When I was in the seventh grade, I received a book as a gift from my sister. It was The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. After that, I spent all of my pocket money in buying novels. I also had a thing for fancy stationeries; I always opted buying fancy notebooks, notebooks which later were filled with poems, wishful thoughts, award acceptance speeches, and sometimes raps as well. The pages of the novels I owned and the notebooks I filled are my most prized possessions.
When I was in the ninth grade, my father’s business went bankrupt. We were forced to sell our house, our cars and even my mother’s jewelry. We were chased by loan sharks. The atmosphere inside my house after the incident had a stink of grief. My mother and father argued all the time and their love for each other started withering. At a tender age, I understood how vile money was and what it does to people. The everyday fights between my parents impacted my behavior.
I was unable to identify any emotion within myself besides sadness. I became quieter and over a period of time I was that kid in the classroom whom every teacher noticed because of the gloom reflected on her face. During my school days, you could say I was a wallflower. I blended well so that I could no longer be noticeable. Keeping things to myself was my expertise.
I did have couple of friends who knew only my name and a few trivial details about my life. And that was fine by me; I never really wanted anyone to find out who I really was. I gave that luxury only to my diaries and my notebooks. I adapted to ‘ostrich mentality’, but in my case instead of sand I’d stick my head in the novels I read.
The books I read were my escape. I found solace in the smell of pages and comfort in the words. Due to my family’s circumstances, the real world felt like a painful migraine. So I dwelled in different author’s worlds. Sometimes the magical sphere of Harry potter would obscure my family problems; sometimes I wouldn’t feel so bad for myself because of Khalid Hosseni’s characters. Sometimes I listened to Coelho’s preaching, trying to understand, and sometimes I drowned myself completely in Sylvia Plath’s words. The books I read were a shoulder for me to cry on and there was never a time when I didn’t borrow books from libraries. I spent all my leisure periods living there.
Once, during a free period, I was reading Coelho's Alchemist. Suddenly my math teacher, Sunil Sir, whom I tremendously respected, found me reading. He told me that he had already read the book and how wonderfulit was seeing me read books like that. From that day onwards, Sunil Sir and I started to exchange novels. At his house, there were countless books that lined the wall, shelf after shelf. As a bibliophile, I was intrigued by his collection of books. He always encouraged me to borrow books from him and so I did. He was a prodigy who had a knack for solving mathematics equations and his love for literature was limitless.
Because of Sunil sir’s affinity towards literature, I was able to connect with him. And I am forever grateful to him for lending me his books. The novels built a bridge for me to start sharing things. He may not know it but every time I think about school, I think of him. School! It also reminds me of Pink Floyd’s song, “Another Brick in the Wall”. And I was not surprised when Binay Sir, who taught us Social Studies, introduced the idea that kids are taught not how to think but what to think. He also sparked an interest in writing for me.
I remember we had to write something for our school before our SLC exams. And my article was titled ‘My Last Letter to Vidhya Sagar’. I poured out my heart while writing that article; everything that was on my mind spilled on the pages. And I remember all the students being called to the Hall one day after the submission of the articles.
This memory is vivid in my mind. I remember Binay Sir walking inside the Hall with a piece of paper. All of us thought it was a notice for our exams. But out of the blue, he called out my name, “Where is Aishwarya Baidar?” My first instinct was to slouch and hide my face. My friend sitting right next to me pointed at me. All of a sudden, I felt heat gushing through my body and I timidly raised my hand. He then smiled brightly and announced in front of all the students how much he adored my letter. He recited the letter word-by-word. I was dazed.
All the claps I received suddenly put me on the spot and I was trying hard to process what was happening around me. Later, he came up to me and told me that I could write. In a way, I knew that I have been writing throughout my life. But it was Binay Sir who made me realize that I could put words together sense fully.He encouraged me to write more. That spark has now become a fire, a roaring blaze.
I always thought that my childhood days were grey but now when I go down memory lane, it really wasn’t! Yes, I had to go through circumstantial problems but beautiful things also came along the way out of nowhere. There were books to help me; it led me toward people who thought alike. Had I never read books, I would have never come across teachers like Sunil Sir and Binay Sir. It was often difficult for me to find a place for myself, but there were always books that provided comfort.
The most incredible thing about books is that you can put them down for as long as necessary. But if you come back in a year it’ll still be there, faithfully waiting for you to turn a page. The greatest teachers I regard are the novels I read up till now, the songs I listened to and the movies I have watched. And I wish that everyone else would also discover the lessons in these art forms. There is something so beautiful about being able to sit down with a book you love and participate in various adventures together.
(Aishwarya Baidar is a Language and Arts instructor with the US Embassy’s Book Bus.)