The Man in the Bookstore



You hear about it sometimes.  You see it in movies, read about it in works of fiction.

You never thought it would happen to you.

You never imagined you would walk into a bookstore, browse languorously in the poetry section and end up having an hour long conversation with a total stranger about the kind of words you both love.  You didn’t think instances like this existed outside of anecdotes.  But they do, and now you have one to share too.

You can now tell people how, while holding on to a Lorrie Moore novel you’ve been meaning to read, you were tapped on the shoulder gently and told, ‘You’re going to love that book. It’s one of my favourites.’  You can reminisce on how you responded with surprised but suppressed glee and told this man that Moore is one of your favourite writers, one that has greatly influenced your own writing style.  You can recount how you both then stood in the poetry aisle in companionable silence, which was soon broken by him picking out a slim anthology from the racks and asking you if you’ve ever read anything like it.

You can narrate then how responded in the negative but launched into a tirade about the kind of poetry you do enjoy, about how Zbigniew Herbert gives you goosebumps and Jack Gilbert makes you want to sit on a bench under a tree and weep.  You can tell people about the stories this man told you, about the poetry festival he organises and the many great writers and poets he’s interacted with.  You can smilingly share with them what you shared with him, that words will always be your first love, no matter where you go or what you do; that even though your career path has nothing to do with stanzas and plots, it’s what you think about and indulge in on your daily commute across the Charles and the small hazy window of time right before you fall asleep every night.

You can elaborate on the characters he told you about, the Moroccan store-owner who speaks a new language every time they meet or the owner of a Central Square tavern who happily displays this man’s artwork, the artwork you were amazed to hear about because of its sheer simplicity of it being a collection of pieces made up of broken and discarded bits of picture frames.  You can tell people of how stunned you were to hear about this, and how it only added to the beauty of the strange but welcome encounter.  If you are interrupted, you can veer the conversation back with another quiet but simple story he shared with you about one of his favourite poets, who writes about a refugee who, at displacement, took his house door off its hinges to take it with himself to wherever he was going next.  You can go into detail the way this man did about how this refugee, if he ever returns, will reattach the withered door to his old home to solidify his return; or will place this old door to wherever he settles next and will build his new home around it, to remember the foundation of where he came from.

You can muse on how this stunning story touched you because you could relate, because you have been displaced your whole life and have no doors to carry, only the idea of something that could feel like home but has yet to be discovered.  You can tell people how you asked this man more about this poet he loves, and in return, told him about a poet you love, a poet whose writing is so frenzied and manic you feel like you’re helplessly dancing along to a rhythm so remarkably fast your feet ache to catch up.

You could go on. But you won’t. You don’t need to tell anyone you bought all the books he pointed to, including one by the poet he loves.  You don’t need to tell them how you walked into this bookstore because your soul was down and the only thing that could revive it was some old-fashioned make-believe. You experienced something sacred today, something that added a bounce back into your step, something that made you grateful for who you are and where you are, something that reminded you that there is still magic in the world, even if it is just in a bookstore around the corner.



‘Do Tell’ by Richard Hoffman




Out the window, and adrift at sea…

Gone, all gone

Gone, all gone

What is your most prized possesion?  What is it that provides you immeasureable comfort in times of distress, and lifts your spirit and cheers you up, and takes your mind off everything that goes on around you, so that you can get away from harsh realities for a while, even just momentarily?  Now imagine this favourite, most cherished belonging of yours, being taken away forever, for no rational reason at all.  Imagine it being gone forever, and you don’t find out until it’s too late.

Today, I discovered that my mother gave away my most prized collection of books to charity.  Now I know, you may think I sound a bit dramatic to be reacting so seriously but the thing is, the most important, crucial thing is, those books weren’t just books.  To me, they weren’t just inanimate arrays of pages with black words typed upon a white background.  It wasn’t all monochrome for me.  I saw colour there, and life.  They were the words I turned to everytime I had a difficult time stringing some together on my own.  Those were the pages of my own existence, their words wrapping me in a coccoon of comfort. 

The whole experience for me was kind of like a reverential ritual.  I loved gingerly opening the hardcover front page, taking in the smell of the new pages, which soon turned musty, their dog-eared edges indicating the frequency with which I read them.  It was a collection of about 50 books, the best of the best, my all-time favourites, from the audacious travails of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, to the lawyerly escapades of John Grisham’s protagonist.  Erish Segal also had a place there, with Doctors and The Class, a saga about the graduating class of Harvard ’58 (it was this book that originally induced me to apply to Harvard later).  Serious literary works of South Asian authors made up a large part of the collection: Rohinton Mistry’s critically acclaimed A Fine Balance, novels by Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, and of course, Vikram Seth.  Oh, the mutitude of times I’d read A Suitable Boy!  It was one of my very favourite books, I had read each of its 1000-something pages over and over again that I now remember entire passages.  It’s tales of love, loss, fortune, and fate were both real and , they seemed familiar yet unknown at the same time, exciting and simultaneously heartbreaking, making me frown and smile at intervals, complete lost in the world of its words.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez booked his place with A 100 Days of Solitude; Nadeem Aslam also belonged there, with his heart-squeeing Maps for Lost Lovers.  Cliched though it may be, I also had all 7 books of the Harry Potter series, simply because I loved the way Rowling cleverly created a phantasmal world so compellingly real that reading about flying on broomsticks, duelling wizards and divine prophecies seemed anything but extraordinary or unreal.  Shakespeare also had a place in my collection, some poems and shared space with a few of my favourite plays, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.  Other than that, there were other books, almost unknown, written by one-book-wonder authors who disappeared off the literay map but whose works remained with me and inspired me to emulate their own efforts.  Tunnel Vision by Shandana Minhas, The Colour of Mehndi by Nosheen Pasha, and a few other random books which I’d read over and over again, cover to cover, devouring each word, celebrating each syllable.

It pains me that I now can’t even recall some of the books that I’d kept stored in there.  I don’t care about the monetary value they hold, because to me, those books were priceless.  Buying replacements will not mend the tear that causes my heart to bleed.  They were not just books, this IS a big deal, but sadly, it is an issue not many people can relate to, certainly not anyone in my family or circle of friends, and most definitely not my own mother who thinks giving me a bit of cash to buy myself a few baubles will pacify me.  What hurts the most is not that she actually gave them away, but the fact that she cannot comprehend the crulety of her actions, the fact that she cannot see that taking away those books for me is like ripping away a piece of my own anatomy.

I feel completely lost without those books, those tomes of brilliance and inspiration that were possibily the biggest and most constant part of my life.  It was those books that drove me to write, that stirred within me the desire to create something similar, to absord their magic and then create some of my own. I had been collecting them for years, in the hope that one day, my own daughter could read them, and I could share with her the magical world of fiction that captivates me so completely.  I don’t know if I can start all over again.