I first learned to read upside down, at the age of four or five, sitting across the table from my older cousin who was doing her summer homework. Ever since then, books have been some of my favourite adventures and companions. Growing up, our home was filled with books. In my memory, most European homes have shelves in the living room filled, not with movies, but with rows and rows of books. I can’t imagine a good room without a full bookshelf. Whenever I would ask my dad a question as a child, he would bring out a pile of books and encyclopaedias, and show me how the answer to most questions was not black and white, how we had to look to history and literature and science and spirituality to find a more rounded perspective. I’d roll my eyes before listening to his long explanations, but the older I grew the more I appreciated the curiosity he passed on to me.
When I was a young tween, someone gave me a Hungarian translation of Anne of Green Gables for Christmas. Wish I could remember who it was, so I could thank them forever! As a girl whose circumstances were somewhat unstable and who moved around from school to school and from parent to parent, I found a magical, simple, happy world in Avonlea. I recognised myself in Anne and imagined that we would be bosom friends in real life. I savoured the lovely sentences of the book and copied quotes from it in a small, flowery notebook. The beauty of the words offered me comfort and hope; I felt that I was not alone with my desires, my ideas, my dreams, my hurts. I can’t wait for my daughter to be old enough to read it and still hope that one day I get to walk on Prince Edward Island.
On our way to moving to India, we stopped in Hungary for a few weeks. Our many pieces of luggage were already filled to the brim and we couldn’t fit any new items, but a friend gifted me two huge volumes of a book that I had been waiting to read. What could I have done? Of course, I had to get rid of some clothes to make room (and probably some toys -- don’t tell my kids). It was a memoir written by one of my favourite Hungarian poets’ wife, an almost daily journal of their decade-long relationship. The poet, Radnoti, was a Jewish man who ended up being killed in a labor camp in Serbia in WWII. The raw honesty of the pages as she described the days of their marriage, the literary life of their time, her world as a working woman, his struggles to keep creating, and the horrors of life in Budapest during the war, helped me deal with our stress as newcomers in India. It gave me another life, another world to dive into and also perspective about our challenges and difficulties. A couple months ago my husband got a tattoo of a Radnoti quote on his arm, a line I will never see with happiness.
Books have always been my favourite gifts, especially books that my friends have read and loved and been changed by. Last Christmas our small group did a used book exchange, and I ended up with a treasure, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I’ve never heard of her, but I knew after the first few pages that I’ve been missing out. Her stories combine two worlds that I know, India and the US, she writes about the tension between first and second generation Indian Americans. I love the simplicity and realness of her language, the cultural observations, the way she paints small exchanges and details of relationships we have all experienced, and the melancholy of life that’s worth talking about.
Even as a mom, when I have some free time, I grab a book and lose myself in lives lived in different lands, different times, by people different from me. I am always the richer for it. These days I read a lot with my kids too, colourful and silly books, tales of superheroes and princesses, animals and magical creatures, one-on-one or aloud as a family. My daughter and I have been reading chapter books together, and I am so happy I can accompany her on some of her imaginary journeys. I hope that the love of books, everywhere and always, is a love I can pass on to my kids.