The boy I was in love with insisted on getting books as gifts. Later, so did I. Our birthdays are in the same month, nine days apart. We spent a staggering amount of time discovering books for each other, and, once decided, saving up for them. My first gift to him was Jeffrey Archer’s Not A Penny More Not A Penny Less, a con story I relished when I was young. The last book I gifted him was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, procured with much difficulty. I had to make calls to a college senior studying abroad for it and once I lay my hands on the book, I fought all temptations and gifted that on his birthday. Life has run its course since then. We stay in different cities, save up for books by different authors, perhaps, but I still remember his smile on discovering that book. Memories of the unkind words exchanged in the interim fade by the day.
Perhaps, I learned it then, or, maybe, during the five years I spent discovering authors in college, that gifting books can be an acquired, intricate art. I went to university on College Street in Kolkata, a haven for second-hand book shops, and, in the course of those five years, have bought more books than I can remember. Along with the books, I also acquired the fascinating inscriptions written on its pages. “Do not forget me, L,” reads the first page of the Robert Frost I bought from there. Intrigued, I remember asking one of the vendors what the usual reason was for someone to sell books. “When someone change cities or the owner dies,” was the reply.
Gifting books, I firmly believe, is an art. I gift books that impress me. I also gift to impress. There is an inexplicable thrill in anticipating a book a friend might like or even finding one that they don’t know they need, yet. Rushdie’s clever words have saved many a friendship and Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things has been gifted to those whose melancholy I could identify with. Vikram Seth, however, has always been for the homesick ones. Seth’s All You Who Sleep Tonight — a book I sleep with — has been gifted by me to more people than I can count. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is generally reserved for the dreamers and Sylvia Plath for the closet rebels: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Books have also acted as veiled love letters. I have gifted books to those I could have been in love with, to those I wish I were in love with and to those I ended up giving my heart to, hoping borrowed words would express what I found incapable of saying. I had gifted Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, a remarkable book on the fallibility of memory to a friend I remember intimately, but he not so much. Howard Jacobson’s The Act Of Love, a terrifyingly beautiful book about the intricate link between love and infidelity was gifted by me to a man, much elder and married, and who I was in love with. And, when I found someone who, much like me, seemed unsure about the ways of the world, The Little Prince seemed like a natural choice.
Over the years, I have learnt that books can mend severed ties and broken hearts. In one of the most heartrending passages in Maitreyi Devi’s novel Naw Hanyate — a novel that documents the brief relationship she had with one of her father’s Romanian students, Mircea Eliade — Devi writes how, upon discovering their affair, her father, in a fit of rage, tore the pages of all the books Mircea had gifted to her. All the pages that bore his writing were destroyed, all except one. Devi later writes how that scrap of handwriting was the only remnant of Mircea she had.
If you ask me, the art of gifting books is, perhaps, never just about the books. Sometimes, a blank page without an inscription can also threaten to unsettle an otherwise quiet afternoon.