The light is always burning. Always. The pure extravagance. My vengeance for the poverty I grew up in. Light only in a single room, you went to bed at dark. The few Centavos of pocket money I got, I put into batteries for a flashlight to read by at night. Books I stole. Books mustn’t cost anything, that’s what I thought then and still do.
~ Jorge O’Kelley in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train To Lisbon
I came across these lines in the wonderful book that I am reading now, and they broke my heart. NO ONE should have to feel like this. No one should not have free access to books when all they want to do is desperately read them. Just like no one who desperately needs food should go without it. No one should have to steal books in order to be able to read them… just as no one should have to steal food in order to eat or feed their children. The same goes for drinkable water.
I say food, water and books in the same breath because they are of equal importance to me. I cannot imagine a life without reading, without education. I believe that education is a sure step towards abolishing the evils that we see in the world around us, and becoming a more humane, a much better country. Education alone does not make a difference in the behaviour of a person – it is awareness and conditioning that does. That said, education – the ability to read about a world outside the four walls of your home – opens up innumerable avenues of thoughts, ideas and possibilities. It makes you aware of the different kinds of people who exist in the world, makes you more sensitive to their worlds and, in turn, to the things that are going on in your world. The ability to read books inculcates in you an understanding of yourself and life and the world at large. At least, that was the way it was for me.
Ensuring that books cost nothing is, according to me, a step towards building a better, more literate, more sensitive, more balanced nation.
I have thought on the same lines as the quote many a time, and feel strongly about the idea of books not costing anything. The thought holds even more relevance at this time when bookstores and educational institutions alike are going commercial. I know there are libraries where the fees are minimal – or do not exist at all – but the collection of books in such libraries is usually very limited, depending upon the kind of grants and donations that they receive. What I am talking about is free readership to all those who are interested in reading, free access to any and every kind of book there is, free access to dictionaries to enable people to expand their understanding of the written word. The cost of books should not be a deciding factor for a person contemplating whether he/she should read or not. Too perfect a world to exist? Maybe.
The quote also reminded me of my childhood, and brought many bittersweet feelings to the fore. I started reading early on in life, and loved it. I used to devour books with a vengeance, and enter worlds that were so different from my own. I never knew boredom when I was with books. Appa used to buy me the few books he could, on his limited government servant’s salary, considering the financial demands of a fairly big joint family. I used to go to a library near my house to satiate my unending thirst for reading, but it used to run on grants and the collection was not all that wonderful. I wanted to read far beyond the kind of books that I had access to but, sadly, couldn’t. Books were a luxury back then, and I wanted them to become a basic necessity – like food or clothes or water. I got a good education, but not the books I wanted to read – at least not frequently.
The situation changed when I started earning. I used to reserve a part of my paltry beginner’s salary to buy the books I wanted to read. Slowly and steadily, as my income grew, my reading tastes also changed and I was able to cater to them. I am lucky to have a husband who, though he does not read, understands why I love books so and does not hesitate to buy them for me.
Today, the husband and I help our maid finance the education of her son – the only bright spot in her dreary life with a drunkard husband, a mentally challenged daughter, poverty, lots of illnesses, and the burden of a widowed aunt who does not have a home of her own. In her son’s education lies her hope for a better future, and I am glad we are helping her realise her dreams in whatever little way we can.
Today, I love gifting books to people who are waiting for the magic of reading to spread into their lives. Waiting, for whatever reasons.
Even today, I am not in a position to buy all the books that I want to, but I am grateful for the long way I have come.
Sometimes, I think of how wonderful it would have been if I could always have read all that I wanted to, there were no gaps in my reading, I had a mentor to guide along my reading and get me the most appropriate books at the different stages of my life. I would have been a better reader, a more well-rounded person, and infinitely better off in my career – I think so.
I am not regretful. I am not ungrateful. I am not complaining. I just wonder… what if books do not cost anything? It would have made a world of difference to me. As it would have to Jorge.
PS: This wasn’t an easy post for me to write. I deliberated over deleting the entire thing off several times, and then decided against it. I hope you will be compassionate (not pitiful) and non-judgemental in your reading of this post.