Speaking volumes

Demonstrating in childhood what I later learnt was called ‘print hunger’.

Trooping through the stalls at a huge book fair in town, I soaked in the warm sunshine on a cold winter afternoon. This has become an annual habit made more exciting each year with newer features and inviting offers. Meeting authors at promotional events or winning a chocolate bar at a stand-up quiz on literature has its own thrills. But the biggest joy lay in being able to browse in a relaxed fashion and add books to one’s ever-increasing stack.

I evolved as a reader through the predictable sequence of fairy tales, school stories, mystery novels, crime thrillers and medical fiction before settling on non-fiction and management books written in a racy style that appeals to those who buy books in airport bookshops between flights. Demonstrating in childhood what I later learnt was called ‘print hunger’, my nose was forever inside a book even at mealtimes, much to the irritation of my mother who rightly thought that it was the height of rudeness. We eventually comprised by agreeing  that she would not object to my reading at the breakfast table provided I woke up 15 minutes earlier. In turn, I would not bring my book to the dinner table. As for lunch, there was no need to lay down a rule because I was a latchkey child.

My school had a beautiful library with stained glass windows and an attractive aqua skylight that accentuated the tranquillity of the place. Row upon row of grayish-blue cupboards stood along both sides of the huge hall, yielding their contents into the searching hands of our friendly librarian, Mrs Gowri or the enthusiastic band of children who were enlisted to help her fulfil the book requests of an entire classroom. At the far end, Gowri had set up what we called the ‘book hospital.’ Here, torn or damaged books were restored back to good condition with loving precision, aided by special tape, non-staining glue and a resident book-binder. My friends and I volunteered here at a time when voluntary service did not rate a mention in your school assessment -- we did it for sheer love. We rubbed out pencil markings from books, fixed tears, looked for missing pages and strengthened loose covers. It was distressing to see the vandalism and abuse that books were subjected to by some not-very-nice children in our midst.

In history class, learning about the ransacking of libraries by invaders upset me considerably. What would a mercenary marauder want with a library full of books, I would ask. “No better way to destroy the soul of an entire kingdom,” our teacher said with a grave expression.

Shaking off my reverie, I walked back to the parking lot at the book fair, my jute bags full of my happy purchases. Among the crowds, I was pleased to see many young people and children for whom books seemed to be an abiding passion. “No better way to nurture the soul of a nation either,” I mused.

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