Come, Meet the Little Prince

If you were the youngest in a pack of cousins, summer holidays were the best of times and the worst of times. Till you discovered a library of old books.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince first came to me on the summer after I turned eight. We were, of course, at our grandparents’ sprawling home in Tezpur that July. What is it about summer and grandparents and sprawling homes? One must find out. The house my grandfather built was large. It had books whose owners they had long parted with. It had a chimney and a fireplace, by which potatoes were roasted, toes were warmed and one too many whiskies drunk on winter nights. It had a creaky old billiards table, old hunting guns and a staircase with a banister its younger inhabitants had slid down at least once in their lives. Over the years, it got larger. Rooms were added. Balconies were extended. Two people could be living in it, or 20 – you wouldn’t know the difference.

There we were that summer of 1998 -10 cousins, the best of friends, up to the worst of shenanigans. At eight, I was the youngest of the lot, and the rest of the pack – some angsty teenagers, some wise adults – were busy growing up. Being the youngest meant being loved, bullied, left out and included, all at the same time. In the Dickensian scheme of things, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

On more than one occasion, when I was deemed too young for the wolf-pack, I’d walk down the stairs with my father, blinking back tears, leaving the nine of them to do whatever kids growing up did. I would wonder, tossing and turning in bed for hours. What did they do? Were secrets the only thing passed around? Or were there cigarettes too? The god-fearing, morally correct eight-year-old in me certainly hoped not.

But the night was young, the doors were closed, and the rest of the rambling house was asleep. It was then that I found Exupéry. Or should I say Exupéry found me? I obsessed over the thin novel for weeks, examining each yellowing page with curious attention. Never quite grasping its intricate dimensions, but trying very hard to. Often, on yet another re-read, I’d trace my finger across a note written in a scrawling hand on the first page, not by Exupéry, not by my father who it belonged to, but by a friend who gifted it to him back in 1969, when he was a young student in America, then in the throes of a hippie counterculture. I tried to decipher the note for weeks, and years later, too. Much cajoling would never make my father speak – he has this frustrating habit of underplaying anything which could be remotely exciting.

On a later read, I realised The Little Prince was really not meant for a child. Re-reading it as an adult told me a different story altogether. But Exupéry’s fine-lined drawings (of the elephant inside the boa which was obviously not just an old hat) reassured an eight-year-old that being grown up – what I wanted most right then – was stupid.

A couple of summers later, a prince of another kind dominated my dreams. I read my first Harry Potter book when I was 10: mild interest turned into a serious love into a fanatic obsession. When I was 16, I knew this was no ordinary love, and it had to be immortalised. And for reasons best known to my 16-year-old self, I chose my shoulder to do so. Today, the first question strangers ask me, pointing at a blue bolt of lighting and a scatter of scars on my left shoulder, is: “So, what does your tattoo signify?” I usually laugh and look away. But there’s a lot left unsaid – a four poster bed to lie down in when you had a pathetic day at school, a few pints of warm butterbeer when you’re nursing your first heartbreak, and an urge to conquer a noseless Dark Lord, when you feel the world needed more good than evil. Today, I wear my tattoo like a badge of honour – it’s discoloured, faded and old but so are the best books in the world. Yet, we still display them high up on our bookshelves, with old airline boarding passes pressed as bookmarks between the pages. A book has two stories to tell – its own and yours.

Books read are like lives lived, lives you care not to remember now. It’s been eight years since I moved away from home. And on every visit, I examine my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and phases of my life come rushing back to me. The embarrassing teen romance book phase when I was 13. I devoured all the Princess Diaries and Babysitter’s Clubs, scratching out names of the protagonists’ love interests with mine. During that time, my Secret Sevens and Famous Fives were stowed away – in any case, I never was a fan of their perfect picnic wicker baskets, overflowing larders, and patterned eiderdowns. But then Princess Mia (Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis) Renaldo’s rants weren’t much progress, were they? I snapped out of giddy romances soon enough, when I realised chick-lits are best watched, not read.

It was then that I moved on to Indian fiction. These were closer home, literally and metaphorically. Names like Gyan and Sai replaced George and Susan. The rains didn’t mean carrying a patterned umbrella, putting on your mackintosh and hopping over puddles in your moccasins. The rains meant floods – a loss of a school day for me, a loss of a home for someone else. I had to read The God of Small Things twice to understand that it ended in incest, and The Namesake told me that maybe, just maybe, moving to America isn’t as wondrous as it seems to be.

I read sparingly these days. Earlier it was a book a week, today it’s a book in six. And many times, it’s a book I’ve read before. Revisiting a book is like revisiting an older self: an independent 20-year-old living alone meeting a shy 10-year-old staying at home. You meet your old allies, characters who kept you company on rainy days and summer holidays. Comrades-in-arms, who had great life lessons to offer. On days I feel extremely spunky, I go to the seven-year-old Scout Finch at her rebellious best when she asks so boldly to “Pass the damn ham, please?” Yet on others, I leaf through the book Salman Rushdie wrote for his young son – a glossy illustrated hardback edition of Haroun and the Sea of Stories takes me back to yet another summer at my grandparents in Tezpur. This time around, I was older, cooler and included. And, oh yes, many cigarettes were passed around.

Last month, I read a column where the author insisted that the only reason we were reading fewer (books) was because we were reading more (internet). I disagree – what I am reading online are a bunch of clickbait headlines. What I read earlier were stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories which I associated with certain events in my life. I remember Rohinton Mistry giving me a raging fever. Gerald Durrell and his quirky family, so much like mine, made me laugh myself silly. And Donna Tartt saw me through a very long illness.

The last book I read was Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. And even a month later, the book still revisits me in waves. Set in Bombay, Pinto’s book is a deeply touching narrative about his manic-depressive mother. In one line, the author casually mentions the sea, wondering why people love to sit by it. “What is it about the sea? Is it because it’s there?”

I am going to Bombay very soon. And I am waiting to sit on Marine Drive and watch the sea – its waves threatening to soak me. Just like Pinto’s book had. And just because it’s there.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in June 2016.