For a moment I pictured myself sitting under the tree and that leaf falling on my lap as a book.
As we course through our lives, we try to seek comfort in those persons or things that convey a sense of belonging, and for me personally it has always been amongst books.
My passion for books has its origin in my mother, Saraswathi Ramnath. She lost her father who was a Gandhian and a popular doctor early in life and was married at the tender age of sixteen. In addition to being a housewife, she had to bring up her brother and an infant sister. Caught up in these demands, she couldn’t pursue higher education. She too was drawn to Gandhi and when he gave a call that learning and using a common language, Hindi, would unite the nation against the colonial power, she pursued it on her own with zest and qualified as a Vidwan. That opened up an immense vista of discovery of Indian literature and she commenced writing, focusing on translating from Hindi to Tamil and vice versa.
My earliest memories of her are the ones when I see her quietly sitting by herself, after finishing household chores, writing furiously. This practice continued all through her life. Her days were filled with bring up three children, one of whom was differentially-abled, taking care of the household, teaching students Hindi and writing. Even now I am amazed as to how she found time amongst all these demanding tasks to pursue her call.
She was the one who introduced me to books. There was no cake on birthdays but a stack of children’s books. I devoured them as fast as they came and my ambit of reading expanded with years. She would take me to the Connemara Library when she had to do her research for her writings and I would wander among its beautiful environs with soaring ceilings and books stacked on high racks. There were volumes of the Illustrated London News beautifully bound in leather and art books containing beautiful reproductions. Running my hands over them was itself an idyllic experience. It was a tantalizing world, just waiting at my fingertips. I devoured all the books I could lay my hands on and it wasn’t surprising that I needed glasses at an early age!
It wasn’t just books but also authors I was besotted with. All the leading writers in Tamil would visit our house and there would be lively exchange of ideas. I would watch silently from the side amazed at their breadth of knowledge. As a child, I would keenly look forward to visit Azha Valliappa’s house where he used to arrange weekly story telling sessions “Kathai Sollum Nigazhchi”. His wife would provide us with snacks, and we would settle down to listen to his stories. He would also encourage us to sing along with him. Another visitor was the poet Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai. He used to collect all the children in the place where we stayed and tell us stories. As I grew older I was smitten with the writings of Jayakanthan. To hear him articulate his ideas with such conviction and clarity was an unforgettable experience. I had a long personal association with Ashokamitran. He would often sit in a quiet corner of a park near our house and write. He was a keen observer of human feelings and frailties which he described with a subtle sense of humor.
My mother was also involved in organizing the First All India Writers Conference in which all leading writers from across the country participated. As a small boy in half shorts I ambled among them clutching my autograph book requesting them to sign in it. The first person to sign in it was Tarashankar Banerjee. It is my most precious possession which I have guarded against the ravages of time.
Books continued to flow from the pen of my mother. She had three major surgeries and a very rare malignancy later on in life. But travails of the body had little impact on her abiding engagement with literature. She must have written more than a hundred books across various genres. She wrote a series of books on the major rivers of India, chronicling their history, legends associated with them as they traverse the land from their origin till they merge into the sea.
Her forte was translation. That was no mean task especially at a time when Hindi was anathema in Tamil Nadu. Through her work she opened avenues of readership across the nation for all leading writers in Tamil. She translated Kamba Ramayanam into Hindi and the President at that time Sri Shankar Dayal Sharma, read the book and invited her over to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan to personally felicitate her. Many accolades and award came later in life, Dwivageesh Award from Bharatiya Anuwaad Parishat, Akshara Award, Kendriya Hindi Sanstan Award, Souhardha Samman from Uttar Pradesh Govt, Saraswathi Puraskar, Award from Shantiniketan in recognition of her contribution to Indian literature through translation and then the Sahithya Academy Award.
Her passion for the world of literature was infectious. She taught generations of students, encouraging them to explore works of literature. Hearing her explain Kabir’s dohas was an unforgettable experience.
Understandably she has had a huge impact on me. With her by my side I have ventured into the vast landscape of literary works, unraveling in the process the far reaches of creativity expressed through words. Though I miss her physical presence, every time I discover an unknown author or savor a new book, I feel that she is along with me relishing every word of it. When I leaf through her books which have weathered with time and whose pages have become brittle, I am reminded of her unabated struggles in writing them.
Much has been written about how pain and suffering interweave with creativity. The connection between suffering and creative expression is one of the most elusive of human stories. All through her life my mother’s body was ravaged by one illness or the other. But that didn’t reign in her spirits. She embraced her pains and they became a partner in her life. Her creative trope transcended the travails of her physical body. She had to endure a plethora of adversities, yet in the midst of them her spirits soared like the phoenix.
Her life has been an inspiration in my professional disposition in addressing the needs of those who are in throes of suffering. I strive to provide space for patients to tell their stories, uninterrupted. We all live in storied lives and want to share our stories with a responsive listener. Often stories that are told in therapy are the ones that cannot be told in everyday life.
My love of books continues unabated as witnessed in the shelves overflowing with them at home. In spite of Ahalya cautioning me not to add to them, I follow Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “the best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to them” and keep buying books. Turns out that bibliophileness is genetic! I seem to have passed the bibliophene gene on to our son Rahul too! For me books are like a Borgesian kaleidoscope, in which each reflection sparks another one..no pattern is ever the same and every book is a new revelation. And I owe that debt to my mother…
I am a book
Written by my mother…