The long-pending task of sorting out our bookshelf turned into a therapy session of sorts, where instead of my husband (a process-driven, task-oriented man) and me (haphazard and always wearing my heart on my sleeve), sorting out the books, the books sorted us.
The morning cuppa this morning is a little different from the other mornings’. We are not looking out of the window, or reading out the COVID-19 stats from our phone screens. We are both looking at the expansive 20-foot long bookshelf that runs along the longest wall of our living room.
The bookshelf was introduced to the family five years ago after a long and tedious discussion with a carpenter whose first and lasting impression of us was of a crazy couple fussing over a row of wooden planks. When the bookshelf was new and untouched, we spent hours deciding which books go where. We lovingly stacked them by titles and by genres. The paperbacked ones were distinctly placed away from the hard-bounds. Friends such as Shakespeare and Shaw were a shelf above the nodding acquaintances – Saki, Gabriel Garcia Marquee. Bringing up the rear were the strangers – soon to be friends. We had painstakingly created labels for quick reference. I stand corrected – my husband had painstakingly created the labels on his laptop, printed them on coloured labels and stuck them neatly on the shelves. He ensured that the books were stacked in the ascending order of the height of their spines. As someone has said, “A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped to the foot.”
When the benevolent carpenter, who had come over to collect the balance payment, offered to help by picking up a random stack of books from the floor and pushing them into the first available free plank, he invited the wrath of my husband, and left home murmuring under his breath.
“You should not have shouted at him,” I said. “It was so rude.”
“I don’t care,” hubby said, pulling down the sinfully placed stack.
Since then, several books have been pulled out, new books have been wedged into the spaces in between. Many books, for lack of space, have been lying stacked on their sides, one on top of the other. Knick-knacks and souvenirs from our numerous travels have been pushed along the ledge of the planks. In short, the bookshelf was a total mess.
Right after tea, we get started. I start first, by pulling out the books from here and there. Hubby has gone in to the study to fetch his laptop. When he returns, he is furious.
“Wait! Wait!” he yells. Let’s follow a pattern.”
Patterns are his thing, the lack of them, mine. The past twenty-five years of our married life were spent in patterning our future along a severe timeline. On the achievement of every goal, there was another one taking shape in the horizon. There was always something to work towards, to look forward to. I loved the dizzying frenzy of moving from one milestone to another. A couple on the go – that’s what we were known as in our social circles. If you thought life was all about work and no play, you have another think coming! Our annual vacations were plenty and not too far apart. It was all planned to happen – two overseas vacations, two domestic. To everyone’s awe and envy, we stuck to the routine for years.
Until a few years ago, when my soul demanded a slowdown. I could not continue to live against my grain anymore. I was getting tired of the time-bound routines. The patterned life knocked the wind out of me. Hubby slowly got accustomed to my disdain for routine. He slackened a bit on the planning and the patterning. But, when it became cumbersome for him, we decided to do things differently in our own spaces. He did his thing, and I mine. Often, we did the same things, differently. I began to live in the moment, and he happily planned his moment.
So, it is no surprise to either of us that today while he pores over his MS Excel sheet to understand the category of books on the shelves, I sit cross-legged in the middle of the piles of books and begin flipping pages. My pleasure comes from simply being in the midst of mellifluous words and provocative imagery. The books sit around me each vying for my attention. To Kill a Mocking Bird sits atop an Ignited Mind, while Sapiens shares floor space with Growing Up Bin Laden. I open Wuthering Heights to a random page: “He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine.”
I look up from the page, and turn my dreamy eyes on my husband. His spectacles are perched on his nose and his fingers tap away on the keyboard of his laptop. Obviously, he is oblivious to the magic around him. But I do know that he is an ardent book lover, much more than I am.
“Listen,” I say.
I read out to him the passage from Wuthering Heights. I have his complete attention.
“Wow!” he says before returning his gaze to the screen in front of him.
A few minutes later, he says, “Listen to this.”
I look up from the book in my hand. His laptop is placed on the floor away from him. A book has taken its place on his lap. He chuckles as he reads out.
“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
For the next ten minutes, Yuval Noah Harari sits in the midst of our ponderous discussion on his acclaimed opus – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Soon, the scene in our living room has a makeover. Hubby sits with his back against the bookshelf, flipping through a book. I sit beside him, in the exact same manner, thumbing through a book. The only thing that punctuates the silence is one of us reading out a piece from the book in our hands. Or, when he lovingly asks, “some wine?”
By the time morning morphs into noon and after, we have met the very-tongue-in-cheek Jerry Pinto, the indefatigable P.G. Wodehouse, and the erudite Ram Charan. Erma Bombeck keeps us in splits with her misadventures. Before we know it, we are as full-spirited as the full-bodied Shiraz we have not yet opened, and our bookshelf is bare.
Such is the magic spun by books – two distinctly disparate individuals could find intense commonality. In the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
We cast a glance at the books sprawled around us, and burst out laughing. Within half an hour, the books are back on the shelves – some on their sides, others pushed into place in random order. The short ones and the tall ones stand next to each other in asymmetrical beauty. The knick-knacks hold the unruly books in place.
As I close the book on a wonderful day, there is only wish in my heart – May our shelves always overflow with books!
Pic courtesy: Google images