Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.
As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.
Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.
Words, I realized, gave me a shelter – a secret place, a place unseen and unknowable to all others who clamoured to stake a claim on me – who wanted me to be this or that. In this place between the pages of my diary, I could do things, feel and touch them, be them. Forgive me when I use “words”, “books”, and “stories” interchangeably. They are all enmeshed in my mind – I cannot take apart the strands of words of an Alice Munro story to say why her fiction contains the truth of life any more than I can take apart the bone of thought behind a Janet Hirschfield poem from the meat of its well-chosen words to say what makes it so perfect. Nor can I say why re-reading The Golden Gate at any and all times makes me happy. Because of the words, the story, the rhythm, the cadence, the humanity? Words, that magic of ink on paper, can create anything!
Those days are long gone, but the images are vivid in my mind when I tagged along with my grandmother as she chose the best raw mangoes, sour karondas, jackfruits and anwlas for pickling from the proffered baskets of tribal women. She would let these jungle fruit stew in their juices with pungent mustard oil, salt and masala in big black stone pots in her dark pantry, and produce an intensely tangy pickle. The yeast of time added volume and piquancy to the hoarded gifts of seasons past.
Writing is similar. I believe all addicted readers keep turning over the jumble of persons, places, events, in their minds, just like my nani turned over the mangoes and anwlas at the haat. To check if they would pickle well.
Going to the hypermall of words like some inveterate shopaholic and picking up much more than I could possibly consume – that’s what libraries made me do at the age of ten. In my convent school, Hindi was taught as a foreign language and only English books were thought of as appropriate reading material. That too English books specifically written for children. But in the big library at the Police Training College where my father was posted, there were no such restrictions. I reveled in this free-for-all reading. I read about murders and ways of tracing them, types of gunshot wounds and how to recreate scenes of crimes, how to tell a murder from suicide, the great unsolved crimes of twentieth century, the mind of a murderer. I read these things in big pictorial, imported books with glossy pages. They absolutely fascinated me.
In my nani’s village by the Narmada, in the deepest heart of Madhya Pradesh, where I went to spend the endless summers of my childhood, there were no bookshops or libraries, but I soon discovered a flourishing chavanni mein char lending library business in the back lanes of Budhwari Bazaar. Against a single deposit of twenty-five paise, you could read as many Hindi novels as you wanted, as long as you paid a ten paise fee every two days. I was amazed to find that whole Tintins and Enid Blytons had been transposed to the Hindi heartland by some anonymous writer of these chavanni novellas. I loved reading the impossible adventures of Jiten, Dhiren, Anu and Zoya with their pet dog Moti.
A narrow staircase to the seldom used upper storey rooms of the house was my favourite place to read. It afforded the peace and privacy required to conduct my love affair with words. Left happily unsupervised by adults, who had little time for books, I read indiscriminately, uninhibitedly, inappropriately. Without regard to comprehension, without judgement. I read to not get bored as well as to get bored. I read to find what really was so great about Phanishwar Nath Renu when I could not understand one word of his tome. I read, if only to confirm my poor taste. I read for I was hungry, curious, greedy to know life, to escape life. For a long time, only stories appealed to me. In Mandla, I found Munshi Premchand and Dharamvir Bharti; Shankar’s magical Kolkata brimming with quirky characters. I discovered Manohar Kahaniyan, Mayapuri and Gulshan Nanda’s potboilers with lurid maang, sindoor, bewafaa and khooni titles.
Back in school, I would profess to read only Agatha Christie or Nancy Drew. Or PG Wodehouse, whose prose made me feel very clever and adult. There was a thriller phase and a romance-only phase. In college I discovered weighty intellectual books. Only pondering on the future of mankind or exploring the minutiae of jargon-filled behavioural dynamics passed muster for me. In university, I sat up one whole night and missed class next day to devour The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. The book seemed to articulate everything that had riled me, that I was dying to express, but did not know how to say. I strongly felt that after reading it, no one could emerge as the same person as before reading it. I memorized whole passages and wrote them down in a notebook. I would reach out for them much after the thickly underlined five-hundred pages had been digested word by word. I still remember them. ‘… the rule of the game is that men win as long as they keep their noses comparatively clean, and women lose, always, even extraordinary women.’
Around the same time, I fell in love with everything Vikram Seth wrote. ‘Why do you take so long to finish a book?’ I would chide him, and fall upon one as soon as it was released. As a young professional, I strove to improve myself by being Highly Effective and improving my managerial skills while also being a good mother, a good cook, a good gardener; feminist leanings casually shrugged aside. Books on improving my unskilled and flawed self filled my shelves. At thirty-five, I discovered weight training, through Krista Scott Dixon’s words, goading women to discover their power. Pursuit of strength rather than a sleek appearance, with personal responsibility and honesty. I kept her words around like a talisman. They gave a new structure to my motherhood and career-addled life.
Everything good has come to me through and from written words. I cannot imagine an existence bereft of them. With age, happily, my first love for stories has asserted itself and I know it is for life. It is life.
In retrospect, I feel there is nothing as wholesome as learning to recognize the difference between the good and the bad by sheer overdosing on the bad stuff. The wonder that Munshi Premchand’s simple but deft sketches fill me with, increases exponentially after I have ploughed through a hundred Manohar Kahaniyaan or Mills and Boons that disappear without making a dent upon my consciousness. Good taste comes from recognizing the fleeting aftertaste of the less than good. No way to tell what is improving and life-changing when all the spectacular self-improvement stuff merely floats above you while an Anne Lamott confessional on the messiness of life makes you dust your behind, pull up your socks and get on with it.
From being a word gourmand to gourmet, from an accumulator of beautiful words and interesting events to a hesitant creator is a never-ending journey. I have learnt over time, and still am learning, to find beauty in commonplace events and ordinary words, in placing together different textures and feelings and going back again and again to the fount of it all. Life as I see, feel and experience – the ‘whatness’ and ‘thisness’ of Life that is uniquely mine.
Varsha Tiwary hates housework, loves dogs and eats books. Currently on sabbatical from the nine-to-five world of cataloguing financial misdemeanours, she has rediscovered her first love, words. She writes short stories to make sense of people and events around her. One of her stories was shortlisted in DNA-Out-Of-Print Short Fiction Contest 2017. She has recently moved to Washington DC, but her dreams and words are all about India.