Almost every memory I have of my father involves books.
The oldest one I can remember is yellowed, fraying at the edges, but it’s pressed into the recesses of my mind just like the browning leaves my dad used to keep pressed in between the pages of ancient history encyclopaedias. I used to flip the books open from time to time and discover all these colourful imprints, orange leaves, mauve flowers and thin, brittle pieces of twigs, like little gifts my father left behind for me.
It was our thing: reading about little historical facts, stories that we found fascinating, collecting things and keeping them preserved between the pages. I still remember climbing onto his back and yanking at his hair while he read the Mahabharata to me or Amar Chitra Katha comics. I absorbed every word like a sponge, till all these little pieces of knowledge became embedded in my skin, till I began to read on my own and read voraciously.
I carried a book with me everywhere. To parties, to dinners, to the bathroom – everywhere. I read like I was running out of time, like if I didn’t finish the next word, I’d lose my chance to. I must have devoured a thousand books like that, stories of adventure and belonging and magic, rambling on and on to my parents about these fantastical characters and their equally fantastical lives.
I think my father didn’t like that, didn’t want me to get sucked into a world that didn’t exist. He would often admonish me for reading at the dinner table, or in public places where groggy adults were trying to converse with me. And yet, every time we’d go to the bookstore, a tiny adventure in itself, he would wordlessly buy the next instalment in the series I was in love with at the time.
It was like we spoke through our love for reading, our love for knowledge and learning. We were happiest together when we were exploring a new world, a new era, a new history. I remember family holidays and lengthy excursions to museums and the oldest parts of the cities, walking hand in hand and learning everything we possibly could about the lay of stone in a structure, the swipe of paint in a tapestry.
But as I grew older, I began to lose parts of myself and in turn, I began to lose him.
I grew taller and taller until I resembled a sour lemon tree more than a pubescent girl. I grew sagging branches, laden with fruits that tasted of bitter sadness. I grew roots far too deep, burrowed so far inside an undernourished soil that it leached out everything from me, everything I used to love. I stopped reading as much, caught up in things that seemed all-consuming and never ending.
I stopped talking to my father as much.
All my memories of him during that time are dusted in the familiar black ash that anger leaves behind. I was angry that he didn’t try harder, that he didn’t see me burrowing into the ground and pull me out before it was too late. I was angry that he didn’t seem to know any words beyond the ones he read, that he didn’t know how to talk to me outside the pages of a book. I was angry that I left him behind and that he had decided I was too far away to catch up to.
We became strangers, manoeuvring around each other in the empty carriage of our tiny house, grabbing onto handles hanging from the sky and holding on tight as life sped past us. Every day, I fell asleep with something shaving off a layer of my skin until I began to dream less of grand houses and fame and more of hot tea on cold mornings and bright plants in the corner of a small, well-lived room.
Perhaps what I didn’t realise was that my father dreamed of that too, but instead, woke up to dreary, grey mornings and tried his best to hold on. Tried his best to keep our dreams alive. And maybe when my dreams began to shrivel up and fall to the ground, dry and crunching underfoot, he grew sadder, resentful of the many nights spent staying up, trying to figure out how to stay afloat in a capsizing boat.
We learn how to make an effort with the people we meet and want to keep. Learn how to be considerate, how to communicate effectively, how to open our minds and see the littlest things.
But with those we shared our simplest, most mundane moments with, with those we were our most vulnerable with, small and searching for a sturdy hand and sturdier shoulders, it’s so much harder. Almost impossible to start picking at the rock-hard wall which lies in between; because if it breaks too quickly, too much might rush out, things that you can’t ever take back. Things that would hurt too much.
I don’t know if I’ll ever read like I used to. Sometimes, I feel like those memories belonged to someone else because I can’t remember a single thing I read. As if I’m looking through a dusty crystal ball, at images that are warped and lucid and non-existent. Sometimes, I feel like I shed so many layers of myself that I have lost my personhood. That I am nothing but a pulsating mass of cells, devoid of personality and love and life, secreting only grief and worry and rage.
But then there are the few, rare moments, peeking out from under the hood of a rainy day, where I pick up a crumbling thought from worlds long forgotten, from books I can’t remember the names of, and hold it up for my father to see. And suddenly, I remember that pressed tightly between everything he says to me are little imprints, little reminders that I am not alone and never will be.
Michelle Mishra is a fashion model and a recently graduated History major who hopes to one day write the kind of diverse, Indian epic fantasy novel she wanted to read as a 13 year old.