Monday, December 03, 2007

Best Friends

The onset of winter in Delhi meant warmer uniforms, reluctant mornings, hesitant baths, foggy busrides to school, watching mist form before our mouths as we spoke, and hopping around in the big field to keep warm. The afternoons were glorious. Peanuts, sunshine, balconies, and books.

Driving past India Gate in late October, I would crane my neck to see that tents were being put up on the lawns for the Bal Mela, which marks Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday (14 November) with a month-long amusement-and-book fair. And, one lucky winter afternoon, I'd come back from school and be met with Ma saying 'Today we're going to the book fair.'

A quick lunch, and a rapid change of clothes, so that we could go and spend maximum time on the grassy lawns of India Gate before we had to hurry back in time for my father's return from work. And we'd be off. The sun warming my forearms as they rested on the lowered window. The wind just starting to turn merciless, chapping lips and whipping my hair. The people walking around with sweaters tied around their waists, a sign that the morning had been colder and the late evening would be the same.

Having parked, we'd spend some time on the rides, shoot clustered balloons with airguns, eat some candyfloss, buy churan and then head into the books section of the fair.

And that was paradise. Stall after stall, with attractively displayed books. Watching out for my mother (I was always afraid I'd get lost), I'd peek into each stall, my eager eyes skimming the covers till they rested on something promising. Drawing closer, I'd reach out, tug at it, and hold it. Flip through it. Inhale that new book smell. And then decide. Do I want this? Ok, let me come back. Where is Ma? I need to buy it before someone else gets to it. I can't put this down now. Then I'd begin the dance of trying to go as far out of the stall without looking like a shoplifter so I could attract her attention. Having succeeded, scurry back in to look through more pages till the funding body arrived and, having approved the choice, produced the required amount.

Standing in line, proudly clutching my choice till my turn at the counter. Does this bored-looking man care that I'm dying to read this book? Then, bag in hand, I would emerge into the weakening sunlight, often to bump into friends who had come with their parents, and curiously examine their purchases as well, quickly 'booking' the books they had bought which I wanted to read as well.

Once, I had already cleaned out Ma's wallet. And then we saw it. A big, hardbound, colourful book, '1,500 Fascinating Facts'. That day we learnt what it meant to scrape together the money for something. We dug deep into her purse. Lint, fluff, and a little small change. I produced a crumpled tenner from my jeans' pocket. Insignificant coins and unhelpfully small notes all combined, we were still 15 Rupees short. The salesman took pity on us and reduced the price. We drove back, elated at the purchase, temporarily penniless, but with a story to last forever.


The pocketbook series of abridged classics, the Penguin paperbacks, James Herriots, Agatha Christies, and, every time at the book fair, at least one '1,500 Fascinating Facts' kind of book to improve general knowledge. The Prince and the Pauper, Adventure Stories for Girls, Charles and Mary Lamb's Shakespeare, Huckleberry Finn, The Count of Monte Cristo. Just the names of these books are enough to remember those days. Snuggling under the blanket and reading till I was lectured on bad light and threatened with glasses. Hurrying through homework to get back to the adventures of Tom Sawyer. Hoping for a seat on the bus home so that I could get on with The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Etched on memories of childhood and teenage are those books. The front fly-leaf of those books when I pick them up today or find them in my cousins' homes helps me track my handwriting as it evolved over the years. 'Anamika Mukharji', they proclaim in triumph, asserting ownership. And then the date. A marker in time. A reminder of an age I have been that will never come back.


Walking down a busy Bandra street recently, books were far from my mind. We had just watched The Kingdom, eaten at a burger joint, and were strolling across to another hall to catch Om Shanti Om. A movie-fest, interrupted by a calorie fest. The intellect was on holiday. And then, I caught sight of a simple, hand-painted banner announcing 'Book Fair'. Bandra, Bombay, and traffic receded around me as I stood, hurtling back in time.

Entering, it was just like those fairs of my childfood. dusty tables covered with white cloth, books arranged in steps, knowledge, self-help, fiction, classics. Once upon a time, I had been the same height as those tables, and had stood tiptoe to find what I liked. Eager hands had reached out for an imaginary world. Young eyes had widened with interest.

And so, I stared, I chose with my eyes, from a distance. I touched. I flipped pages. I smelt in that old, new-book smell. And I knew I just had to buy something. If only to feel nine years old again.

15 comments:

the mad momma said...

Oh Anna... this was such a beautiful post. (Damn - I think I need to come up with better lines to tell you how much)

Anonymous said...

reminds me of the Calcutta Book fair, what a pleasure.

Here our library has these old books on sale kind of fair. And though there is no new book smell I love to get my loot for as less as 25cents.

sandeepa

Anamika said...

MM: This works to make me feel good all the time. You don't need new lines!

Sandeepa: 25 CENTS?? That's like 10-12 Rupees! I'm moving there. Tomar haath-er ranna khabo, aar shosta-e kena boi porbo. Heaven!! ;)

Sandeepa said...

hey not that easy..hanh... you don't get what you want, you have to pick from what they have to offer ok ?

What I have managed till now is mostly Grisham, AC(the ones I had read but just wanted to buy) but once (literally once upon a time) I got lucky and got 1984 and Lord of The Flies. Also got a Chita Banerjee Divakurani and a Amy tan recently.

sbora said...

i a not sure if you got my eralier comment, so here it again...

yet another beautiful write up. simple but eloquent and profound.

i enjoy reading your posts.

Anamika said...

Sandeepa: Not bad, if it's for 25 cents I'd be a lot more willing to take what I can get!

Sbora: Thanks. It's always so good to hear that :) I started my day with your comment. So it's going to be a nice day!

sbora said...

Thanks for leaving a comment on my space.....

Anonymous said...

I echo MM's sentiments. This is a beautiful post. In my opinion, your most beautiful one yet. Because not only is it superbly crafted and spun with glorious images, I can also totally identify with the thrill you describe and it took ME back to the days of school and Parents' Open Days, at the end of which we'd have our annual school book fair. I know I haven't said anything spectacularly different. This just struck a chord with me, that's all. :0)
--OJ

Cool Cancerian said...

Am here via OJ's blast at 360. Enjoyed this post so very much. Brought back so many memories. Ahhh Books! A different world opens with each one. I still remember my friends teasing me about my changing moods which according to them depended on the situations in the book I was reading at the moment. Lol..

Anamika said...

OJ: Thank ye Thank ye :) And you're doing some good PR for me, I see. I guess this speaks to all book-lovers equally.

Cool Cancerian: Hey, thanks for the great words and of course, for dropping by! I know what you mean about books affecting the mood. I remember being blue for days after Matthew died in Anne of Green Gables!

Minnie said...

Candy floss, churan,...!!!! yummmm all the stuff childhood memories are made of!..errr did you say mention books somewhere in there? :-). Two books that changed my life and way of thinking in my pre-teen years, Charles and Mary Lamb's Shakespeare for Children and Count of Monte Cristo......thank you and thanks to OJ for the blast, I now hanker for a book fair....Manju

Minnie said...

Tried to comment once before but it didn't work. Came through OJ's blast. I must say this made me nostalgic for some of the books that influenced me the most in my pre-teen years, Charles & Mary Lambs Shakespeare for children and Count of Monte Cristo! Brought back memories of churan and candy floss too :-)

Aunty G said...

Your Ma's been a wise one || Encouraging reading in her wee 'un || But the post's about book-smell || Leaving you mighty pell-mell || And your piece, all our hearts, won!

dipali said...

Loved this post- methinks you evoked many a childhood and youth with this one. Thanks!

A Muser said...

You fellow-kitabikeeda, you! Lovely post.