The Girl Who Fell In Love With Words

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl…

Tall and lanky… Her hair, the colour of ginger…

And she fell hopelessly in love…

With words…

It is that time of the year when the internet is awash with reading lists of the affluent and the scholarly, referred and shared to viral proportions. Yet, the jungle would indeed be rather monotonous, if only the peacocks were to flaunt their plumage and only the cuckoos decided to sing. So, I thought I’d put in my two pennies worth, to add to this annual cacophony.

I stay clear of ‘5 days to success’ type of books as I firmly believe that ‘success’ entails different things to different people. For some it is amassing huge wealth, for some, it is heading a business empire, for some, it’s losing oneself in service. Success to me certainly involves proximity to nature and the luxury of time to curl up with words, reading, writing or simply cradling them with my soul.

Here is my pick of the best 4 books I have had a chance to read in 2017.

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Prose as beautiful as poetry; yet barbed and searing. Set in Germany during the Third Reich period, this story is narrated by none other than Death. I fell in love with the lead character Liesel who is fascinated by the power of words. It is, in fact, she who inspired me to write this post. The Book Thief is that kind of a book which will render you incapable of opening a new one for several days. Instead, your heart craves to linger longer with the characters who are now your closest friends. You are sure to miss Hans, Rudy, the accordion and their endearing personas for a very long time to come.
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – Non-fiction, guaranteed to invoke a survivor guilt feeling that such a brilliant mind was snatched away too soon. In the end, it is with the epilogue penned by Lucy, Dr Kalanithi’s wife, that your molten heart will finally break free through eyes and burn your cheeks.
  • Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi – A political thriller, and an eyeopener to someone who is naïve about Indian politics, merely a reaffirmation of own convictions to others. To put the message of the book in my own words: “All politics is drama. And there are no saints on stage!”.
  • The girl on the train by Paula Hawkins – A story weaved by the drunken delusions and misconceptions of the protagonist Rachel. A page-turner. The characters are raw and despicable; yet hurting and so real.

 

But wait, what’s with the girl mentioned in the title?

Well, here it goes… Once upon a time, there lived a little girl… Quiet and shy… Restless and wild… One day she received a gift…

She was soon to board a long-distance train from the southern tip of India to its capital territory, Delhi, in the North. It was going to be a two-day journey travelling the length of India with nothing much to do. Her parents knowing the girl well were anxious to safeguard their inner peace during the lengthy journey. It was an era before tablets and smartphones sieged childhood. The obvious choice of a book as the remedy for the forthcoming crisis resulted in a short stop at the Higginbothams bookstore right by the entrance to the railway platform. That’s how the girl, who had read only comics and magazines until then, received her first book. She must have been a little over 11 and it should be mentioned at this point that she didn’t feel any great sense of joy or triumph on holding the book… her own book… for the first time. The sirens bellowed with zest as the train pulled away with the girl, her family and the unread book. Swaying palms, green fields and throbbing rivers hurried past the girl in humdrum succession, hour after hour. That’s the exact moment when the girl fancied a change of scene. Gingerly she picked up the book and held it in her hands, gently flipping it around and feeling its glossy texture with her thin fingers. She started to read the summary on the back cover. Many of the words escaped her; Yet she persisted, trying to memorize them and guess their meaning. As the train gathered speed, so did her reading prowess. Absorbed by the story, hooked by the lure of the alluring words, hours vaporized, rendering food, sleep and the window scenes bland. Two days later, when she set her foot on to the Delhi platform, the book had become her most treasured possession.

Several weeks later, on her return back home, she craved nothing but books. She was lucky to be blessed with a new source. A retired ex- Airforce gentleman who now worked as a librarian and whom everyone called ‘Uncle’ would now bring her books each day after work. The girl would stand impatiently by her gateway with the stars powdering down on the magenta Bougainvillea blooms, awaiting yet another cherished reading. The books arrived in quick succession, and much to her mother’s alarm, the reading time crept up and annihilated sleep one hour at a time. Rules were prompt to be passed that books will now arrive only on the weekends. In a way, this pleasurable anticipation only added to the charm of reading; making the craving stronger and the rapture of reading more enticing. This ritual continued for years and to her mother’s dismay, the girl decided to spend a good half of her 10th grade board exam study holidays with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading his complete collection back to back, dreaming and sometimes waking up hearing the low whistle of the ‘Speckled Band’ or having visions of the luminous ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, in the silence of the night. She had just gained her first hero.

The library books were supplemented by visits to Balan’s circulating bookstall on the old Link Road, a tiny second-hand bookstore stacked with serpentine columns of well-thumbed books. The proprietor, a thick bespectacled elderly gentleman with a quiet demeanour often roused the girl’s envy with the sheer treasure he was blessed to handle. Each vacation, piles of books stacked into the boot, the old car will drive a girl sparkling with anticipation and a father reassured of some peaceful days ahead.

Decades later, as the girl types these words with the rain lashing the window panes, her two little munchkins are fast asleep with half-read books carefully tucked beneath their pillows, a smug little smile plastered on their delicate lips. A smile, that can be brought about only by the companionship of a good book. The string of words that offered the little boys’ company, leap up from those well-thumbed pages to embrace the mother’s soul. Yes! … the gift… the gift of words… The gift has proliferated and has been delicately passed down… sans force… sans fanfare… The mother sighs, grateful, content… In the event of any adversity that future is likely to summon, their solace lies close at hand… Cheer, after all, is only a book away…

Vanishing Greens

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety: other women cloy … “

These famous lines from the play Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare is what rings in my ears when I think of her. Occupying around an acre of ground, ‘She’ is the official bungalow of the Additional District Magistrate (ADM). An air of mystery seems to surround this magnificent bungalow of the bygone era, as she stands proud amongst her younger, mundane, concrete counterparts who have already lost much of their sheen. She has been around from time immemorial and there are no inscriptions to prove her exact age. Accepted fact is that she was built during the days of the Raj. Her beautiful sloping tiled roofs, the high-roofed porch and the huge glass windows, makes her a skilled fusion of Kerala and English architectural styles. The front portion of the structure reminds you of an English cottage, while the hind portion looks like a traditional Kerala home, complete with a Thattinpuram (attic) on the top floor.

In my school days as I walked past this beautiful abode, I would often crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the vast grounds packed with every possible tree that exists. The two huge banyan trees near the front gate are home to a large number of bats. Jackfruit, Mango, Seetha Pazham (Custard Apple/ Sugar Apple) and Papaya trees take turns in offering feasts to the avian visitors. Tamarind, Aana Pana (Elephant Palm), Murukku (A tree with thorns all over the trunk), Teak, Coconut and many other nameless trees grow in abundance. The building is in occupation off and on, being government property and an official residence.

For the past several years, the place is a picture of neglect with the shrubs and undergrowth fiercely eating up the free grounds. It’s a boon, however, to the many avian friends who have made their homes upon those tall trees. There are several tenants on the ground level too. A mongoose family can be spotted often. Chera (Rat snake), a common non-venomous snake is a permanent resident. If you are patient enough, you might even spot the common cobra, who intends no harm, provided he/she is left alone!

On quiet summer evenings, I have often been awed by the beauty of nature unfurling before me, even in the most unlikely place as this. The playful wind swirls around the tamarind tree bringing down a shower of ripe fruits and golden leaves. A pair of Olenjaali (Greater Racket-tailed Drongo) plays ‘catch me if you can’, gliding down from the huge teak. A solitary Cuckoo (Asian Koel) feasting on the ripe Papaya flies away with a shrill call of protest, as the fruit falls to the ground with a thud. A mischievous Robin (Oriental Magpie Robin) expresses his joy by twitching his tail. He strikes a pose for me, only to pick up a teasing game with a pair of watching Bulbul (Red-whiskered Bulbul). A pair of Myna (Common Myna) enjoy the show atop an old teak, rendered leafless by lightning many years ago. A Chempothu (Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant) skips along, devouring the small insects amongst the thick shrubs.  With some luck, you could even spot a pair of visiting Vezhaampal (Indian Grey Hornbill) feasting on the ripe papayas.

These birds, once common in every backyard throughout Kerala are dwindling at a fast rate. Green nooks like this, provide them with a much-needed refuge from the pressures of the ever-expanding city. I often wonder what would happen to this green haven which also happens to be a prime property close to the centre of the city, as the demographic pressures continue to increase.  With the approaching widening of the National Highway which passes adjacent to this property, a good deal of trees will have to be cut. Moreover, there are plans for restoring the existing buildings. It’s only a matter of time before more concrete structures sprout up in this serene land and pave the way to many a song of sorrow!  God Forbid!

This is not the story of one special green corner in district Y of a country X. This is what is happening to much of the developing world. Often blessed with a wealth of natural resources, but deprived of the will and means to protect it, green spaces continue to be compromised at a devastating rate in the name of expanding highways, bridges, real estate constructions, shopping malls and what not. While it is quite easy to thump your chest, and troll the climate policies of a yellow haired President in a far-off corner of the world, accepting and taking responsibility for what is happening closer back home is neither easy nor convenient. It’s not in the hands of the common man to effect a change, you might argue; Stopping all Arctic drills and burning of world’s rain forests might not be within your reach, but what you decide to do with that lone standing grandfather tree in your backyard, most certainly is.  And more often than not, it is a single tree at a time that is lost!

As they say,

‘Many a little makes a mickle’