- My cousin, who was born sixteen hours before me, got married recently. I am expected to follow her footsteps soon. Thankfully, I have been granted more than sixteen hours to do that.
- My father’s health has taken a turn for the worse.
- My mother is completely exhausted.
Rationally, points 1, 2, and 3 would be distinct from each other. But in my family there is no such thing as ‘rationally’. Therefore all these points are inter-related. Strangely, here, we believe my marriage to be an antidote to mortality and fatigue.
I happened to be sitting in my parents’ room while Ma looked through Papa’s blood reports. They didn’t look good. Ma was worried and Papa didn’t help matters much. He kept talking about Sourav Ganguly and why he deserved better. Ma got further agitated and after flinging the reports somewhere inconvenient to retrieve (I should know), she snapped, “So what? There are many like him.”
Papa doesn’t believe that and would have no one in his family believe that either. He went to considerable lengths to explain why there could be never be anyone like him. It was a waste because Ma doesn’t listen to people, especially her husband. It’s a trait that runs in my maternal bloodline.
Amidst all this, Ma asked Papa, “What if you die?”
Papa replied, “Then I’d be dead.”
Ma smiled. In my parent’s language, that was ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too.’
Now that the subject of impending death had been broached, my parents looked at me. I, of late, have come to be associated with such merry matters.
“See, she looks worried,” Ma observed.
“Hmm”, said Papa, a little perplexed. He would have preferred to go on about Ganguly’s eternal uniqueness. His daughter looking worried was, well, normal and hadn’t we all learned to live with that now?
“What is worrying you?”, Ma asked.
The thing is that I have joint eyebrows. If I’m thinking about anything, they furrow and give the impression that I’m translating Bertrand Russell’s works to German in my head. In reality, I may be thinking of something quite inconsequential. Like, when my mother asked me what was worrying me, I was actually wondering what a pregnant sparrow looked like. I told her.
“Why are you worrying about pregnant sparrows?!” I think I had alarmed her a little bit. Papa couldn’t believe that his eloquent discourse had been interrupted for this.
“I’m not worrying about them. I was just thinking why I hadn’t seen any.”
Now Ma came and sat next to me.
“There is a boy,” she began. “I want you to meet him.”
“Sure”, I said. “What standard is he in?” Usually, I give career advice to distressed youth.
“No,” Ma said. “For marriage. The proposal is for you. Meet him.”
“No. I won’t.”
I was pretty sure that I was trying her patience now.
“That’s not how I want to meet my life partner – like this.”
“It’s like getting a job through reference. It’s not on merit. I don’t like it.”
“On merit! What..how…what..on merit?!” I could tell that she was having a little problem grasping what I had just said.
“How do you intend to find a partner – on ‘merit’?” Sure, when you say it like that, the idea seems pretty silly.
“The universe will unfold and I’ll find him if I have to.” I made a sweet gesture of using my hands to denote the universe. The way kids do when they sing, ‘He has the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole wide world in his hands.’ Perhaps this was a bit much now. I can’t be weird, juvenile and demented all together at the same time.
So, the Mumbai Mirror was flung aside, which landed squarely on the DVD player. Neat. Sometimes, one must take a moment to marvel the handiworks of wrath.
“You thought the Universe was unfolding the last two times, didn’t you? What happened?”
A good point.
“Nothing happened. I made a mistake,” I replied calmly.
The Mumbai Mirror is the exact size of the DVD player. The things you never notice.
“What if there is nothing when the Universe unfolds – except maybe pregnant sparrows?”
Another very good point.
“We’ll have to wait and see”, I replied with appropriate gravitas.
“What if there’s no Universe?”
Ma was on a roll here. I should have read that essay by Russell. I believe that someone had asked him this – of course, someone more amenable to reason than an irate mother.
“Are we still talking about the boy?”, my father interjected, hoping to continue what is annoyingly becoming his favorite topic.
“Yes,” Ma snapped. It can’t be easy being the only non-strange person in the family.
We went to my room. Ma closed the door and switched on the AC. This would take a while. She sat down opposite me and asked me why I was so closed to the idea of her introducing me to someone.
It took me some time to gather my thoughts. I didn’t want to come across as flim-flam, but I guess I had taken care of that risk long back.
And then, calm and collected, I made my move.
To me, my life partner will be like my most cherished book. And my most prized books have come into my life unsought.
I was sixteen when I was really close to a pen friend. He was suffering from osteoporosis. Apart from mailing each other, we occasionally talked over the phone. Around that time, I was going through the motions as a suburban girl in a ‘town’ college. Every day, I came across ways to ease my discomfiture. Learning these wiles was fun. You came in to class early and left late so people didn’t get a chance to see you walk. You went to the library during break and sat near the Anthropology periodicals where nobody ever went. You talked only when spoken to. That sort of thing. I was telling this to my friend when he stopped me and said that I wouldn’t be the same person once I graduated.
I disagreed. Sixteen is when you staunchly hold on to a sense of self even if it isn’t really there. So the grip is tighter.
Later, I went to the library to get some books.
I got some comics and was distractedly pulling out other books from the shelves and putting them back. In my head, I was still talking to my friend. I had no idea what books I had selected.
When I reached home, among the usual suspects, I found this novel, ‘Just the way we were.’ It was by a rather unknown author and ordinarily, I would not have chosen such a story. But the title sort of spoke to me. That story about two sisters, growing up and parting ways, was so close to what I was thinking. All this from a book I had picked up without actually picking it out.
Something similar happened in my very first year in college. One rainy afternoon, I had fallen asleep in the library. The librarian woke me up when the library was closing down. I was leaving the hall when I happened to look at the book, ‘Dandelion Wine’ by Ray Bradbury on the center table. It was such a splendid title! I touched the spine of the book and just felt that this would be important. But the library was shutting down and I couldn’t issue the book then.
I came back the next day and couldn’t find it. This library had another level with long corridors of shelves. I went through one dusty shelf after another and nothing. According to the librarian’s records, there was only one book of short stories by that author. Nothing else.
I studied in that college for five years. I was a member of two external libraries and didn’t find the book there. I went to so many book fairs but no, there was no ‘Dandelion Wine.’
I graduated and worked in four jobs. Nearly eight years after that day in the library, in my fifth job, I met Jaygee. On first instance, she and I didn’t have much in common. But then we worked together and she told me that she’d gone to school with one of my best pals in college. Somehow, in her, I used to get the feeling that she was my link to something out there. Like I’d be thinking about some restaurant in town and she’d have visited it the night before.
One day, I came across this link to on-line literature that I forwarded to all my friends. In the evening, when Jaygee and I were having coffee, she told me that the link was good.
“It has some interesting books. Salman Rushdie too,” she informed.
I agreed, longingly eyeing a brownie.
Then she told me that the site had links to works by other authors she hadn’t heard of.
“Some interesting titles,” she continued. “There was a nice one..Dandelion..something.”
In so many years after graduating from college, I had never once given the book another thought. Yet, at that moment, I knew that was the book we were talking about.
“Was it ‘Dandelion wine’? By Ray Bradbury?”, I almost shrieked. I cannot say what I felt then. To have lost something you never had and find it so astonishingly. I still feel a little chill when I think about it.
“Yes”, she replied nonchalantly. “It’s on the site you forwarded.”
That moment, I had gone back to the library and found the book on the table. It was still my first year in college, it was still raining and dark and cloudy outside. I wake up to the musty smell of a closed, cluttered room. But now, I have the book.
It is so soporifically mind-boggling. When I think that it took eight years to get this job, to find this link, to meet Jaygee who told me about this book. The chances of me finding ‘Dandelion Wine’ this way were so slim. I may have decided to not join this job or not forward this link or Jaygee and I would not have worked together or she may have not talked about the link over coffee. I could have missed my Dandelion Wine over such slender slips. But I was meant to find Dandelion Wine – somewhere, some how.
I think that I would meet my ‘boy’ like that – quirk of fate, twist of destiny, hiccup of the Universe. Whatever. Through the sharp force of magic. I know this sounds like sodden garble. I know you stop thinking this way when you turn sixteen. The trouble is that’s when I started.
In the most certain part of my soul, I believe that people, like books, arrive to answer a question. Sure, sometimes you find that the book has some pages missing or it wasn’t what you wanted or maybe you don’t quite understand the language or the print is difficult to read. Or you may get the book simply because it’s on the bestseller’s list and everyone’s reading it. Then you wonder what the big deal was anyway. Sure. That happens. But then, you do find a book that answers the question your soul has asked without you even knowing it. Like that quote, “You’re everything I never knew I always wanted.”
You don’t coerce the soul to ask a question just because everyone else is asking it at the time. You don’t get a third person to ask it. You don’t push a finger into a bud and force it to blossom because it’s spring and all the other flowers in the valley are happy and fragrant. You wait for the season of your bud. You wait for your book to reach you. Most importantly, you wait for your soul to ask the question.
And if you never meet someone, it only means that your soul was evolved enough to know all the answers, so it didn’t need anyone else. What really is there, then, to feel bad about?
This is what I told my mother- no loud voices, no shrill tones, nothing. Thus I stated my whole, soul truth, uncorroborated though it was.
Ma listened quietly and started folding linen. It is surreal when that happens. Her eyes told me that she now accepted that her daughter was weird yet wonderful. Or maybe I read too much into that. Maybe the eyes only said, “My daughter is weird. End of sentence.”
Finally, she spoke.
“So, have you ever come across a book that is so complete and wonderful that…I don’t know, fills you up?”
There was. This book, truly, made me a person. If my literary life can be divided into two parts, it would be before reading that book and after reading it. That, as far as books go, would be my absolute soul mate.
“Of course!”, I answered. “Roots by Alex Haley.”
Ma folded the last bed sheet.
“You may want to remember that your mother got you that one.”
I smiled. You know it when you’ve lost the queen.