Friday, March 2, 2012

The Lost Book

As we grow older, in life's surprising little epiphanies, we are reminded of those little things from our childhood which made all those years pleasant. If one had an outdoorsy kind of upbringing, a mangled toy or a deflated football discovered years later while cleaning out the old cupboard, would set the reminiscencing into action. For people like us who spent a rather lonely childhood reading books and building elaborate dreams out of them, coming across that one special book years later will bring back the memories fresh, in a rush of torrent.

This post technically begins with me ordering a copy of Wren and Martin's grammar book online yesterday. But, this post goes back fourteen years earlier, when I was first introduced to the book. Every year from class 5 to class 7, I bought a copy of Wren and Martin's 'High School English Grammar and Composition'. There was an updated edition every year, and I loved comparing the difference in print, the different quality of papers, and the increased number of pages, with not much change in the content. When you are growing up in the nineties in the suburbs of a small town which doesn't have an individual character to boast of, and very few places to "hang around", you inevitably form attachments with the little things of life. There was a bookshop in town, but the owner, who really took an interest in the reading of his customers, had died, and his successors were rather nonchalant. My Baba bought my books from Calcutta every time he would visit the city, and during the intervals between the trips, after I had exhausted reading the last haul, I would look for reading material in the unlikeliest of places - the grammar book.

So, in the year '98, when I was ten years old, I read my first Keats - "Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold" from his 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer'. I didn't know who Chapman was; for that matter I didn't know who Homer was; and I certainly didn't understand the poem completely. But there are moments in life when you do not need to understand every word in the text to know that those words have been written only for you to read. Three years later I would read about Keats, and I would eventually go on to read his Nightingale and Autumn, and then in honours class, attempt a full-fledged section on Keats. But I still believe that I owe it all to that evening of precocious reading. If I had read Shelley that day, I would have been a different person. If I had shut my book and watched the telly that evening, my life would have been different. But I read Keats, and my life has turned out the way it should have been.

I read my first Lucy poem too from Wren and Martin - "She dwelt among the untrodden ways". That was a year before I would read 'The Education of Nature' as part of school work, and by the time the latter happened, I could recite the first one. Then there were names like Milton, and Pope, and Locke, and Johnson, and Dryden, whose poems and prose featured in the paraphrasing section and other sections of the 'Composition' part of the book, and random sentences from their cannon of work in the 'Grammar' part. I had no idea who they were, but I already felt a thrill pass through my twelve year old mind, and I wanted to find out more about them. Those were the pre-Google days, when information wasn't so democratic, and hence patience a commonplace - I patiently waited for years to finally read them (I eventually read Milton's 'Paradise Lost', Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' and Dryden's 'Macflecknoe' in my first year of college). It was again in Wren and Martin, that I read poems by Cowper, numbered and in minuscule prints, two years before I would read Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility' where Elinor would eloquently praise his verses. Under the chapter titled 'Comprehension' I read an excerpt from Hazlitt, then got a book of Hazlitt's essays from my teacher in high school, turned the pages, intimidated and excited at the same time, and then returned the book. It would be years later, in my first year in college that I would learn about him and the other prose writers of the Romantic age. Again, during the winter vacation of my second year in college, which I was spending back in Siliguri reading Goldsmith's 'She Stoops to Conquer', my mind would continually go back to those first lines from 'The Village Schoolmaster' - "Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way".       

It is never possible to put down in writing, every single memory of five years spent with something special. But I know, that as early as April '98, when I was ten years old, and had not bothered to solve the grammar section of the book, but read every sentence, passage, essay, and poem, I had decided that one day I would grow up and study literature. I would read and "study" those beautiful works by those people with the fancy names, harking back to a bygone era of which I knew nothing, but had a romantic passion; I would learn and know everything there was to know about the person who had written something so beautiful as the lines,

"Her mirth the world required;
 She bathed it in smiles of glee
But her heart was tired, tired,
And now they let her be."

After I had moved to Calcutta, and within years of my learning to quote and re-quote "Ah love, let us be true!", Maa gave away my copies of Wren and Martin to random people. I learnt about it after the deed was done, and I didn't create a scene, or appeal to her better senses. I still do not blame her. Nevertheless my lament is manifold. Had she given those books away to needy children, I wouldn't have felt such stark remorse. She gave them away to lazy rich kids who haven't learnt how to respect a book. And with those books, she gave away all my precious memories, the reason for my being. The new copy that I ordered yesterday, and which was delivered today, is hard-bound, slimmer, and has an advert of the key to the exercises on the back cover. At 23, I have neither the age nor the inkling to make it my own. And what hurts me still is, if I ever have children of my own, I would be teaching them from a book, which is similar to the books I had the best adventures of my life with - but the similarity would end there - and in the absence of the real, life-affirming presence of those missing books, I would have to conjure yarns about those times, from faded memories and imagination.

The bookmark that came with this book contains the caption "The pizza is here" as a valid reason to use a bookmark. Sigh. As Picasso said, "It takes a long time to become young."

1 comment:

  1. An ode to the romance of the pages. Nice post. On a rather different note I'll just share a funny Wren and Martin memory, we had an English teacher back in school and during a particular grammar class we were doing - "fill in the blanks" - so the question went: " I ---- you. (hear)" and a girl answered "am hearing". Ma'm just said calmly- 'You all watch so many Hindi films, have you ever heard the hero tell the heroine "I am loving you" ...? It is just I hear you.' ...