Books were introduced into my life very early. As a child, I was addicted to storybooks. Books taught me to see stories in everything that surrounded me. So I was always looking for stories- in the people I met, in the birds and butterflies I chased, in the stray dogs and cats that wandered about, even in the pebbles and shrubs in my garden. The world therefore walked into my mind in the form of stories and that is how I tucked in people, places, events and facts- in the form of stories. At that young age, books taught me that the world is made up of stories, and not of atoms. This has shaped my perspective of how I see the world. To this day, I try to find a story in everything that I engage with. Even when I teach my students a technical subject, it is the story within that I try to unravel. Because that is what connects to people and touches them. After all, who doesn’t like a story?
So books teach us the art of seeing stories in life, and that makes life enjoyable and meaningful. Unless you can look at your own life as a beautiful story that others would want to read, you cannot be motivated in life. Depression, in my words, is nothing but losing touch with the story within.
I still remember the feel of my school library. Of how the books stared at me from the shelves. To me, they were not mere books. They were like people, brimming with the most beautiful stories. I often had difficulty picking up a book because they all looked equally appealing, and I wanted to read them all at once, in one go. So with great difficulty, I would finally pick up a book, find a quiet corner to sit, and then open the book to its first page. From that moment, ‘I’ ceased to exist. I would lose myself to the fascinating world created by the book.
I was R.K.Narayan’s ‘Swami’, living my life in the laid back village of Malgudi, sailing through precious moments of an unhurried childhood. Or I was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mowgli’, leading an unusual life in the jungle, with my friends from the wild. Or I was Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’, living my childhood in the lap of nature, in a picturesque village in the Alps.
And so, I was living not one life, but many lives- of many interesting people, travelling to distant lands, experiencing different cultures, caught up in different situations and circumstances. Books therefore left me richer in terms of life.
I was always attracted to the characters in a book. I believe that the character is at the heart of a book. I always sought books that brought out the uniqueness of a character. There had to be something special in the personality of the character for me to feel drawn to the story. The character had to be my hero.
I liked characters that portrayed courage, independence or extroversion, but my favourite characters were the ones that were vulnerable, and yet found their own ways to cope with the world. For instance, my favourite character in the Archies comic series was Betty because she was vulnerable, and yet she had the ability to accept the equation of life that was unfair at times, and find happiness within this reality.
Even at that age, I was uncomfortable with any assault on the vulnerability of a character. I was easily upset by the misery and helplessness of a vulnerable character, and it was for this reason that I had a special affinity for characters such as Swami (Swami and Friends), Laurel (Laurel and Hardy comics), Pluto (Walt Disney cartoons), Anne/Bets/Lucy Ann (Enid Blyton adventure series). I could relate to their lack of assertiveness and my heart went out to them. All in all, I was most drawn to innocence, kindness, empathy, generosity and humility in a character.
This fascination for the character in a book attracted me to biographies and autobiographies when I was older. In essence, these books were extensions of the storybooks I read as a child, but they were more descriptive, and more real. They discussed life on a more serious note, and therefore connected to me at a deeper level. When I read Vincent van Gogh’s autobiography, Lust for Life, I was moved by the story of an artist’s struggle and conflict to establish himself in a world that failed to understand him. Never before had I been exposed to the internal journey of an artistic mind. When I read Anne Frank’s diary, I could experience the horrors of the Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. When I read Randy Pausch’s ‘The Last Lecture’ and Paul Kalanithi’s ‘When breath becomes air’, I saw life through the eyes of a dying human being.
So once I had read these books, I was never the same again. I was richer and wiser. That was the beauty of a good book.
As I read these books, I realized that through the characters they portrayed, I was beginning to understand not only other people, but my own self. I realized that I was often drawn to the characters that mirrored me in some way. I realized that I was drawn to vulnerability in a character because I was vulnerable.
So books are mirrors in which we can see ourselves.
So much was the power of some of these characters that I started to imitate them unconsciously. These characters taught me to talk to nature- to the trees and the birds and the sky, and share my happiness and sorrows. They taught me that one could never be lonely if one learned the art of communicating to nature. It was from these characters that I learned to write down my thoughts into a diary. Those diaries were perhaps my first steps to being a writer. It was from these characters that I learned to laugh at my miseries and woes and embrace life with humour and altruism. These characters taught me to appreciate the joy of being a ‘nobody’ because that is when the world walks into your mind. In essence, these books counselled me with respect to life and erased all the feelings of worthlessness I sometimes felt at that age.
Recently, I was reading Malala Yousufzai’s book- ‘I am Malala’. In her memoirs, she takes us to a place where even going to school is a luxury- where every day, little children live in fear of death. The book left me feeling very guilty because it struck me as profound that there were places where a child’s greatest dream was being able to go to school- something that people like us take for granted. That book taught me to appreciate the value of education and inspired me to be a better teacher, a better human being. So books help us appreciate the value of what we have.
The best books are the ones that compel us to dwell on the unwritten parts of the story. The ones that make us reflect on why, or what if, if only, and so on. They make us contemplate, reflect and think critically. These are also the necessary skills we need when we face challenges in our own lives. Therefore, books foster imagination and develop critical thinking skills in us.
I could go on and on about how reading has enriched me emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, but I will restrict myself to concluding that books teach us life. So in a fast-paced world that robs us of the opportunity to feel and therefore develop emotionally and intellectually, let us make a conscious effort to create such an opportunity. And what can be simpler than indulging in a book?