I am a Facebook addict. Fortunately or unfortunately it is the second thing I check online after my email every time I log onto the internet, wherever I may be, my hostel room or the library. The only difference is that in the library there is always a moment’s hesitation. In this ‘academic’ space it might not be the appropriate thing to do.
So there I was again going through my news feed when a friend of mine had posted this article my Jhumpa Lahiri in the New York Times, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/06/13/110613fa_fact_lahiri?currentPage=1
As I was reading the first few pages of her article I was struck by how ‘books’ were present and influenced her while growing up in the US. I realised they have become a very important part of my life as well.
My father studied English Literature at the University of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala and my mother studied commerce at Fathima Bivi College in Kollam which is also in Kerala. Ours is a most non-conservative Keralite family and it started with them. Dad studied English Literature at a time when the chosen field for boys his age was the defence forces, Engineering or Medicine. When Mum enrolled for a bachelor’s in commerce she one of only three girls in the class at a time when women in management, in the work place were not part of management discourse. And so the Thirukode girls, my sister and I were also different in school, college and in life in general. We were not the top ten students of the class and had a flair for learning languages and humanities.
What has this got to do with Jhumpa Lahiri, books and London? Unlike Jhumpa’s home, my home was filled with books. Books that my father had read as a young adult, books that my sister had read as a child, adolescent and young woman, books that were gifted, won as prizes and kindly donated by friends and family whose children had grown out of them. It was one of the perks of being the youngest in the family. You were never spoilt for choice.
My earliest memories of ‘shopping’ was for books. When my sister and I were still in school the now huge retailer ‘Landmark’ was a store of medium size in the basement of the building in which was also my father’s office. I remember visiting dad ever so often and then all three of us, my dad , sister and I would head for Landmark. It was simply amazing. As a child this ‘medium’ sized store was ‘enormous’. In Landmark I was first introduced to the Disney classics Little Mermaid, Alladin, Lion King, Cinderalla, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Enyd Blyton ( how I longed to go to a boarding school back then and how happy I am today that I did not!). We grew up with books and knew from very early on that reading was the next best thing to nothing!
So before coming to London to study I remember asking a colleague at work who had previously been to the city to study how expensive it was to buy books and she answered in the negative. Soon I forgot about it and found myself in a book sale with my cousin at Tunbridge Wells.
London reminds me of Mumbai. There are lots of avenues to experience the city regardless of the dimensions of your wallet. I haven’t bought that many books in London but have read some, not as many as I would like to but atleast a good number to keep the habit going.
My experiences of books in London are different from my experiences in Chennai. I am older, a little wiser and in a city that constantly occupies different places in my heart. Unlike in Chennai where books and reading were my happy place, in London they have been my happy place, my refuge, my way of overcoming being homesick, my source of nostalgia, my source of awe, humility and most importantly my companion. As with friends they have been introduced to me, sometimes I have just bumped into them while on an evening stroll, sometimes I have actively sought to engage with them for good conversation, a source of inspiration, to tell me that all will be alright.
Books occupy a special place in my story of London so in this blog I would like to describe how the books I have at the moment found their way to me in the time that I have spent here so far.
1. Half Hours in The Far South, the people and scenery of the tropics (The Half Hour Library of Travel, Nature and Science for Young Readers) – This is the first book I bought in the UK. It was about three days since I arrived in September 2009 and my cousin was showing me around the Pantilles in Tunbridge Wells when we passed through a book shop. They were having a sale and I found this old blue bound book and just had to read it! My cousin was kind enough to buy it for me.
The book is a text book on geography for the girls in Kensington High School and was published by Novello, Ewer and Co Printers based in Dean Street Soho in 1883. What I absolutely love about this book, especially as I am a girl from South Asia where there are subtle and obvious gender norms in most communities is the emblem on the front cover. It is of a young girl with curls and wearing a hat and the writing around her says “Knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed.” It seems so pertinent for that time and perhaps to a certain extent even now. Books and the gift of literacy for many girls around the world is an escape, a means to travel while you are still saving up for a trip around the world, an escape from the constant ‘no’s. An escape not always in terms of “international development’, maternal mortality or girl power. Just a means to live rather than exist. I suspect that through this book girls at the Kensington High School crossed the oceans into lands afar (the tropics and Australasia) and learnt from the beautiful illustrations and the descriptions of adventures the lives of peoples in far away lands just like how we learnt History and Geography in school.
2. A Short History of Africa, Penguin African Library – As is the case with most South Asian families when they send their children to the UK or US you are often introduced to extended family who help you settle in. This time I was visiting an uncle in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and we were walking through one of the national parks where one of the Tudor wars had taken place. I love September in the English country side. It was raining (as always) and green in every direction we looked. After a good walk around the park we stopped at the cafe where I began discussing with my uncle my career dreams for the future. Fortunately or unfortunately I have grown up to be one the ‘conventionals’ in an ‘unconventional’ family. I chose to study Public Health and am fascinated with all things medical, especially the history of public health. So as we were talking I mention to my uncle my fascination for working in Africa and how I would love to work there and that it is my ultimate goal in life. He told me of the adventures his colleagues who worked in the health sector there face and that I should work towards it. As we were walking back to the car park I notice in the shed behind the cafe a book shelf and a donations bucket. It was a fundraising event for lifeguards and all the books on the shelf were being sold for a pound. So I put a pound into the bucket and chose this book. I have only read the first few chapters as I found it too factual at that time when I was being surrounded by facts while still at University. The first few chapters begin with how the evolution of man occurred in Africa and traces the different kinds of man who inhabited the continent during different ages. You see my point when I mention ‘factual’. But at that precise moment I felt it was a sign from the universe that my life was heading in the right direction and I was pumped!
3. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – I didn’t read very much outside of my course module apart from the newspaper from September 2009 to August 2010. During this time I lived in University Accommodation and was living the life of an overwhelmed, trying to adjust, emotionally eating, home sick and big dreaming international student. I received my doses of inspiration and companionship from my friends and fellow hall mates and module folders with their hardly touched reading lists adorned my book shelves.
In September of 2010 it was time to graduate. Graduation from the course, from the University, from the hall, from the protective cocoon of life as a pampered international student to one of just another pair of legs in an enormous city and life. If you have lived in a transitory accommodation you will know how valuable the tables in the kitchens are. I was lucky. Students were leaving to their home countries and since they couldn’t possibly take everything back they left them at the kitchen table. And there I was! Thanks to those generous souls I didn’t have to buy plates, mugs etc to this new home I had yet not found but it sure did help me save a few pounds considering my very meagre budget at that time.
In addition to nick nacks students also left behind books. Eat, Pray, Love – the movie had just come out and I was in love with the trailer. For that time in my life where I was alone, unemployed, slightly pennyless (depends on how you look at it I suppose) and very afraid of what I needed to do and how to go about this shift in life paradigms it was the next best thing to mom! And I desperately wanted to see the movie or read the book. As I was walking back to my room one day I noticed the book in a pile of books that were left behind by someone in the book shelf of Lillian Penson Hall. I was ecstatic! And I read it all as fast as I could, in between the house hunting, aunt calling, visa rules checking and finally moving to a temporary room with my friend. But besides a few incidents in the book there is not much of it that I distinctly remember. I am sure that this is because back then I had time to read it, I read it quickly because I was excited but I didn’t think about it. I suppose I hoped that the words in it would make me feel stronger, may subconsciously it did and it helped me get through, momentarily. I want to read it again now. This time it will be different because I have changed and life has changed.
The movie however did change my life later, when I found a place I called home for one and a half years in Harrow. I am a lay cook and many a times I would order my favourite Margherita Pizza from Dominos and after my third slice, sometimes while I was ordering the pizza I would think about the inches and the not so flat stomach and the hips. My friend later pointed out the pizzeria scene in the movie. I kid you not there were times when I have enjoyed my slice while watching that scene on youtube!
This blog entry is really long to write in one sitting! Also all this talk about pizza is causing some rumbling. I will definitely continue but until after I have taken a break.
Moral of this story : Wherever in the world you are be sure to visit a book store. What you pick up is more than just a book. It is reflective of your mood, your aspirations, your fears and all that you are and feel at that moment of time.