It was a day just like any other. Except that it wasn’t. My father is in his corner, in the hall as we like to call it. That’s how I knew it. The hall. The verandah. The bedroom. The kitchen. Now, we have fancier names. Living room. Gazebo. I sip the coffee, hot despite the humid Chennai weather outside. It’s winter here for us. That means we don’t switch the air-conditioner on the whole day. One hand holds the cup and the other my smartphone. There would be other days when I will hold a book. It’s always been like that, for as long as I remember. I would have just returned from school and my Mom would have made something for me, as usual. Usually high in calories and wonderfully delicious because of it. Hot pakodas or murukku. Always with a cup of coffee or tea. I would sit at the dining table with a book in one hand and a steel tumbler of coffee in the other. Conversations were rare in my house because we spoke through books.
The evenings would be spent reading. My Dad would sit in his favorite chair and my Mom, once she finished her evening chores, would sit with a book. Me? I would finish whatever homework I had and then read as well with them. We were probably the most silent household on that noisy street. TVs would blare out the agonies of an unreal world and we would immerse ourselves in our own unreal world. I didn’t realize it then, but I know now that this was something unusual. It wasn’t the norm for three people to sit closeted in a house that was silent but echoing with the voices of the unsaid. When you are young, you don’t question yourself. I accepted this life as my life. When you are older, you question others.
When I entered college, friends would rarely come home, uncomfortable with the “library atmosphere” as a friend called it. I didn’t think then of asking him if there was anything wrong with a library. I didn’t think of asking anything but to cringe in shame. Why weren’t we a ‘normal’ family? I couldn’t revel in teenage angst. We did not have conversations in our family that could be called emotional. We discussed books. We discussed life. But we did not discuss our feelings. Our minds were bare, but our hearts were shielded behind our books. When my Dad refused to install Cable TV, I wept. Silently. Hidden from their sight. When my friends in college discussed the latest TV series, I pretended to nod along. But then, my Dad had always told me that there is no knowledge that exists on the outside that a book can’t give you on the inside. “What’s outside is always first inside,” he would say, patting his beloved copy of Walden. So, I went to the library and pored through episode guides. I read about TV shows that had been made into books. I learnt about TV shows that weren’t even aired in India. I read about actors, television stars, and artists who peddled their soul for an audience that would adore them for an hour but forget them later. Not for them the immortality of centuries that a great book gives! Yet, I fell in love. Madly, deeply in love. I would spend furtive hours at a friend’s house, gazing in awe at a box that my Dad despised, but which seemed to me to be filled with the magic of life itself. I would always come back home guilty from these trips, as if I had betrayed my parents and sold their ideals to the highest bidder. But TV only grew on me, and this was even before I discovered cinema. Money that I would previously spend on books now were spent on popcorn as I laughed at gaudily dressed heroines cavorting in unlikely landscapes. If my parents knew where I had been, they didn’t tell. I would come back to a silent house, and then sit down with a book, but my mind was imprisoned by my freedom, shackled in chains of experiences, and I could only skim the lines, the story, the heart and the meat of the book, remaining a blurred intrusion in my life. My Dad, maybe, understood. Or maybe, he didn’t. But we stopped having long conversations over the nature of morality in a DH Lawrence novel and the ephemeral search for redemption or salvation in Thomas Hardy. My Mom and I stopped sharing poems, our heated renditions of a Gnanakoothan classic now in the embers of the past.
And so we slip into the still, stark harshness of silence. We lash our souls with the silences of the past where the screams of the present can’t be heard. It’s silent today as well, except for the cawing of the crows outside. They know it’s their time of the day when my Mom keeps on the compound wall the leftovers of lunch for them, a custom that I started when I was in school and abandoned, but which she carries on. The street sounds are muted at this time, a gentle withering down of the harsh Chennai day, as I scroll through the phone.
“Are you coming today?” I glance up. It’s my father, who has somehow moved over to where I sit, cross-legged on the divan.
“Come where?” I ask.
“It’s Manikantha’s son’s wedding reception today. He especially asked for you,” he says, still not looking at me. I had stopped going to weddings or other ‘family gatherings’ the past few years, a social stigma that my parents found more difficult to deal with than the inane questions about my non-existent marriage or the lack of a software job. Writing movie reviews and interviewing small-time movie actors for a local newspaper was not their idea of a REAL job. But they had managed. Not my social withdrawal, though. I rarely read these days, but my love of cinema and the television has only grown over the years. Books lost their hold on me and I think it was this that hurt my parents the most.Their son, their only son doesn’t read a book. “Not even the Kindle,” my Dad had muttered once.
Today, as my father fiddles with the paperweight in his hands, I feel I want to change that hurt. I can’t read, anymore, it seems. But I can go with them for this wedding.
“Yes, I will come,” I say and smile as my father looks up at me in surprise and then, the shyest smile.
He carried a book with him to the wedding. It was almost 7 PM when we left the house. I waited in the car, while my Dad put the locks on the double doors. “Keep the verandah light on,” my mother shouted at him. I glanced at her in exasperation. “Sure, that’s a mighty fine way of announcing to the world that we are not at home. By shouting about it from here.” She shrinks deeper into the car seat. I feel a wave of affection for this strong, honest woman who has built her life on the pillars of inscrutable, impeccable, iron-clad virtues of honesty. My Dad gets into the front seat and I drive, nervously as always when he is next to me.
The wedding was miserable, as I expected. I suffered through the ceremony of waiting to wish the bride and the bridegroom as they stood next to a golden throne, decorated with cliched red roses and faux hopes. I suffered through the relatives who expressed shock, surprise, and dismay at my presence. I listened to homilies of various Aunts who seemed to be inventing new ailments to suffer from. I scrolled endlessly through my Facebook feed. Anything. Anything at all that would make me feel this was life. Real life shouldn’t be this. Give me my movies, I pleaded silently to a God I didn’t believe in.
But, like everything, good, bad, ugly – it was over. Traffic was light on the way back. I parked the car and came around to the front of the house where my parents stood staring at the door. “What?” I asked stupidly before realizing that the door was open. The lock had been broken. “Wait,” I say, fear mangling any further words. Neighbors are called. An army of men enters the house. My house. The police were on their way, someone I don’t know tells me breathlessly. Who are these people? Where did they come from? We enter the house, as one might enter a disaster zone. I look around in shock. I was expecting disarray. I was expecting the place to be ransacked. But no. Everything seems to be as it was. I move past the verandah and into the hall and that’s when I see it. The bookshelf. The 8-feet-tall bookshelf that my father had specially got built from the local carpenter down the street. That bookshelf is bare. Every single book in it is gone. By now, my parents have reached me. The men make way for them, unable to say anything more. I turn to see my Dad’s ashen face. They run their hands over the bookshelf. They don’t look around to see if anything else is gone even though that is the only question that the army of men wants to know. I don’t have to look. I know that nothing else is gone. A lifetime of stories has disappeared. That is the only thing that has gone. “That’s all, thank God,” says one fool in the army. I swiftly turn around, catching the unsuspecting man by the collar. “Don’t thank God. It’s God that has gone,” I say, the truth of the words settling in before the thought reaches me.
It would be a few more hours before we sit. The police with their questions. Their greed. “We will find them soon, Sir,” they say and leave with a thousand rupees to “find them.” The locksmith with a new lock. Relatives who somehow seemed to have known and who land up there for regrets and coffee. “Who would do such a thing?” they asked, perplexed. “I mean, what value is there in books?” one cousin asks. My father clears his throat. “What do you mean what value?” he asks. “I mean, Uncle, there is not much resale value. Take this laptop here. That alone must be more than the cost of all these books,” the cousin replies. “Yet, these guys did not take that!” chimes in another cousin. Silence.
“You are talking about money,” my father says. “Money. You don’t know.”
“I have lost stories today. I have lost the value of a million words I can never repay again with the value of my time. I..” He doesn’t finish. “You lost life,” I say, finishing for him. He looks at me. Nods at me, then. We stare across the years, of a chasm that we hadn’t thought we were building. How weak are our frailties when compared with the strength of our egos. I walk over then and hug him. He rests his head on my shoulder. We sit there together, and I knew then we hadn’t lost.
Not at all.
This story was inspired by a Facebook update from Vishy who gave me permission to weave his own real-life story into this fictional one.