The sound of wood hitting cork rings in the background. A group of children yell and scramble after the baseball. Two others tug on the bat fighting over who gets to hit next. Sneakers squeak as the net swooshes in the basketball court. In this world of fun and play, I sit fifty feet away with my nose buried in a book. Not because I didn't want to play. But because I wasn't wanted.
Thirty years later…
It's a sunny afternoon, not cool enough that you'd open the shades and let the light percolate in, but not warm enough that you'd shut every crevice in the home and blast the AC on full throttle. We have guests visiting us, and post-pandemic, it feels like a completely new experience. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts across the hall.
But that's not what grabs their attention. Like iron filings drawn to a magnet, their eyes immediately scan the giant espresso-stained shelf glistening in the corner. Ikea sells one of these every five seconds. Not hard to believe. In addition to the 66 lbs it can hold, it has also been saddled with the expectations of millions since 1979. Considering the shelf life (pardon the pun) of most things these days is a week, you'd consider these dinosaurs timeless.
What interests our guests, however, is not the shelf itself, but its contents. Crammed from top to bottom are books of all kinds and in various conditions. Not a single packing peanut can fit in there. Right on cue, one of them asked, "Have you read all these books?".
My mind wanders before I can respond. I hear my wife saying, "He's got another one upstairs and even that's bursting at the seams". As I dive deeper into thought, her voice trails away in my head. I'm being sucked into a pensieve like Harry in Dumbledore's study, back to a world I had forgotten, or so I wished to believe.
A significant chunk of my childhood was spent divided between the sunny tropical climes of Chennai, India and the largest archipelago in the world, Indonesia (No, I didn't know that off the top of my head. I googled it). My dad got a wonderful job in east Java, and the four of us (mom, dad, kid sister and me) moved there. We were surrounded by dormant volcanoes, lush rainforests and hot springs. Straight out of Jurassic park.
The locals were fantastic - warm, friendly and taught me a lot about being welcoming hosts. Yet, It was a complete change in culture and scenery. A new language, new food, and no other Indian families within a hundred mile radius. The sounds of waves foaming at the shoreline, buzzing marketplaces and temple bells were replaced with silence.
We were alone.
My parents enrolled me in an American school in Indonesia. They wanted the best for their children (and always have). Turned out, I was the only brown kid in the entire school. A blot of ink on an otherwise pristine canvas. I was too young to understand why other kids avoided playing with me, found my food funny (masala is not for the weak) and my accent unintelligible.
I understand now.
My teachers recognized what was happening and came to my rescue (Thank you Miss Merlyn and Miss Janet). Their solution? They turned me into a reader. I devoured all the books I was allowed to read in the school library. In fact, my parents would dread the Scholastic book fairs at school each year. I'd buy more books than I had time to read.
Whether it was the zany adventures of Ms. Frizzle and her class in the Magic School Bus, the unwavering love between White Fang and his master, the sheer will of Matilda rebelling against the evil Ms. Trunchbull, I'd go on new adventures every day. Books were my foulweather friends. They shared their secrets with me.
I'd draw the characters from stories I read based on their textual descriptions. I'd try to visualize the vast worlds that they inhabited. Nothing sparked my creativity & imagination more.
Books on Science, Art, and History weren't spared either. While each work of fiction I read turned into a new quest, each non-fiction masterpiece kindled a desire within me to pursue a new profession. At one point, I secretly hoped to become a paleontologist (No, genuinely. I didn't make this up after seeing Friends).
I was living a thousand lives at once. It was bliss.
Do you know the voice that's in your head? The one that only you hear when you read silently?
Well, books didn't care that mine had an Indian accent.
What I'd give to have a butler like Jeeves to extricate me from hilariously intertwined situations, and to converse with Gandalf and learn from his wisdom. Books were a panacea for my ills. They helped me cultivate and keep focus, and empowered me to think differently.
A sharp nudge in the ribs wakes me from my reverie. I'm out of the pensieve. "Did you really read all those books?" asked one of my guests.
"Yes, and I'll read them all over again in a heartbeat. Would you like to read one?".