box, and wailed, seeing a displaced purple squarish patch of skin give way to bright pink flesh. A scar I still have.

My grandfather had then conjured up the most brilliant distraction: Asterix in Switzerland. To date, it is my favourite cover – Obelix picking at the holes in the huge, fascinating hunk of Swiss cheese he’s hugging, Asterix sniffing the Silver Star dreamily, both in a vault with gold coins.

I had sat in my grandfather’s room, tears almost dry, at his lap, and giggled and giggled and had almost poked my burn.

A few years after, he and I went on our first shopping trip together. It was Sunday and we were heading to MG Road for some adult-world work. We decided it was a good day for me to finally see Gangaram’s. The pricey bookshop was closed, and I was on the verge of tears. So, his big hand held my tiny one, and took me straight to the symbolically British Higginbotham’s.

My eyes devoured all the colourful volumes there, but my middle class manners left me one step short of salivating. I hid behind my grandfather when a pretty girl came up to me and asked if she could help. My grandfather smiled and told me to say hello.

Soon, I was in the possession of three books: A chunky 3-in-1 Nancy Drew (purely on my insistence), A yellow covered A Tale of Two Cities (purely on his insistence), and an extremely handy Oxford Mini Dictionary.

We finished shopping, he bought me cotton candy outside Plaza, and we went home, me sticky with cotton candy and excitement.

Each of these books has marked different stages of my growing up.

The Nancy Drew, I gave up when I was older, as an improvised I-forgot-her-birthday gift for a friend. The Oxford Mini Dictionary, around 7th standard, taught me the meaning of the word “fuck”, and gave me a general idea of human reproduction. A Tale of Two Cities, I finally read once in high school, and twice for a paper in Degree college.

Since then, my grandfather and I have gone book-shopping only three more times. Once, for an uneventful Strand Book Sale. Second, for a failed Avenue Road experiment with second hand textbooks. And the last – when he introduced me to the erstwhile Premier Book Shop.

The reason we went to the Premier Book Shop had made him very angry. It was the first – and so far only – time I had lost a library book. I had recently topped class in English and won a gift coupon worth 400 Rupees. I was going to spend it, replacing, instead of owning, Jeffrey Archer’s Twelve Red Herrings.

Books, just as my grandfather had promised, have a way of teaching you life’s lessons.

Now, on each of his birthdays, I try upgrading his Asterix collection by gifting him one missing volume, with a letter folded inside.

I am two years away from completing his collection. Perhaps I’m presumptuous in saying so.

But this is the wisdom I inherit from my grandfather: To sign your name on every book you possess – for it is wealth, and this is the only way you pin yourself to a universe.

Thanks, Udupa, for setting this off in my head.

2 thoughts on “Ninety Five”

  1. I had (I still have them, but resorting to the past tense because I have not seen either of them in many years) two Oxford Mini Dictionaries (both ill-gotten at shady school events.) The only difference I had seen between the two was that one had the word ‘fuck’ defined, the other did not.

    The blame for why there are more books than space in my room rests squarely with my father. He was a librarian for most of his working life. The rest of the story is genetic.

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