A book arrived through the post, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. It was encased in a plastic cover, a library stamp inside and as I started to read page two of wonderfully crafted prose which captured India in all its nuances, it immediately took me back to my world in what now seems like a former life. I settled in safe in the knowledge that it’s slightly yellowing pages would draw me in for some time. As I paused to reflect on a passage, alternately glancing at the book and gazing out of the window, a realisation dawned. This book wasn’t just a conduit with which to narrate a story, it also had its own past, its own life. It had been conceived as a thought, the thought developed into an idea, that idea brought about research, travel, interviews and chance meetings. Each word had been toiled over, each sentence nuanced only to be potentially rejected by agents and risk being abandoned as so many of its tribe, a discarded manuscript, languishing in a draw or computer file for all eternity. But no, this book was a fighter, it made it to the agent and then, when there was a glimmer of hope, it had to brave the editors cut. Oh no doubt that some sections were applauded, some graced with a warm smile, perhaps a sigh of satisfaction, whilst certain paragraphs would have been ripped apart cruelly attacked by a savage pen, some sentences merely cajoled until it became the book that would face the world.
Where did this edition go from the printers? Did it start out in a book shop? Was it bought and shared amongst friends or was its life always mapped out for it to serve the public, its home always destined to be the library? Sitting on the shelf, how many times was it passed over for one of its companions? And yet, several people paused, perhaps running a finger down it’s spine, sliding it out of its snug space, feeling its weight, noticing its faint aroma, reading the blurb before finally deciding that it was the book for them that day, finally allowing it to fulfil its destiny. Did it delight? Did it bring joy into homes? What thoughts did it provoke? Was it appreciated, discussed, have snippets from it shared? Where did they read it? On the bus, was it dragged around the grime of the underground, has it travelled to other countries, secreted into a handbag and taken out when it’s owner knew they had the time to enjoy it uninterrupted? Perhaps it was in stolen moments, seated on a sofa on a fine spring day, curled up by the fire on a cold winter’s night, or in bed to round off an exhausting day?
And, was it enjoyed or perhaps disregarded as ‘not the book for me?’
How many people have crossed in the street, sat at adjacent tables in cafes or next to each other on a bus without knowing that they had been moved by the same narrative? What would have happened if they had known? Would it have been a mere moment, two people briefly sharing a knowing glance the hint of a smile to indicate, yes, I’ve read that too? Did it spark a discussion, a friendship, a relationship?
Stories within stories. This book has had lives, it has given countless people pleasure, cheered them up, perhaps intrigued them, perhaps inspired them, possibly frustrated them, who knows? Who are these people, has it affected the choices that they have made?
And what will be its journey now? Will it be, like so many of my favourites, one that will remain fiercely in my possession or will it be lost somewhere in the moves of a restless life? Only time will tell but in the interim, thank you to Pankaj Mishra for provoking such thoughts.