I inherited my love of books from my father, who, I believed, loved books more deeply than anything else. He was hardly seen without a book. Or, as his friend would put it, he was never spotted with a bad book. I shared a rather difficult relationship with this bibliophile throughout my childhood.
Growing up, my father was mostly out of sight, working in West Asia from where he came home every year with almost the same kind of gifts. My most enduring memory of him is emerging from the arrival terminal of Trivandrum airport, wielding a book — usually a hardback — which he would unfailingly finish before his one-month vacation was over.
It was always a month of unspeakable hardships for me. I had to be proper in everything I did. I had to sit through model examinations he conducted. I couldn’t fight with my sisters. I couldn’t kick the maids. I couldn’t sit on the kitchen counter and eat. When his vacation finally crawled to its end, he would put away the book he had been reading in our home library, bid goodbye to neighbours and, after an hour-long drive, disappear into the departure terminal of the airport. My sisters’ and mother’s eyes would turn moist when the plane became a dot in the sky. My brother would stare at his fingernails for a while. And I would be nearly moved to tears by the freedom I regained.
We would drive back to the house where I thought of him only when I went near his library. The books he left behind smelt faintly of his aftershave, and they were scribbled with his short signature and the names of places he had bought them from: Bombay, Calcutta, Trivandrum, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur… Each book had a bookmark wedged between the last pages, as if he was so enraptured by the ending that he forgot to remove it before putting the book away. The bookmarks were of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. Some were proper ones carrying the names of popular bookstores. Others made a strange assortment: scraps of newspaper rolled into thin cylinders, boarding passes, empty toothpick packs, railway tickets, doctor’s prescriptions, postcards… The most interesting one was a tiny, bare leaf the colour of parchment paper.
By the time my father ended his long expatriate life and returned home with huge trunks filled with books, and a serious cardiac complaint, I had already dropped out of college and donned the cap of a rebel. His surgery brought us close for a brief period of time. Once he convalesced, we drifted apart.
I left home, travelled, slept on train floors, saw India and nurtured the idea of becoming a writer. And, at the looming prospect of penury, I joined advertising. Years later, I was about to leave my cubicle when my mobile phone and fixed line rang at the same time. On one line was an uncle, informing me that my father was unwell, on the other my sister, telling me through her sobs that we had lost our father.
The final moments live forever. People keep reconstructing them for you. I heard from several relatives how my father had collapsed on the stairway on his way to the porch where he used to sit directly under an electric bulb and read a book every evening with the help of a magnifying glass. His anti-coagulant pills were searched for in vain and at the threshold of a hospital he had a massive cardiac arrest and passed away.
A day after the burial, I chanced upon the book he’d been reading at the time of his death: a collection of 50 great American short stories. I opened the book and found an odd bookmark: a tiny brown pack with three anti-coagulant pills, one of which could have revived him. He had reached the end of the book and placed his bookmark between the pages. A bookmark he never had the chance to move to the last page.