Ex libris

First day at college, I almost got into a fistfight with my new roommate. His offence: using a ballpoint pen as thick as my thumb to mark a page in one of my books. I was seventeen, headstrong and a little volatile. And my roomie, who is now a good friend, might as well have shoved the pen up my nose. Hard.

I was raised by a bibliophilic, no, bibliolatrous family that had grounded the four-year-old me for doodling in an old copy of Ukrainian Folk Tales. The shadows of that childhood trauma continue to haunt me, and I have been at war against defilers of books ever since. Write in a book, and I’ll hit you with my death rays. Break its spine, and I’ll break yours. I am a zealot through and through. The physical form of a book is not to be violated in any way. I don’t care.

Or I did not care. Until I was lent this book by a senior student who had just finished reading it.

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Although I never miss an opportunity to give her cartloads of horse manure about the state of her books, this is a lady whom I much respect and whose opinion I hold in very high regard; despite her lunchtime stories about how her labmate once dunked his very old and rare Bengali translation of the Russians in a pool of semisolid human excrement; and despite her, two minutes later, attempting to thrust under my still-mortified nose an old James Herriot that seemed to have narrowly escaped a wormhole; simply because of two of her many redeeming qualities- her being considerably better-read than I, and her being someone who can truly take my writing apart. When she insisted that I should start with “Never do that to a book”, I had a prickly feeling of impending doom. If I knew her at all, she was about to have her revenge.

It took me five minutes to go through the essay. I sighed, went through it once again, put the book down, texted her that I hated her, and re-immersed myself into the elegant prose.

fadiman1

Eh? So we have taxonomic classifications, do we?

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Grrrrr…

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Well, she has a point there. Annotated books are interesting. I was forcefully reminded of Harry Potter’s copy of Advanced Potion-making in Half-blood Prince.

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Mmm… some of the things she writes about makes my skin crawl, but Fadiman does manage to portray courtly love as something utterly devoid of life…

I have since been through six more of the essays in the book, and each one of them is a gem in its own right. I am no longer a zealot. I want to get intimate with this book. I want to circle the words I don’t know, to mark passages in it, to write in it, even to argue with the author on the margins. It promises to be a lot of fun.

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Limbering up

I nip into the washroom to give my reflection a quick but thorough scrutiny:

  1. Cheekbones: Prominent. (Ugh!)
  2. Tan lines: Why didn’t I wear something with longer sleeves? (Why!?? WHY!??)
  3. Waist: O! M! G! (I’m so dead!)

The phone vibrates.

“Coming! Coming!”

I sprint out of the exit terminal, stuff my not-at-all-sapient (sigh…) luggage into the boot, vaguely try to pull the sleeve of my tee down further, mutter an oath, suck in a rattling breath, and duck into the backseat.

One hour later…

“Arrey Mashi…, I eat enough for two people! Honestly! Pliss to be believing me!”

Ah, home sweet home!

Of the 25 years I have spent darkening this planet, the initial 16 passed in Burdwan, a small, quaint town around a hundred kilometres north of Kolkata. It’s a place of azure skies with fluffy clouds, verdant paddy fields, sparkling streams, ancient moss-stained mansions, and dark green marshlands dotted with morose old temples. The people are glib and suave, the vendors overly so. In fact, I would not be very surprised if there is a man somewhere feeling rather sheepish at this moment as he sits back and admires his purchase of the day: a dozen fluoro-green umbrellas, a honker for a Lamborghini and a nuclear submarine. I’m kidding about the submarine. It’s a loud and colourful town full of blustering madness, quite the opposite of what I enjoy being amidst; but I do like to come back here once in a while- because my parents live here, and because the sweets are succulent- and that is the root of half the problems in my life.

I own a fancy bicycle which I like to ride in and around Bangalore. I am a talentless twerp as a cyclist, as has been very generously and deliberately hammered into my psyche by people I am (un?)fortunate enough to call my friends, but I do enjoy riding my bike. It has brought me down to 64 kg from 80 (that’s where I had reached once upon a time, courtesy of the succulent sweets), my parents have made peace with their fate of having a son with cheekbones, and my uncles with the fact that their nephew will obstinately maintain for the rest of his life that he never wants to take after them, potbelly-wise. Inquisitions have been held, counselling sessions have commenced and have adjourned, promises have been made of debilitating and incurable diseases, and no amount of cajoling and threatening has been able to show me the errors of my ways so far. I like not looking like a chubby-cheeked Russian babushka. Deal with it.

The attempted brainwash and force-feed sessions aside, the visits are not that bad. I get to eat home food (heaven!) and to loaf around on the couch with the books and comics I grew up reading. It’s a peaceful life, mostly, except for the rare occasion when I take it into my head to take the traditional walk around the town. I have been told I would tire myself out, but the long legs and the base fitness of a road cyclist who frequently dares to race in the elite category have their unfair advantages.

Despite having grown up in the town, its sprawling maze of lanes and alleys and what passes for thoroughfares never ceases to amaze me. I stroll past the cool, shadowy university campus, through the corridors of the apparently deserted medical college, past the mouldering palace of the rajahs and under the Curzon Gate, towards my old school, and the river after that, wondering how it would be to bring my road bike here someday. I immediately decide I would have to be high on weed and liberal doses of coke with a dash of LSD thrown in to do that. Riding a road bike through that anarchic melange of pedestrians, steel bicycles, superbikes and electric ‘toto’ rickshaws, all rocketing around  without any apparent order or reason, promises to be a hair-raising experience. Well, no thanks, I’ll pass. The traffic here is an organism I never want to mess with.

I will not even talk about home food and the sweetshops lining the streets. It’s probably for the best that I don’t visit home so often.

This happens.

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Every. Damn. Time. Even when I have the BBCh Nandi Epic 100k coming up in three weeks. I come back to Bangalore cursing my sweet tooth, two weeks off the bike, 2 kg heavier and with my upper aerobic zones in tatters. Every. Damn. Time. So much for limbering up for the race.

But I DO need some time away from the lab once in a while. Ah, well, home is sweet home after all…