My father was a field geologist and in my childhood, he was away half the year in remote places. The months he was home in Calcutta, rules and routine were jettisoned. There were cream rolls for dinner, concerts, and tram rides with no fixed destinations. And soon Abol Tabol, Sukumar Ray’s book of nonsense verse, was dug out and dusted off. We knew the poems backward, but our anticipation of Baba’s characteristic intonations made us giggle even before he started reading. That is my earliest, happiest memory of a book.
Especially when we are young, books give coherence to whatever emotions are tangled up inside us; years later, it can seem inexplicable why a particular book appeared a revelation. There are books I don’t return to now for the same reason that I don’t go back to certain places: I don’t want my memories altered.
Mostly what has stayed with me from things read long ago is poetry. At Presidency College, Calcutta, a friend opened my world to poets I had never encountered. We would rummage through piles of books at the chaotic pavement stalls on College Street, begging shopkeepers for instalment plans to buy them on, and this way I discovered Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop. One of the books I always have on my desk now is by Anne Stevenson, whose ‘Correspondences, A Family History in Letters’, is a remarkable set of poems that builds up the narrative of a troubled family in jigsaw puzzle fashion through poem-letters written in different voices.
It was at Presidency too, that I understood how much I was missing by not reading in Bengali. It is my mother-tongue, but my school reading in places far away from Bengal was in English and Hindi, and crowded out all else. As a result, I read Bibhutibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) in translation the first time: it was a set text for my brother’s class and carved itself in stone in my eleven-year-old head. The need to know it in its original language made me start reading in Bengali again. A slim novel about siblings growing up in poverty in rural Bengal, it is so tragic it makes you cry, yet tender and true about the human capacity for joy in the grimmest circumstances.
During an undergraduate degree at Cambridge that entailed digesting one British writer per week, a copy of Chekhov’s novellas fell into my hands at a second-hand stall. It included his story, The Duel, which begins with a pitilessly accurate description of failed love and develops into a poignant, comic story. Until then I had known Chekhov as a playwright. The Duel demonstrated his genius for creating complete social universes and living people through the briefest flashes of unexpected, seemingly pointless detail that work together to reveal the depths of emotion and pain that exist in the unlikeliest of us.
In Delhi, after two numbing years of editorial plodding through dense scholarly manuscripts, the singer Sheila Dhar’s book landed on my desk, meteor-like. Raga n’ Josh, containing essays on her life in Hindustani music, is unmatched for its rich blend of observation, learning, and brilliant story-telling. We met as strangers — author and editor — and in a few months, my husband (also a publisher) and I were both under the spell of her great wit and intellect, and her infectious sense of fun. She could turn dreary days into carnivals, stealing us on impulse from our desks for lunches at which she ate everything forbidden her, sang, mimicked, and planned future books. Dutifully, we scribbled deadlines and outlines into diaries, sustaining the pretence that these were working lunches.
Because it wasn’t really pretence. This is how books get made: in an alchemical process, through chance collisions of people, places, energies, thoughts, ideas. Many of those books make it to our shelves. A few make their homes within us.