My very first memory is of words. I remember looking at the spine of a book and the alphabet turned into words. Words turned into language. It was such a thrilling moment that I held that knowledge to myself. It was the first secret I kept.
Later I wondered if this was perhaps a learned memory — a gift I gave to an intractable middle child with a disturbing penchant for brutal honesty. In fact, I seemed born to angst. I didn’t have much time for people and their peculiarities. I wanted to be left alone to live in a world of my making. And books gave those dreams wings.
Every birthday my mother and I would walk down to a rather ambitiously named books and stationery store called Elite. There I would select six hardcover books. Given that I had spent the last year mentally stocking my library, you would think it wouldn’t take us too much time. But it did. I would caress each book, stick my nose in each page to inhale the smell of paper, and then insist on having each one gift wrapped, individually.
Only when I finished one would I unwrap the other. It made me feel as if I had a birthday all year long. And attending my party were Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, Mr Darcy, Lorna Doone, Edmond Dantes, and Amyas Leigh. For as long as I can remember, these books were my best friends.
Families are layered, complicated beasts. Mine was no different. It didn’t help that I grew into a rebellious, recalcitrant teen. One particularly difficult summer, our lives reached a crisis point when most of my family had to rush to the UK — my father needed open heart surgery.
We were left in the custody of a kind aunt, but I chose to interpret it as abandonment. I locked myself in my grandfather’s study in protest. Lined with bookshelves and overwhelmed with a Burma teak desk, it was the only room that no one had laid claim on. And that is when something inexplicably, magically changed. Through literature I chanced upon the stories of my family. In a way that had never been accessible to me.
I came across my mother’s collection of Georgette Heyer novels. It is here that I fell in love with fashion. Heyer spends a lot of time describing clothes. A stickler for accuracy about the Regency period, she also introduced me to Beau Brummell, the original dandy. My grandmother, on the other hand, was the original aesthete.
She had a large collection of leatherbound books — I like to think she admired the way they looked and hadn’t read them.
A quote from The Catcher in the Rye.
The keeper of the family’s morality, her books ran from Désirée by Annemarie Selinko, the biography of Napolean’s first love, alongside The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.
Banned at the time of its publication in 1928, this was one of the most controversial lesbian novels of the time, despite its really chaste nature. My grandfather, the war hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War, had his army books. His newspaper clippings of the war.
His briefing tapes. I fell in love with history and the people who made it. But the books that changed my life were my uncle’s. KM left home when I was very young — he decided to travel the world with $7 in his pocket. By the time he came back, he had an Afro and had changed his faith and his name.
My hero had become this man I didn’t recognise. Until I found his books. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Intimacy, The Words, The Age of Reason. Albert Camus’ The Outsider, The Plague, A Happy Death. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Throw in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and KM’s missing years were gifted to me as I journeyed with him. Literally. He had this habit of inscribing the date and the train station where he bought the book. Books showed me how to feel. They weren’t just about thought. They were my emotion.
It was a strange summer. Lonely. And long. And then my father came back well. But even before they returned I had found my family. I had also found myself. I had the books. Always the books.
(Courtesy of Harper's Bazaar.)