Re-reading the book of your life
I sincerely think that autobiographies should be placed in the fiction section. It is the accounts of one person looking at the highlights reel spanning decades through the dusty glass of her own memories, and often has very little to do with the objective truth, if a such a thing even exists. If it was something else, why are there “controversial” autobiographies? What would be up for debate in a dry, factual retelling of how things actually happened? That is why I think all of us should revisit our planned autobiographies in our heads many times before we start writing them. Look for memories that might have been forgotten, question if you remember things correctly, find plot threads that you missed on the first reading.
The Misfits book club happened for me out of sheer nostalgia, I had not experienced the absolute invincibility I felt in Literature classes for over a decade now and wanted to have that rush flow through my veins again. And so, every Sunday few of us started to meet in an expensive but usually empty book store to talk about books. Sure, it was not a cafe in Paris, hell it wasn’t even a tapri in the JNU campus. But it was still our own. We could throw things at the wall, be clueless about what we were saying and yet have someone pay attention to you and make you feel seen. Isn’t that what we all are craving? Being seen? Being heard? Being reassured that we will not be forgotten by this world the second our backs are turned?
20th May, 2004
Summer vacations had just begun and I was not to turn eleven for another three weeks. I was in Patna, my Nani’s house, like every other summer vacation, where me and my Mother got a good six week long break while my father continued working silently to make that vacation happen for us. Now that I am thirty, I do understand my parents better, especially my father. But that was a different time. I was almost eleven, convinced it made me more important than being a measly ten and we were in a gift shop looking for a birthday gift for my cousin. Now, if I can make sure none of the others will read this, I will admit she was my favorite growing up. Her older sister was almost in college by then, the other cousins lived in different cities were only there during their vacations, which did not always overlap with mine, so it was mostly the two of us together. We would play games, the sort of narrative dramas the stories of which only make sense to kids under a certain age. So, when I had to pick a gift for her, I knew I couldn’t half ass it, mostly because she had convinced her mother to get me a GI Joe action figure on my last birthday and that means something to a boy.
I found a page of my autobiography torn out of the book and hidden in some nook of my mind rather accidentally. Someone asked for recommendations for what their kids should read on the WhatsApp group of the book club and that got the conversation started. One thing that all readers love more than even reading is showing off how well-read they are. So in about ten minutes, the poor guy had enough recommendations to last his kids till they turned into teenagers. I chipped in too, I am not better than the others.
New Emotions was possibly the most expensive gift shop in Patna at the time south of the Railway Junction. It inspired the same feeling in us as walking into the toy store must have given Kevin McAllister in Home Alone 2, even though it had none of the production value. It had a central rack, bisecting the width of the store into two, carrying cards for all sorts of occasions that had to be invented by card companies. We always hung out near the birthday and anniversary section, while eyeing coyly the furiously pink of the Valentine’s section. But you could get that in any store of the city. What made New Emotions special was everytihng else that it carried. It carried toys. Not the cheap Chinese shit clueless parents buy for their kids, unable to appreciate the difference between store brand and licensed toys. It had actual toys, pushed on by companies from America and Japan. Hot Wheels, honest to god unforged Barbies, GI Joes and for a brief window a few years later, Hasbro Beyblades. It was the closest to heaven a kid could get. But that would not work for my cousin. She was too young to appreciate a thoughtful card, too old to care for a Barbie and too important to be dismissed with a photo frame. So, I browsed the rack, dramatically stroking my bare ten year old chin, surveying the goods on display like an auditor sent to detect tax evasion. I am sketchy on the details as to who saw it first, me or my Mother, but there it was.
As the conversation meandered aimlessly, it gave me the chance to slow down and think about all the books I had read growing up. I had read more magazine than books growing up, for the express reason they were a lot cheaper. A Nanhe Samrat cost ten rupees when I started getting it, and by the time I lost touch with it, it had not gone beyond twelve. Every month the newspaper hawker would throw in a copy of the magazine somewhere around the 4th of the month and I would always be amazed that the issue for August would arrive in July, a full month ahead of schedule! But it was not like I did not read books, they just happened later in my life. I got the first Harry Potter novel as a birthday gift in 2005. It cost two hundred and seventy five rupees. Only one book store in all of the city stocked it, Sahitya Sadan, Gaya and I remember my father calling me from his then new cell phone to ask if I wanted Phiolosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets. In that moment I knew I was going to get it because there was no way my father would know or remember those words unless he was physically standing in a bookstore looking at them. I remember my father grumbling about having to buy such an expensive upanyas. But before that, there were others. I read a lot of short story collections. Navneet Publishing came out with brightly coloured folk tales and fairy tales on glossy pages that were thirty rupees apiece. In a stroke of marketing genius, they also released these in sets, even though often the stories even within one book had little to do with each other, let alone books being related in anyway. However, that did not matter to me. Slowly and steadily, I had complete sets of many of these story books. But one really stood out in my memory.
“Kaleidoscope”. I later looked up the meaning in the dictionary and found it was some sort of an optical illusion toy. I never understood why would they call it that, but now I do. It was bright blue, with a yellow strip running down the middle, making it look it someone had torn open a parcel and now there were two kids staring at me from behind the blue cover. I picked it up, possibly my first hardcover book I had ever seen, and was surprised at how heavy it was. My mother, impatient and unappreciative of how important a decision I was making, handed it over for the billing. It cost eighty rupees. In 2004, that was a reasonable amount to spend on a gift for your niece.
We got to talking about “Kaleidoscope” and turned out there were others in the group too who had read it. Not everyone remembered all the story but suddenly, through what is too weak to even be called a coincidence, we shared a memory. One that went back years before we were our own people, before we were something. When things were done for the sake of doing them, not to show off how well read you were in a group of strangers. In a flash, suddenly, everything felt a little purer, a little less pretentious.
I don’t remember the party all that well really. What I remember was that once all the guests had left, my youngest aunt, who had just gotten married a couple of years ago, sat all of us down and read us the first story from that book. It was about a kid whose mother goes out of town, leaving him at the mercy of his horribly incompetent cook of a father. After taking gastronomical abuse for a few days, the kid starts stealing tiffins, and then returning them the next day with a chocolate inside. There is a manhunt for the thief and he is assigned to be the guard. Just as the search starts to get hot on his tail, his mother returns and the thief vanishes. The narrator ends the story by telling us how he is packing his son’s tiffin now and unlike his father he learnt to cook. Such a wholesome, non-toxically gendered message to give kids for 2004! My aunt was also a brilliant story teller, doing voices and accents. I must have been to a hundred birthdays since, yet I remember that one from almost 20 years ago now.
Someone posted a link to the book on the group and I ordered it. My cousin gave me the book a few years later when she was leaving to go to Dehradun for her high school. I still have it buried somewhere in my collection back in Patna in my bedroom. I read all the stories many times after that. I can even tell you which ones are my favorite. But they did not exist in my memory a day ago. The page of my autobiography had been lost to time. Until it was found.
That is the trouble of all autobiographies, they are incomplete, edited beyond recognition versions of your life. And try as you may, you will never find all the pages. Even if you did, you won’t have the awareness or maybe the courage to tell the story as it happened. In the end, that is all what we are after all. Stories. Even our own lives, the things we should know more intimately than anything else is just a story you tell yourself. And maybe, that is ok. Maybe that is the human condition, that we will live an imperfect life, recount it with even more flaws, but in the process, leave a part of us behind for others to remember us by.