Monday, August 22, 2016

#395 : An open letter to arm-chair critics

Note : This is going to be a rather long post, almost rant styled. Don't say you've not been warned.

Dear Arm-Chair Critic,

Hello there. I guess this letter is long due. I've finally found the guts and the right time to pen my thoughts. I suppose I got bored of the likes of you who criticize anything right from the low medal count of Indians in the Rio Olympics 2016 to my own personal misery - my infamous book ban.

I know. I can almost picture you rolling your eyes at the last part of that sentence which is no way comparable with the first part. Well, let me elaborate.

I know you have no clue about this ironic situation of mine. Even if you did, I suppose, you still choose to mock me for it. It's your choice to mock, but it's not mine to live with it.

I love reading books. I started out at the age of 7 by reading comics and then progressed to full length novels. I have no count of how many books I've read. My librarians, however would, to a certain extent. Yes. I belong to the class of people who borrow books instead of buying it. I still do actually. I earn enough to buy the number of books I read per month yet I still don't. However, when I started out reading, we were in no financial position to buy expensive books. I'm not going to glorify the act of borrowing by calling it a service to develop the local reading community. I borrow because I cannot buy. I borrow because I am not allowed to buy. I have a ban on owning books - Harry Potter series is the only exemption. My grandfather gifted me 4 of them. Who put the ban in place? My dear mother did.

My grandfather was an accomplished writer and editor. He had 7 books to his credit and also served as a guest editor for The Saraswathi Mahal Library at Tanjore.  He had a library of close to 4000 books in languages including English, Tamil, Hindi, Urudu and Telugu in topics ranging from literature to astrological sciences. He was a prominent figure in the astrology and publishing scene. I inherited his genes and his passion for reading. We used to go on trips to various bookstores in the city almost everyday. I was his travel companion. I was his second pair of eyes when his vision started failing. There came a time when his eyes simply refused to see. Yet, his thirst for knowledge never waned. We still went on those trips. He struggled to read and used various special lenses. My grandmother and me, we used to read out to him and write whatever he dictated. His last unpublished work, which is well over 800 pages was handwritten by my grandmother. I handled his mails and wrote whatever he dictated for  his monthly share of articles for magazines for which he was a columnist.

One fine day, his BP shot up and he was paralyzed. His brain function altered itself. His speech slurred and his ability to recollect the past dimmed down. Ultimately he lost all memory of all the knowledge he had gained over the years by reading extensively. Death then decided to claim him after much struggle. We were left with a massive collection of books and no space to keep them as we had sold off his house. The new owner gave us enough time to ensure that the books were cleared off. Given that his place was in a low lying area, we had to frantically struggle to save the books when it rained. It was one dark period for our family. Finally, after about 4 months of struggle, we managed to clear off his library by donating the books to various friends and to the Madras University library.

Now that you know my story, let me summarize what resulted in the ban.

  1. Can you imagine the prospect of completely forgetting whatever you have learnt or read? - I've seen that happening right in front of my eyes. No, it wasn't heartbreaking. It felt almost suicidal.  What happened to him might happen to any of us. This didn't deter me from reading or learning. It taught me not be too attached to anything.

  2. 3000 plus books - Each and every book neatly covered and maintained well without dog-ears or broken spines. Some rare books were a part of the collection too. Imagine a bibliophile having to giving away that many books knowing that it might not be taken care like it was. I don't wish to relieve that feeling by penning it down.

One fine, day long after my grandfather died, I visited Odyssey - One of our regular haunts when he was alive. Landmark had closed shop by then. My mum tagged along. We were there to buy a gift on our way to a party. I wanted to buy a book for myself. My mum silently touched my hand and nodded no with a sad smile. I was perplexed. It wasn't like her to stop me from buying books for myself. After all, by that time, our financial crunch was sorted. It then struck me that she was simply afraid that I would turn out like my grandfather. She had made it clear that books no more were welcomed into her house. Immaterial of how much I earned, she made it clear shouldn't buy a book for myself, even if I did buy, I was to give it away periodically.

It's been three plus years since I started reviewing books. Every book I got as a review copy is either sitting in a library or is with my friend. I've purchased about 12 books since the ban from vouchers I won and I intend to give those away too. I also have a bunch of second hand books I got before the whole incident happened. Those have also found a new home.

I know you give me the stink eye when I attend book launches but slither off without buying the book.

Taunt me all you want when I muse over how I missed visiting a bookshop in a city I traveled to, as you know I won't buy any book.

Be the big fat bully who would criticize me for not owning books with beautiful covers.

Be the so called friend who would sympathize when we talk, but snicker behind my back.

Be the idiot who would suggest I try buying digital books. It's still a book you know and I don't cheat.

I'm past feeling the prick. There was a time when I used to cry myself to sleep, unable to over the come that desperate feeling of not owing a beautiful book I enjoyed.

You and the likes of you are nothing but bullies who are eternally judgmental.

May God give you peace.

Yours Sincerely,

A Bibliophile.

Note : This letter was inspired by a post from a Facebook friend of mine - Ms.Jean Burke-Spraker. She was a part of a conversation with my other friend where I whined about how people judged me critically for owning secondhand copies of books I loved. The very day she posted a picture of a couple of second hand books she owned. Among bullies who flaunted their book collection and ridiculed me for not following suit, she is a rare gem who helped me feel better. I hardly know her as a person, but that simple act speaks volumes about her. Thank you Jean.

PS. If you read this and feel that I'm pointing out to you, well, that's your feeling. I've not mentioned names have I?



  1. Bragadeesh PrasannaAugust 22, 2016 at 6:18 PM

    Shree Janani. I am sorry. I have not judged you. But liking a book and not owning it is a very bad feeling. Been there. I wish nobody had to go through this. I have always thought of presenting you with some books. But that is Ok. The old books has its own charm and I know you love Juggernaut and Kindle. But I can feel what is going on in your Mom's mind too..

    Physical copies or not, may you be blessed with no drought of reading. And I will do my part for it.

  2. Thank you Bragadeesh! That's one blessing I hope will stick to me 😊

  3. Hey Janani, doesn't matter whether you own a book or not. All that matters is if you enjoyed reading the book. Like you, it was difficult for me to purchase books and relied completely on my friends and second-hand shops to fuel my reading habits. Even now, I love buying second hand books and I only buy those I have been wanting to read for a long time. I have to really yearn for the book and then I will purchase. In Mumbai, there are many second hand shops to get real cheap books. Sales are regularly held where books are sold by weight. Its a treasure-trove.

  4. Thank you Lata for those comforting words! Yes a treasure trove indeed 😊

  5. […] Before you go on to read this write up, to  understand the extent of the madness I subject to my tiny brain, please read these three blog posts – Of “Brutally Honest” Reviews , A letter to the nosy stranger &  An open letter to arm-chair critics. […]