Today I am delighted to feature a guest post from Gauri. Originally from India, she now lives in America.
My Book of Memories
(Or my life chronicled through some of the books I’ve read. And the memories they evoke.)
I glimpse a paperback on a friend’s bookshelf. It takes me right back to college when you were too uncool for school if you hadn’t read the book’s author. My daughter tells me a literary classic — my mom’s favorite — is being remade into a movie. And now I hear my mom’s voice quoting from the book.
Books evoke memories. These are some of mine…
My Book of Memories opens with a fairytale. I am lying in the back seat of the family car, with my shut-eye doll, my fuzzy blanket, and Enid Blyton’s book of fairytales. (There were no seat belts back then.)
My little brother, Ash, rides in front with my parents. He likes to look out at this world. I like to lose myself in imaginary worlds.
I’m happy when it takes a long time to get to our destination.
* * *
At the time of my in-car reading sessions, I was five years old and living in Pune, India. Mom was an avid reader. She frequented a circulating library that offered Women’s Weekly and Women and Home magazines — along with a modest selection of novels — to its predominantly female clientele. And Enid Blyton’s books to the kids who tagged along.
Blyton’s books were inhabited by an eclectic mix of humans, fairy folk, toys, and barnyard and woodland animals. In this fantastical world, you might find a little red door set in the trunk of a very old tree. You turned the round green doorknob, stepped through, and found yourself on a railway platform. From here you could take a train to Fairyland, Goblin Hill, or Toyland.
I have to admit that although I’m far from six now, I still stare very hard at the trunks of very old trees, checking for little red doors. I’m looking at you, giant sequoia. You never know, right?
* * *
In my early teens, I devoured paperbacks. Mainly mysteries and romances. Mom spoke of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Daphne du Maurier in hushed tones. To please her, I read Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca. And then, to please me, I read them all over again.
Dad, a naturalist at heart, got my brother and me a slew of illustrated books on birds, reptiles, mammals, and dinosaurs.
I got back from school one day to find a T-rex and a brontosaurus — both about four inches high — squaring off on top of the radio in the living room. Dad had fashioned them out of Plasticine (Play-Doh). He believed in giving us a hands-on education.
Pluto and Persephone…
Tai, my father’s elder sister, worked at the Oxford publishing house in Mumbai. Every year she gifted me a book for my birthday. When I turned eight, she presented me with two children’s books of Greek mythology. Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Medusa. I was as riveted by the names as by the stories.
During a college literature class, a professor asked if anyone knew the story of Persephone and Pluto. I put up my hand. She gazed at me with newfound respect. I thought it best not to reveal that I had gotten my deep knowledge of Greek mythology from a children’s book.
After marriage, I lived on a farm with Raj, my parents-in-law, and Raj’s granddad. Our farmhouse was three miles from the nearest village. But even here, there was no dearth of reading material.
In his room, Raj’s granddad had a cupboard full of books tenderly covered with brown paper. I could take my pick from Dickens through Poe to Pearl S. Buck.
When we moved from the farmhouse to an apartment in Mumbai, half of the books moved with us. And then, over the years, a quarter of those treasures found their way to Houston, where I now live.
* * *
Some of these books are close to a hundred years old. Time has tinged their pages a light sepia. I have to turn the pages carefully lest they flake off.
I open the books, and a musty-sweet aroma wafts to my nostrils. Suddenly, I’m looking out the living room window of a certain farmhouse in India. A bullock cart rumbles past on the dusty track outside the window, heaped with sacks full of freshly harvested peanuts. Just beyond the track, row upon row of young sorghum fronds flirt with the breeze.
Coming to America…
My book memories of America, where I moved twenty-some years ago, with my husband and daughters, are a world away from bullock carts or flirtatious sorghum.
From Mumbai we flew into Cleveland, OH, where my daughters enrolled in middle and high school. My older daughter’s English Lit. syllabus included The Black Pearl, which was my introduction to American literature. My memories of this book are decidedly mixed.
On the one hand, I loved the book; it inspired me to read another Steinbeck classic, The Grapes of Wrath.
On the other, The Black Pearl remains closely bound up with that fresh-off-the-boat, disorienting sense of foreignness. With the shock of the biting Cleveland winter after the muggy warmth of Mumbai — the cold inking chilblains on the backs of our hands. The isolation — trees bare of leaves, streets bare of people. The echoing quiet. Most alien of all, the smells — the insistent tang of Lysol and wood-polish; that plasticky new-car smell.
Twenty-some years later, the country that once felt alien is now home.
And now, this…
I started my book collection in Houston eight years ago, right around the time of my grandson’s birth. The first book that I bought was Kafka’s Metamorphosis. A fitting title, I thought, for my own metamorphosis from mom to Grand Mom.
Several of the books in my collection, from Hamlet through Harry Potter, are storied in more ways than one. There is enough nostalgia here to fill yet another Book of Memories. But that’s a story, or a blog post, for another day.
Yes, books evoke memories. What are some of yours?
Here is a link to her blog. Please take time to visit, and welcome Gauri to this community.