It’s been five months since my father passed away. Time softens the blow, they say, but it’s still unimaginable that there are conversations we’re not going to have anymore, say about who’s a total fraud, how things are going to hell in a hand-basket, where the world is headed. Out of these, the most frequent question was: “What are you reading?” Followed often enough by a “Challenge yourself”!
We’re a family of readers and I wonder if this inherent judgement of other people based on whether they read in the first place, and what they read, is an inherited trait.
I’ve always had more of an appetite for fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, and some literary fiction, of course, and I have to make a conscious effort to read non-fiction. My father was the opposite, barely reading fiction as an adult. We argued about that, of course, once I found my voice, and judged each other from our sides of the boxing ring.
When he did read 15-odd pages of my novel The Sibius Knot the year before last it was a major deal. It unmoored him though, so he stopped. (Perhaps this novelist took more inspiration from real-life events than she let on.)
Last year, mid-treatment cycle he said he would read me when I reached 30,000 copies in sales... You’ll have to hang in there and keep fighting for years, I laughed.
Over the years
Our journey through books had so many ups and downs, but it’s like a trail, something out of Hansel and Gretel.
The first book I gave my father was back in college, City of Djinns, which he enjoyed. I later got him a Jared Diamond and then much later, I lent him a review copy of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal which I had been sent. He read it, was moved by it, and essentially gave me a “What the hell was that”, sort of reaction which of course made me read the book and then…understand what he meant. It’s an insanely powerful account of the need to come to terms with our mortality, with how we want to die.
We do not want to think about how our loved ones might die. Like my dad, I refused to read The Emperor of Maladies, once I knew his diagnosis. Something about the finality with which we were told “Stage IV cancer”. He said that I could read it and give him the gist of it, but neither of us had the heart for it, once it got so personal.
But it is personal. One line that stayed with me from Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, which I repeated and insisted on repeating to dad, was the poignant moment where he says:
“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
Kalanithi’s book was the last book I gave Dad to read. (He later gave it to his oncologist, who was touched, I daresay, but also implored my father to read lighter things.)
Of all the ignominies, the worst was that towards the end, he couldn’t read. It’s unfathomable to me, even now, that my dad’s brain – that giant repository of knowledge, trivia, fact and ideas – gave up on him. During his entire life, right till the end, he was never without a book, and he read like a fiend. He was also quite the discerning reader, to put it mildly. You did not want to be the person who didn’t know their facts.
Actually, even when he couldn’t read anymore, towards the end, while still in hospital, a junior colleague started discussing one of the books he was reading. Dad said, “Clearly, it’s been ghost-written,” making me laugh and cry at the same time. (Did he know, this man who always knew everything? Did he know what was happening?)
Joy of discovery
It feels like such a rich gift to be able to give someone, doesn’t it? Here I give you...knowledge! No less.
A lovely collection of fairy tales and one on the Arabian Nights ranks as some of the most treasured presents from childhood. But I should have known there was a catch and life lessons were being taught and other habits being instilled. The moral of the story is…As kids, every so often we would get to pick a Famous Five or another storybook from Midland Janpath, as long as we bought a serious book as well.
Every time we took a flight, we’d get an Asterix and a Tintin, to be shared by my sister and me…and then read by mum and dad too. We had quite a grand collection, most of it still extant. The joys of childhood very much included the escapism of books. The Water Babies shared pride of place with Peter Pan, and shared space with the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which was bought in a bargain deal with a neighbour in Seoul.) Whether you were satisfied with the Micropedia version of a topic or delved deeper with the Macropedia said a lot about you, I realised. Every new country we went to brought new treasures, whether it was the Kalevala of Finland or Moomin adventures, we soaked it all up.
There was very little to no censorship of reading material when I was growing up (score!) except for once at least, when I was told in no uncertain terms at the age of 10 or 11 that I couldn’t read my beloved Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys till I reached seventh grade. God, the injustice of it. (I’ll show him, I thought, I’ll wait and read all of them. Guess who had the last laugh? Once I finally reached seventh grade, I’d pretty much outgrown my taste for the bright young detectives.)
My younger brother and I discovered Harry Potter together, and while that never interested Dad in the least, he did make an effort to read Artemis Fowl, though we’d both outgrown the little villain. My father remained quite astounded till the end, actually, that my brother can traverse the magical, science fiction and comic book universe with as much facility and enthusiasm as dense texts on finance and fragile states (a Classics and Economics double major, the over-achiever makes me look positively dull!).
But slowly, we started to feel weighed down too. We started talking about having too many things, and definitely too many books. What to do with all of them? A few years ago I got my dad his Kindle – look, many birds, one stone, I told him. Buy what you want, read what you want, don’t worry about being entombed or buried alive by all your physical copies (every true booklover knows this fear).
After the initial enthusiasm about the world at his fingertips, I was informed quite acerbically that the joys of reading Smithsonian magazine do not translate onto a black and white screen. (There was also a quiet amazement that I had not splashed out an extra thousand or two thousand bucks for a higher-end model.)
The books trail
Over the years, I had made some serious faux pas also. For someone whose loved one lives with paranoid schizophrenia, perhaps A Beautiful Mind is not the most sensitive present. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that the copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that I read was Dad’s old copy. (He passed on the movie though.)
Our journey wasn’t peachy, no sir. We used to argue, bicker, sulk.
“You’re not a novelist.”
“Anyone can get published in India.”
“What are you writing?”
“Read more, read better...”
I feel like I can still hear echoes of that voice pushing me on. And while in the moment I used to lose my temper, I wish I could hear those annoying challenges again. On one visit to his beloved home in Bhubaneswar, we were sitting in a room filled with books and talking about how many of them were finally unpacked after more than three-and-a-half decades of life on the move as a diplomat. What should he do next, what could he read?
“How much more knowledge will I accumulate?” he asked me, in that not-so-humble way. And in a rare moment I said, “All this knowledge and yet not enough wisdom” or some words to that effect.
He laughed and said, “That’s what I have you for.”
It’s one of the nicest, most heart-warming things I’ve heard in my life. We’ve come a long way, dad.
I still have two books he recommended – one a biography of Putin that I’ve been ploughing through for a year (too lazy a reader, my dad is probably still rolling his eyes) and one on Indian history that surprised even him in the last few months, which was pretty hard to do. I don’t want to finish either of them, because that’s the last of it.
The finality of that is a twist in the gut.
Amrita Tripathi writes contemporary fiction and is the author of Broken News and The Sibius Knot. She is the founder of the mental health site The Health Collective.