It’s the beginning of April. Mercury is rising high, and the summer has started scorching us already. Along with the heat, my window brings in gallons of dust that coats the books on the bookshelf resting right below it. Even though I like my books placed near the window, I am tired of the everyday dusting. I decided to change the location of the bookrest. I pulled it to a new corner now, and sat down beside it to wipe the dust off my books. Within no time coughing and sneezing took me over; thanks to my hypersensitivity to dust!
The cleaning scuffle brought me memories of my grandpa or Ajaa as I called him. During my childhood, my parents took me and my sisters to our grandparents’ place every summer. It used to be a delightful affair. I can still reminiscence the delicious smell of ilish machh (fish curry) and steamed rice from the kitchen, the intoxicating scent of ripe mangoes and lemon pickles from the courtyard, and the smothering fragrance of books from the living room. I can clearly remember the huge shelves of books at Ajaa’s place. I think it is humanly impossible to count the number of books that he owned. Saying he had huge shelves of books is an understatement; actually it was a massive library of books. I was a tiny girl back then, and used to be amazed by the bounty of his books which seemed to tower upon me! But as quoted by my mother – a bibliophile by birth, I used to adore the library. I always wanted to own books from there, but was too young to read what was in store back then.
Even if I could not read the voluminous books then, the wisdom within was passed on to me by Ajaa. How? Well, post lunch used to be story time. He narrated stories from all corners of the world. He had an ocean of variety in his narrations – from cultures and civilizations to religion and spiritualism; from literature and mythology to philosophy and politics. The themes of narrations may sound a little overwhelming for a little one to understand. But Ajaa was a tale-teller. He was a versatile orator for he could mold anything into a tale to suit the needs of the listener! As good an orator that he was, he was also a voracious reader, and an even more avid writer.
Few years down the line, I fell in love with English literature. I shared this love with Ajaa. He was a professor of English literature. His arm chair rocked while he read aloud the excerpts from the classics, poetry, and ballads, and I remember how much he enjoyed doing so. There used to be lengthy discussions on what the author had written, on what we individually deciphered and why. These discussions gradually expanded from the realm of literature to the realm of history, and slowly to philosophy. Some of the best books that I have read were his recommendations. I find it hard to estimate how much Ajaa read in his lifetime. Once I asked him, “Why do you read so much? And to top it, why do you write so much?” He had replied, “I read because I want to absorb as much life as I can for books are so full of life. And a lifetime of reading will remain incomplete without a lifetime of writing. So I write to let the life evaporate that I absorbed and pass it on to others.”
As I grew up, the trips to Ajaa’s place became less frequent. However our meetings didn’t. This time he started coming over more often, and used to bring mangoes, ilish machh, and pickles. I used to run to the door to get the bags from him and be greeted by the warmest hug in this world. Ajaa was an ardent reader of the Bhagwat Gita, and his reading of the scripture had become limitless those days. It was the beginning of my encounter with the Gita. Ajaa read out the divine dialogue between Shri Krishna and Arjuna. He read from page to page, and expounded the slokas. It was through his elucidation of the Gita that I realized that this holy discourse by the Lord is actually a realization of the own Self. It is not a book about the Hindu religion as many think; rather it’s like a guide, a friend who stands by you always, and presages you of pitfalls.
Ajaa was not keeping well those days; old age had begun to constrict its grip on him but he didn’t stop visiting us. The time was also the commencement of my writing voyage. One of those days I asked him, “Ajaa, I want to be as good a reader as you, and I want to write as much as you, probably more; but I worry whether I can pass on what I absorb. What if all that I write already exists, is already written by someone else? What is the point of writing if it does not serve its purpose?” He replied, “Why do you want to be like me? You are who you are, and how God made you. Be proud of it! I know you pine to write, so write on. Fear not who, how, when and why is going to read what you write. Do you know how many interpretations of the Gita exist? Thousands and thousands of them, still it’s being re-written. Your inspiration has to come from somewhere, and possibly what inspires you may inspire someone else too. So start writing, and one day everything will fall into place. Always remember:
Karmani ave adhikars te
–you have the power to act only
ma phalesu kadachana
–you do not have the power to influence the result
ma karmaphal hetur bhoo
–therefore you must act without the anticipation of the result
ma sangostu akramani
–without succumbing to inaction.”
By the time my first essay was published in my school magazine, Ajaa passed away. A warrior as he was, he suffered no pain, no misery during death. The Hindu religious customs forbid women to enter the cremation ground. I flouted the custom for I wanted to accompany Ajaa in his last journey from this earth. His corpse lay serenely and I felt he was talking to me even after death. He was quoting another excerpt from the Gita that death is inevitable, that which is born is sure to die, and so do not fear death; do not cry that your Ajaa is no more for his soul still lives and he is right there in your heart. As much as I wanted not to cry, tears rolled down incessantly.
After his death, his library was sorted out. There must have been more than fifty odd boxes of books. They were donated to a local library, and few were kept at home. I wanted to keep some but no one cared to give me one. I wanted to keep a lot of his belongings – his thick-rimmed spectacles, the fountain pen with which he wrote, the arm chair on which he sat and read….perhaps there is no end to what all I wanted to keep. But did it really matter? What really matters is I treasure him for what a wonderful human being he was, for all the priceless words he said, and the spirit he instilled in me to write. Today I write, not voraciously but I do caring little of the consequence. I wish he was here today to read what I write or perhaps he is reading silently. He demonstrated an inimitable way of life to me, and this I strive to follow. My ode to him:
From dawn to dusk he read
And from dusk to dawn he wrote
Spreading life as he tread
Until it was only ashes that he wore.
Today as I cleaned and marveled my books, I came across Who Will Cry When You Die? For a moment I pondered, and turned the book to read an ancient Sanskrit saying, “When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries while you rejoice.” Books on self-help are generally not my cup of tea but I had decided to keep this one. Why? It’s because of the ancient Sanskrit quote on the back cover of the book which I had heard from Ajaa. True to the saying, when he passed away I cried while I know that he rejoiced.