Ever since I was assigned this article I have looked in all the devices I own and in all the Drive accounts I have for a picture of my bookshelf, to realize that I have none. I think I owe this to the superstition my parents had that people admiring my huge bookshelf would cast an evil eye on it, and cause something bad to happen. So we never took pictures of it.
But we have also been moving about quite a bit, from one place to another, owing to my parent’s work and my studies. Even at University, I have changed dorm rooms six times in four years, and the bookshelves in the rooms are more of an ornament than a bookshelf. In these four years, I have never been able to use the table in my dorm room, because it’s always full of books.
But I have always been proud of my enormous collection, and rather selfish about it too. I have carefully collected almost every single book from my child, including the tiny picture books about baby animals that were my first ever collection. I have also inherited my parents’ books, and I treasure these closely, to a point that one summer, I actually sat down and made a catalog of them. For a single, quiet child who was almost always bullied in school, my collection of books was what I was proud of. While my classmates boasted of PlayStations and smart phones and fancy devices, I quietly felt proud of myself for my bookshelf and of all the books I had read.
Being bullied constantly also makes you want to escape into a different world constantly, and that is what reading did for me. I did not talk about it at home, because my overprotective parents would go berserk on those kids, and that would just lead to more trouble. So I turned to reading, and every free minute I got, I was buried inside a book: in the car, at meals, in between homework, and before sleeping. I was living two lives simultaneously: one in the real world around me, and one in the book I was reading. I almost always became a character in that universe, because it made reading more fun. I would imagine myself in situations that my favorite characters were in, and this helped me deal with a lot of problems in my own world. Taking Literature up as an undergrad student has dissolved boundaries between reading for academics and reading for leisure, especially because I wanted to work on fiction. I am trying to bring that back now, after having graduated and taking a break from academics with a small job not completely related to my degree.
Being a student of literature also opened me up to the gaps in my bookshelf. Until mid-2016, most of the books I read were the ones that Dad brought home. He would bring me lots of carefully chosen fiction: nothing too violent, sexual, what he thought was problematic (like queer fiction, for instance), or age inappropriate. I remember what he told me when he handed me a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why: “This doesn’t happen in real life, it’s just a story.” I grew up reading lots of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, J K Rowling, Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer alongside other stories of Indian mythology, and comics like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.
It’s only after Dad passed away, and I became a student of literature did I understand how restricted my reading was. I have now started being more careful about what I read, in terms of theme, genre and content. I have elaborate lists of to-reads that have been recommended by various people arranged theme-wise, and I send screenshots of these lists to my friends on my birthday or when someone wants to treat me.
I don’t have a bookshelf currently: I am living in a temporary house until I find an apartment, and all my books are in boxes. However, my last bookshelf was the most haphazard it had been: my books were all over the place, and I had no time to organize them, or for the first time, care. As a teenager, my books had been arranged genre wise, but right now, I feel like I have been given a clean slate with the new apartment to choose both the size of my bookshelf and how I would arrange my books. I am generally an organized person, but final year of college drove me crazy, and I hope I do justice to my new bookshelf! I am thinking of a genre and color-based organizational paradigm, but knowing me, it’s going to go out of the window the minute I actually start arranging them on the shelves.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.