I remember my very first love affair.
The very first book that swept me off my feet.
I got lost in its labyrinth prose as my mind dived into the writer’s world. I was a nine year old Pakistani girl and was teleported to Southern America during the Civil War. I remember carrying the faded old bookshop copy of ‘Gone with the wind’ by Margaret Mitchell with me to my mother’s village on a visit and sitting in various nooks reading it, under the shade of the neem tree, in cool dark corners of musty rooms absentmindedly eating firni from earthen potsor sitting on the burning steps bordering the grounds while my brother and the rest of the children played cricket. They would throw dead twigs at me to attract my attention and I was so engrossed that I hardly felt them. ‘At least fetch the ball if you won’t play.’
I am a natural worrier and the best line I took away from this book was the ability of the heroine to relegate a problem to the next day, ‘I’ll think of it tomorrow.’ It helped me because tomorrow the problem was still there but I was a little more stronger to handle it. A little more prepared and a little more ready.
The second book was ‘The secret garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a spoilt child’s discovery of a key leading to a hidden garden which changes her personality. The idea of discovering a fertile land to plough in at the whim of my imagination touched a chord and evoked wander. There was a possibility of a different world which could be all mine to flourish in. I could plant flowers and plants in dull mud and create something beautiful even if it was just for my own amusement.
The third one, was ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, a tale of a boy who travels far and wide for a treasure that is hidden in his back yard all along. It’s wisdom spoke to me and enticed me to travel. As a teenager I wanted to spread my wings, I wanted to discover and explore, mix and mingle, welcome the different and push away the familiar. Travel does that, it broadens your horizons. That is necessary for eventually appreciating what we already have. In order to discover the treasure, one has to be ready to appreciate it. As I grew older and transformed from lead to gold like the process of alchemy, I found that the only treasure in the world worth having – happiness, doesn’t lie in restless pursuits of adventure but in simple warm moments spent in a place you can truly call ‘home’.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not what you would call an ‘avid’ reader. This piece doesn’t come from my pretentious need to prove how well-read I am. The popular advice is that to become a writer you must read, read and then read some more and I understand the logic of it. For a writer reading is what training is to an athlete. It keeps the mind in shape and fit to create. But for me it’s gets a little more complicated. Books for me are not a buffet. They are a treat. They are sacred. You don’t fall in love with any and every one. If I pick up a book, I want to get lost in it, I want to live a life with it and make it a part of mine. If I pass a book store, I am drawn inside it by an almost a supernatural pull. I cannot resist it’s magnetism. I will pass through it, touch the books lined neatly in the shelves as if paying homage, like the hand of a worshipper touching the bell in a temple as he enters it. Only if a book whispers to me, it speaks it’s silent language and I understand, beyond the marketing gimmick of a well-crafted blurb or an attractive cover image, only then can I commit to it.
A scene from a Drew Barrymore movie, Ever After, throws light on this feeling. Upon entering a massive library Prince Henry offers her, ‘Pick one (a book).’ And Danielle replies, ‘I could no sooner choose a favourite star in the heavens.’
I believe that a book that you are meant to read chooses you because it’s meant to impact you in some way. Every well thought out word harbouring a genuine emotion has a unique power to change your perspective and even your life. It is the wisdom of a life lived through an individual and by reading their thoughts you catch a bit of their soul, which in turn enriches yours.
For this reason, I liked ‘The binding’ by Bridgett Collins because it designates a magical aura to a book. It touted the idea that having a book written about a part of your life can make you forget it. In the process of ‘binding’ you give away your deepest woes, a troubling awful part of your life in exchange for a clean slate. Though the idea itself didn’t appeal, our memories-terrible or beautiful form a part of us, books were not just words on paper-they were magic able to change your life.
It’s the same with writers. I cannot fall in love with any writer who has written a favourite book of mine. Their written word is a part of them but it still doesn’t define them. To fall in love with an author is a different matter altogether. A book, written by an author, I feel is not completely his but his reader’s debt on him waiting to be paid. A child waiting to be born for this world is not the property of his parents. The author cannot help but give birth to it. An author could be a beautiful enlightened soul whom I could fall in love with but his work could fail to inspire me, not because I consider it bad but because it doesn’t talk to me. Arundhati Roy is one such example. I love her for who she, what she stands up for, and generally what she goes about doing in her life but I cannot read her, I cannot relate to her written word.
There have been many love affairs, that have become a part of my soul, like a sprinkling of gold dust that has attached itself to me every time I have read something from cover to cover. The process has made me cry, laugh, smile, and fall in love. In the end, the person writing this piece is not just Salmah Ahmed but an amalgamation of all the writers who’ve generously given me a part of themselves through their written words.