Not once, not twice or thrice, but seven times I sneezed as I entered my old bedroom. I walked to the window and pulled the curtains open. The sun, peeking out from the clouds for the first time since morning, cast its rays into the room and in its brightness, specks of dust could be seen floating everywhere. The cot was without a mattress now, old rugs and sheets hanging on its age old frame. The cobwebs that were on the lampshades on either side of the cot were bigger than those I had ever seen. And on the wall opposite the door, just near the window was an old painting of the sea. The blue had faded, as had the white used for the sky.
“Dadddddyyyy… daddy, where are you? The sun is out. Let’s go for a walk! Dadddddyyyy…”
I turned to the door to see her run inside the room, closely followed by a breathless Narayanan.
“Kutty, sookshichu! Not… safe. Mazha… come soon. Play naale again. Enne trust cheyu!”
I couldn’t help but laugh hearing his mixed English and Malayalam dialogue, but it made me happy to see his concern for Vidya.
“Chetaa, she understands Malayalam… manasilakum. Parayathilla, that’s all,” I explained to him. Hearing myself talk, I felt silly for laughing earlier. Sadly, I was just as terrible at speaking Malayalam now after the years away from home.
“Daddy, who draw it?” she asks me, pointing to the painting.
I smile and bend down to her.
“Daddy drew, Vids. Once upon a time.”
She gives me two thumbs-up; she does that when she really likes something. I want to tell her all about it, but she has already started looking around the room, holding her hanky to her nose.
“Daddy… book!” she says, and excitedly points under the cot.
And sure enough, there’s an old book there on the floor. But it’s dusty and torn to bits, possibly worn out by the elements and silverfish. I take one of my father’s old walking sticks and pull the book toward me. The cover has faded, but I can make out a little of the lettering. It was one of my father’s favorite books, and mine as well.
“Aaro took it out from big book room,” says Narayanan, looking worried. I just smile. If only I’d have been here, no book would’ve been discarded like this.
“Which book, Daddy? Read me, read me!”
“Book is dusty, Vids. But daddy knows the story. He’ll tell you soon, okies?”
I remember a sunny, sultry May afternoon years and years ago. A boy was packing a bag with lots of food, a compass that was his father’s most prized possession, a thermometer that he’d stolen from a first aid kit, and then thinking hard about it, the rest of the first aid kit as well. There was a bag with clothes for every kind of weather… woolens, cottons, even trunks for the beach. He walked out after an hour, to the surprise of two ladies sitting in the living room… one with thick glasses and another with thick-rimmed glasses… both drinking coffee and reading magazines.
“Evide going, kocche? Kaapi no ready,” asked Sharada chechy, the one with the thick glasses, in English that she was learning from the other lady, my mother.
“I’m going on an adventure. I want to follow in the steps of Herr Lidenbrock and Arne Saknussemm, to find and explore the Center of the Earth.”
I can still picture my mother’s face upon hearing that statement. I see her lips curling into a big smile, trying hard to control the peals of laughter that would come later. She saw me go into the compound, and with a shovel, start digging the almost white sands outside. She sat on the front steps and watched me, till I could dig no more and fell down in a heap.
“Would Herr Aanand like some lemon juice?” she had said, laughing and explaining what I had been doing to Sharada chechy.
The book still remained my favorite even after that day, my eleventh birthday when I had read an illustrated copy of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I bought a copy of the unabridged version too, one that remains with me to this day.
I’m brought out of my memory walk by the sound of laughter. I go downstairs to see Sharada chechy in conversation with Aarthi and Vidya. When they see me, they laugh harder, and I know my secret is out. They know I know it too, the sheepish grin on my face gives me away.
“Saar left books. All in big book room,” she says as I reach them.
We go back upstairs, and Narayanan has finished his cleaning of that room at last. Vidya’s eyes light up seeing so many books in my father’s old library. There are books of all kinds there… old leather bound volumes that are the classics like Great Expectations and Anne Frank’s diary. Paperbacks of The Time Machine by HG Wells and the entire Famous Five and Secret Seven collection, my old best friends stare back at me happily. Old Readers’ Digests and some other magazines are also there. This was my heaven before, a treasure trove in glass cupboards I’ve only just rediscovered.
In a moment, a few of the Enid Blyton novels are out, and Vidya curls up on the carpet near the window with the day’s last light for company.
I think it was Stephen King who said, “Books are a uniquely portable magic”. Today, they transported me back to my childhood, and seeing Vidya read, I feel they might transport me to the future too.
(10 Dec, 2013)