A little girl, just about four or five years old, is standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs. She is as thin as a stick, her straight hair is cut short in a ‘boy cut’, her eyes are bright yet dreamy. She clatters up the wooden staircase. There is only one room at the top of the stairs. It is a study room she shares with her elder sister. She can’t really read yet, but she likes this porar ghor. Being here makes her feel big and important like the sister she adores, who bustles off to school every morning, while she still has to go to the neighbourhood play school. In one corner of the room lies a large steel trunk. Where did it come from—she doesn’t know and hasn’t given it a moment’s thought. It’s green, huge, and to her it seems as though it can fit in about ten little girls like her. She bends down, lifts the latch and pulls up the top. She squats on the floor now and gazes at the treasures that lie within…
The trunk is filled with books. Books in English and Bengali. Brightly coloured, shiny new ones. Dull and yellowing old ones. There are big bold drawings on the covers of some. Curly whirly letters on some others. She already recognizes the distinctive signature of Enid Blyton on the covers of so many. There is Abol Tabol with the funny man on its cover holding a horn to his ear. She picks it out and turns the pages, looking at the illustrations. The strange animals that have gone all topsy-turvy—the duck with porcupine quills, the giraffe with cockroach legs and then the man yelling to catch the moustache thief. She giggles, puts it aside and pulls out another one. This one is in English, large in size with colourful pictures. She settles down by the trunk to turn the pages. But the books seem to beckon her to come closer. She gathers up her favourite soft kantha, lays it neatly in the trunk… and climbs in.
Now she is curled up with a book, among the books. She can feel them poking her back through the blanket. She gives a happy sigh and settles in. The smell of old and new books is all around her. She touches the pages and knows she will forever love the feel of paper under her fingers. She traces the words with her eyes, longing to be able to read them all. She devours the pictures, trying to glean the story from them. An hour later her mother comes looking for her. She finds her daughter curled up inside the trunk, an open book across her thin chest, fast asleep.
That’s my first memory of books—among many others. It was the start of a long love affair. What is it about books that attracts still? By the law of averages, it should all begin to pall now. That chemistry, that frisson of first love should have dissipated. But no, instead it has grown into a steady companionship. We are travel companions, sleep companions, friends, adversaries, lovers. Sometimes they annoy me with their refusal to open up their secrets to me. Sometimes we fall effortlessly in sync and stay up nights. I laugh loudly in cafes while reading them. I stare at the sky thinking about words and ideas I have read in them. I still can’t walk by a bookshelf, bookstore or library without examining the titles displayed there. Funnily, I even make a living from them.
And most nights, I still fall asleep with one lying close by my side.
What is your earliest book memory?