I never understood the concept of ownership. That art of possessing things to claim as exclusively and completely yours. Cherished objects to be hidden away in obscure boxes in discreet corners or collections flaunted in neat and pretty symmetry like a public shrine of everything you love. I just wasn’t that person. Maybe it’s because I grew up with two siblings and was always taught to share. Everything in my childhood was always divided neatly into three parts. Comics, snacks and love. Nothing was really mine in totality. Even when I didn’t have to share, I would give up my portions to my brothers. I did not know that I could actually have anything for myself. Not the idea of ‘my’, nor the idea of ‘space’. I was never a keeper of things. I don’t hoard mementos from my life. No stubbed tickets, faded letters or book-pressed flowers for me. No revealing scrapbooks or embarrassing photo albums for safekeeping. No totems of heartwarming happiness or relics of heart-wrenching sadness in my coffers, for my coffers don’t exist. Nothing that I would jump into a fire to rescue.
I never enjoyed the idea of possessing money either. Despite earning a decent salary even when I was in college by working part-time in an advertising agency, I was never one to excitedly look forward to pay day. I hated shopping for clothes or even hanging out at malls. There is a distinct mall smell — a shiny, squeaky clean scent of air freshener mingled with the wafts of fragrance from the perfume section — that just got on my nerves. So, yes, there wasn’t much use for money in my world and saving it was never a problem for me. Even after I started working full time for a newspaper, I used to duly hand over all my salary to my mom. I was more comfortable letting my mom worry about where to keep it and what to do with it. As long as I had bus/auto fare and some spare change for snacking, I didn’t want to be the caretaker of money. The idea of owning something that is considered so valuable seemed intimidating and binding. I didn’t want to be responsible for it. I wanted to have very little to do with these ordinary-looking tokens that seemed to possess such great power.
Since I always felt that way, I vividly recall one of my first acts of exercising my monetary independence — buying books, a little guiltily, at the second-hand sale that would be held bi-annually at the YMCA near the Deccan Chronicle office. Oh that incredibly dusty wonderland, smelling of old pages and forgotten corners. Where rare literary first editions with disintegrating spines and fading gold letters on black leather nonchalantly hang out with the seven-ways-your-life-could-be-betters whose book covers had threatening closeups of American authors with eerily white teeth and accusatory fingers pointing at you for not being successful enough. Where outdated coffee-table books shared space with a lovely section dedicated to Indian writing. Where the passion-stricken couples on the romance novels with flowery fonts ignored the wry satirical novelists on the shelves next to them. Where comic strip geniuses like Charles M Schulz, Berkeley Breathed Cathy Guisewite, Jeff Shesol and Jim Davis were relegated to the children’s sections because, you know… cartoons! While I have always had an immense love for reading
, my solo journey of scouting book sales across the city turned out to be some of the happiest moments I have ever spent with myself.
Visit after visit to secondhand book sales across the city and I suddenly was the owner of something that needed keeping, for the first time. Initially, I just let them lie around in corners. Then they demanded attention. A place to live in, if I may. So, I stacked them in no particular order. They multiplied in numbers. From visits to the Sunday secondhand book sale in Koti and random booksellers that acted like bubbles of joy on busy roads and the Best Book sales (The guys by now had started texting me to inform me about the book sale in YMCA). I think I spent at least 3 birthdays at book sales, which would always come to my side of town in January, and indulged myself. Only to walk home sheepishly with a bag of at least 12-15 books every single time. Those were days well-spent and still fondly remembered.
The years have passed and I have books pouring out of every corner in my room. Most from book sales, some gifts from friends who always know what to get me and very few new ones bought from stores. Apart from the must-have books that I just had to pick up from a book shop or order online, I avoid buying new books. For no particular reason. I think it’s just a quirk that came from years of foraging through second hand books. You get addicted to that smell of old books. You get high on the knowledge that it has passed through many hands before. You feverishly search for any tokens of the previous owners in the way the leaves of some pages are folded, on a sweet or funny note written on the first page by someone who gifted them the book or in some telling stains of coffee spills and bug splats and what-nots. It’s like the story of a story in a story. Just magical.
So, when my super-organised husband suggested that we should catalog my books and arrange them in alphabetical order, I brought all my books down the floor eagerly, more thrilled with the idea of poring through all those old forgotten titles than with the idea of cleaning up. Down they tumbled from my shelves, burying me in a pile full of memories. Looking at them, I realised, I didn’t feel the pride of collectors who shine their trophies everyday. My books looked well-worn and lived in. Just the way I like them. Some of them had telling signs of distress from days of being left pages-open-face-down. Some were dog-eared from weeks of sharing space with random paraphernalia in my bag since I couldn’t help but tug them along everywhere. Some of the pages almost seemed to emanate the smell of trains, buses and various places I had curled up with them. Some favourites, which were read and re-read over the years, brought back distinct emotions from different periods of my life.
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Amidst all the old, second-hand books, the shiny, new collection of every single book ever written by Haruki Murakami holds a very, very special place. As I mentioned already, I’m not one for buying new books. But after having to put up with my growing Murakami obsessions and one-sided conversations on how I think he is a literary genius like no other, when my husband suggested picking up every single book of his from Blossom Book House
in Bangalore as an early birthday gift, the delirium that it sent me into was quite embarrassing. I was almost guilty for wanting to own something so bad, but also extremely excited with the idea. Let’s just say, that grin I had after we walked out of the store with around 14 of Murakami’s books was not wiped off too easily.
I also found my silly diary from my last year in school. No, it wasn’t the ‘Dear Diary’ kind of a journal. In the geekiest of geek acts, I had gotten into the habit of cutting out comic strips from various newspapers and pasting them in this magical diary, which I cherished. The adventures of Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, Wizard of Id and my other comic strip friends unfolding in pages and pages of carefully stuck-on happiness. And in alternate pages, I would write down all the profound, funny and interesting things I’ve encountered in books, magazines or Reader’s Digest editions (Only with an ink pen). Some attempts at original poetry and limericks also made its way into this diary. No prizes for guessing how popular a kid I was. :I
As I very slowly re-lived my life through each one from the collection of 300-odd books, my husband efficiently cataloged them all. A special mention to the brilliant Goodreads app
, which not only made the job super easy, thank to its handy barcode reader, but also for letting us create lists (Books Read, Books Owned, Owned but not Read, etc.) which simplified the entire process.
At the end of this exercise, I was suddenly struck with the knowledge that I actually felt a sense of proud ownership, a feeling I’m not really used to. I had in my possession something so irreplaceable. A cupboard full of memories, neatly cataloged in alphabetical order. That
, I can get used to.