Books (besides a dog), as the old cliche goes are a man’s best friend and thus like we find various friends over the course of a lifetime, we befriend varied subjects and authors at different times in our lives. After all, we all love a good story, whether it travels to us from continents away in the form of news or simply trickles down as gossip at the office water-cooler. And then a lot of us go looking for them, in the wide jungle that is literature, available to us at the book stores in the form of fiction, biographies, fantasy or a fifty-shades-of-gray.
For me what started out in school as a customary tool to improve my skills in the language with Enid Blyton and Inc. , soon transformed into a hobby when words seemed to open a limitless resource of stories in the form of Nancy Drew’s adventures or Agatha Christie’s detective stories or later a Robin Cook medical thriller. Of course those were the kind of stories that were to be read and forgotten within a span of days, because not matter how ingeniously a mystery was deconstructed, there was little to take away from it in terms of the human experience. The realization gave way to works of Jeffery Archer, Sidney Sheldon and Eric Segal and thus began the era where books like Kane and Abel, Doctors, Gone with the Wind and Tell me your dreams were remembered and not merely their authors. Sometimes, some of these books became a guideline for living my life for a while (thankfully) and Howard Roark from The Fountain Head (Ayn Rand) more than just the lead protagonist in perpetual rebellion against the world. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship, where books became co-travelers on journeys (and I gladly sacrificed the wonderful view outside the window), or skipped various outings with friends because the idea of spending time with a book seemed far more stimulating.
But just like at the gym you have to keep raising the bar and challenge your body, the themes of my literary companions became more convoluted, now negotiating cognitive dissonance in works of Jodi Piccoult( My Sister’s Keeper) or Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Soon books began to demand and occupy a larger space in my room, my mind. They were transporting me to faraway places to witness the lives of women in Afghanistan (Khalid Hosseni) or the uncover hidden mysteries of the Sundarbans (Vikram Seth) or vicariously experience the world through eyes of a child in a Salman Rushdie /Arundhati Roy story set in Bombay/Kerala or mull over the dichotomies prevalent in the life of the second generation Bengalis living in Boston( Jhumpa Lahiri) or time-travel through the contemporary interpretations of mythological works (Immortals of Meluha, Palace of illusions etc.) Where else could you, if not through the magical alchemy of books, ever cross-over from your ‘muggle’ lives into Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry that ensnared kids and adults alike (who believed in the reality of Harry and Friends, like you would in a modern day Santa Klaus).
In today’s time books aren’t just company anymore, but also my refuge when there is really no physical place left for an escape. They become the face behind which I hide on long metro journeys to work everyday, the loud voice of the prose drowning all the voices in my head and shutting out the realities of living. They often oil the old, dormant ideas of my once inquisitive brain and plant a million new dilemmas about things that exist beyond the realm of our everyday encounters. And sometimes, if we are looking, books within their stratified narratives offer us a mirror- either to reflect upon our own lives or to take something away from the learnings of its protagonists. What does the success of a book like the Alchemist (Paul Coelho) or Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) indicate if not our huge desire to identify ourselves with other people’s stories. We pick up quotes, forge opinions, draw on philosophies remember the Scarlett O Haras, the Harrys or the John Galts (from the famous Atlas Shrugged) beyond their lives in fiction.
Often, while reading on a moving metro, I rest my eyes on the lush landscape outside the window while assimilating a beautiful idea- a quote, a thought or simply a well written paragraph and smile to no one in particular in the compartment. Because as long as there is still a book left in the world to read, who can claim to be alone?