Yesterday, after a protracted battle over television rights, you managed to negotiate a one-hour deal for the afternoon. We obliged and retired to our room to read. I came out for a drink of water and was surprised to not hear the usual raucous sounds of Curious George or Yo Gabba Gabba. Instead, there was silence. A beam of afternoon sunshine streamed in through the window illuminating a small patch of floor where you sat quietly. Reading a book. Whispering each word along your steady and determined progress through the sentence. I remember not paying attention to what the book was about, I was simply transfixed by the sight I’ve just described. In a few short moments you took me back to some of my childhood’s happiest memories.
You probably don’t realize what an important moment this is, for you and for your parents. We started to get you to read words a short while ago. It was gratifying to see you work your way up from letters to sounds to rhyming words. Your grandparents were here when they taught you those. Everyone would be delighted when you’d shout out the word to the accompanying picture. Cat, mat, rat. But today, is something truly special. You’ve realized the power these innocuous groups of letters can summon when they become groups of words. Every word a small, yet stable stone that’s leading you over a marsh of ignorance to the safety of land.
It’s in books I’ve found entertainment, solace, learning, discovery and intrigue. And this was even before I turned ten. I devoured books at a rate that alarmed my parents. I remember spending summer vacations at my grandfather’s place in Mumbai, waking up every morning with the eager anticipation of a trip to the local library. Let me assure you that the library was the closest thing to paradise I’d ever seen. It was full of musty books, the best kind in my opinion. Withered pages bearing colors of rust and overuse. And behind those wilting spines a treasure of juvenile adventures. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie (I still love Poirot, by the way), Famous Five. I used to start reading the book on my way back home, bumping into the merciless sea of humanity that is Dadar. Dad would be at the end of his tether by the time we returned. I’d bring back a book and be done with it by night. This went on for a week until dad decided to check if there was a point to wading through crowds every morning for my books. He picked up a Poirot I’d acquired that morning, randomly chose a page and asked me questions about the plot. I answered correctly. He was stunned. He never questioned me again and cheerfully accompanied me to the library after that.
Over time, that glorious habit has been replaced by staring at excel sheets and writing concise one-liners in a short span of time for important people with even shorter attention spans. I stare at screens all day and it seems books have kept pace with our robotization, for they too are an integral part of those screens. I stay informed through thousands of words flitting across my screen, neatly organized into 140-character morsels. I educate myself and analyze through longform articles or by reading the musings of some very smart people I’m privileged to know. But once in a while, I’ll shut down those screens, settle into bed with a glass of scotch, a reading light and open a book. Not turn it on, or switch it on. Open it.
That’s how I’d like you to read your books too. You’re no stranger to iPhones and iPads and you even asked me what a “Kindle” is. It’s only a matter of time. But there are some things about the books I knew that I want you to know. They are what we aspire to be. Books have a spine, and they give you one. Books are opened, and they do that to your mind. Each turn of a page is a symbolic act of moving onto something new and undiscovered, but never forgetting where you’ve come from. When you encounter a difficult word, I’ve taught you to “break it up”, so you make a chopping gesture and bring your little hand down on the offender. But it stays there, resolute, challenging you to get through it. Remember, you cannot destroy words, so be careful of what you write and what you allow yourself to read.
A few days ago you came across the word “comfortable” and struggled to pronounce it. Eventually you settled on “confontable” and asked me what it meant. I told you it meant “warm and cozy”. Tonight as I tucked you into bed you kept shuffling around restlessly. When I impatiently queried your motives, you stopped for a second and said you’re “trying to get confontable”. What made me feel very confontable was that you learned that from a book.
I want to share so many books with you. I’m delighted at the prospect of debating motives, the sanctity of events, the morality of characters in books both of us have read. Like I did when dad handed me a copy of Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. For a short while, I fell in love with politics because we debated it. Dad may not remember that conversation, but I do. I look forward to creating many such memories with you.
And so I hope a book always accompanies you wherever you go. Because those thousand miles always begin with a single page.
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