|| The Book Bag Retreat ||

BookbagI have never had a serious bucket list. Or, rather, I used to have one of some sort, until I retired.

All my life, I have fancied various pursuits, their intensity waxing and waning with the changing pace and preoccupations of the different stages of life. The first, and the longest lasting, has been reading. I have also been fond of people and relationships; and of travel and photography. I have been infatuated with music, transferring my interest from listening to it, to the artifacts of its reproduction. And, an oddball among my friends, I have dabbled with tailoring and carpentry. But none among these, some persisting intensely over considerably long periods, has endured with me forever.

Reading, on the other hand, has always been a passion with me.

I started reading when a child, and like all avid readers, read without discrimination whatever I could lay my hands on. I mostly borrowed to read. Fortunately, when at high school, I had a friend whose father had a good collection of books, and did not notice what happened to a few of them. My friend liberally lent, and I read.

Later, reading acquired a different significance for me when I read Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Book Bag’. I do not remember the story. English is my not mother tongue. I was reading Maugham when still a juvenile, with limited vocabulary of words, themes and emotions, some of which were very English, and quite alien to me. Yet, I just loved Maugham’s facility with the language, and read him without understanding much. The fact that I forgot the storyline quite vouches for my mesmerized state of fascination. Reading about the story in Wikipedia now makes little sense to me, and I have to shake my head gravely in disbelief, thinking, ‘No, this was not the story I read!’

On the other hand, the name of the story stuck to me, and its idea grew upon me unconsciously. Having owned few books in my childhood, I became obsessed with possessing books, as many as I could afford (not necessarily read). With my first job, I started buying books, initially indiscriminately – buying second-hand books. This ensured both that I bought books that people had read (though I avoided heavily underlined or annotated books), and I bought at a price I could afford.

When an annual book-fair started in my city, I felt encouraged to buy new books because of the discount I could get. I became cautious, and bought only the ones I was sure were good read.

Finally, just when I was about to retire, a bookshop in my city, called ‘Books and Beyond’, wound up, selling off its books at half-price. The sale went on for several months, I suppose because the folks of my city aimed at life beyond books. Now, which obsessive book lover can ignore a book-sale at half-price? I went on a buying spree, much to the consternation of my wife. I assured her that I would read them, once I retired. Skeptical as she was, she grimly pointed out that we needed a bookcase to keep the books to find them, if and when I wanted to read them. I ended up buying not one, but a second bookcase. The top-half of each had glass doors, and the bottom-half, wooden ones. Thus, one could only see half of the books in them, and the other half remained hidden, lending the whole collection an aura of inscrutable mystery and a promise of discovery. To boot, I covered some of the books that I took up for reading, so that dust would not spoil their shiny covers, as I was wont to leave them lying around, until I eventually put them back in the bookcase. These books acquired, thus, another layer of mystery.

That is how my bucket list, if I ever had one, took shape, just before my retirement. Its topmost item was to read my unknown books, followed by traveling, and looking up my long-lost relatives.

Unfortunately, none of the above happened. I retired somewhat abruptly. I had formally retired from my job, and been offered to stay on as a consultant for completing an ongoing project. Three years down, my office told me that they did not need me anymore.

I was free at last, with all the time on my hand, and a considerable number of unknown books to read. I still kept shying from reading, putting it to the few things one needed to take care of, or wind up, or do something about, before finally settling into retirement. This list of chores showed no sign of ending, until sometime, to my utter dismay, I realized I did not anymore want to read.

What has it been then about, this obsession with collecting books for the sunset yellow years of my life?

To unravel that, one has to understand what had subconsciously fascinated me about ‘The Book Bag’ of Maugham. I did not know what kind of bag Maugham had, in which he carried his books. I had puzzled over how many books that bag held. Not a very large number, I presumed. At any rate, one would eventually exhaust a limited supply of books, even with some repeat reading. No, it was not in the books, but the magical charm that had entrapped me lay in the idea of their bag. This bag only made up a shell, outside which lay the quotidian life. But, after one unzipped, or unlocked, or unfastened the bag of whatever fastening it had, one entered a different world – the world of books – a kingdom I had captured in my imagination in my childhood when initiating my reading habit.

Now, as I look at my bookcases, I feel the same about them. Hidden behind their doors, lies the magical world of books, like an unexplored rain forest. I need not explore this world from shore to shore, going over all its plains and mountains, as if to finish a chore and achieve a target. Nay, I must not trespass into it, but surreptitiously, from time to time, to forage only for a stray glimpse of the treasures it has! I must, otherwise, leave it be, remaining forever ready to launch myself to survey its mysteries.

Happily somnambulant with that dream, I read no more. And, I no more feel the need for a bucket list.

Indroneer / 22 April 2014