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Archive of our loves & lives

Janice Pariat | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 28, 2015

BLink29_Girl_arranging_books.jpg   -  Matthew Cole/shutterstock.com

Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat   -  Business Line

Books, though bearers of stories, are surrounded by stories too. They document relationships, place and time

This month, my books and I are reunited.

We’ve been apart four years. Me, studying and living in the UK; they, stacked dutifully in my parents’ house in Shillong, patiently awaiting my return. When they arrived at my flat in Delhi, I felt I was welcoming home old friends, albeit slightly dustier (and mustier) than when we last met. They were familiar and strange all at once.

And I sat on the floor, cardboard boxes scattered around me, getting to know them again. There was errant Bruce Chatwin, the playful tumble of Calvin and Hobbes, stiff-backed Philip Larkin, the spring garden display of Virginia Woolf.

‘Where did I pick you up?’ I wondered, leafing through Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love. Then I remembered I hadn’t. It had been gifted by F____, an old boyfriend in London. He read The Independent, which, at the time, happened to be handing out free classics with the weekend paper. Nin, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I looked for the book he’d presented to me before we parted. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem dated circa 2100 BC, one of the oldest stories in existence. “You are all my literatures” reads his dedication, scrawled in blue ink.

Next, a minimalist hardback edition of Virgil’s The Aeneid. This wasn’t even mine. It once belonged to a flatmate in Delhi. Along with Edna St Millay’s Renascence and Other Poems whose bright yellow cover reminded me of the amaltas trees blooming along our street in Pamposh Enclave. In the evenings we’d sit out on the terrace, sipping our drinks, talking. Did he lend them to me? Why hadn’t I returned them? I suppose they were mine now, tangled with my other belongings. I wondered where he’d found them. Picked them up. I thought about the lives of books and the meanings they gather as they move from person to person, house to house. They have a term for it in art history: “the cultural biography of objects.” The wonderful idea that things, like us, also have lives. That they change through their existence as we do, and hence cannot be fully comprehended merely at a single point. Processes and cycles of production, exchange and consumption all count and must be looked at as a whole. Books, though bearers of stories, are surrounded by stories too. They document relationships. Place. Time. They are material archive of our loves and lives. Weighed down not only by their pages but by their accumulated histories. I think about the relationship between my books and I. Between my books and all their previous owners. The bookshops at which they’ve been displayed. The cities they once lived in. The printing presses from where they’d sprung. How they had all happened — like a miracle — to congregate here with me.

There, in the corner, lay my Tolkien trio, massive and magical, illustrated by the wondrous Alan Lee. Found by my mother decades ago at a tiny book fair in Shillong for a princely ₹1,000. My grubby edition of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which I (embarrassingly) sobbed over in the London tube. A cheap paperback of Orwell’s 1984 that I remember reading (for no good reason I can think of now) on the steps at Piccadilly Circus, on a snowy winter night.

On my shelf I find a book I’d stolen.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. While I was at university, at the World Book Fair in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, pressurised by peers (all of us young, reckless, foolhardy) who thought it ‘cool’. I place it guiltily out of sight.

Here is Orwell’s Burmese Days found in a café in Hampi, left behind by another itinerant traveller. There, Ted Hughes’ Crow picked up for a pound somewhere in Kent. A battered Great Gatsby bought by R____, a college boyfriend, from Priya Complex’s outdoor (now defunct?) KK Bookshop. In black spidery letters, his dedication reads: “through broken drum beats/smoke filled bars/that black and white feel/dancing shoes with no hours/to my own formless music/to my jazz.” We broke up eventually (that old enemy, distance), but while we were together he gifted me lots of books. A gorgeously gold-engraved hardback of Lewis Carroll’s collected works, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote with the iconic Picasso sketch, all of Ray’s Feluda, a tattered ₹5 copy of Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, that served as a Valentine’s day present (from a bookstall in Kamla Nagar; we were students, we were broke.)

I wonder now if people treasure the books I have gifted them. If they remember the spirit in which I did so, if my inscriptions inside still resonate. How many books are placed on, and leave our hands? For Melanesians, who inhabit the islands in Oceania, objects are viewed as the detached parts of people, circulating through the vast complex social network of the world. People, in this way, are also distributed, found in one place and spread over many. I line up my books in no particular order. Eventually, like me, they will disperse. For now, my bookshelf is a gathering.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse; @janicepariat

Published on August 28, 2015
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