By Devraj Singh Kalsi
A schoolmate was fond of creating a big impression of being an avid reader. He knew there were benefits of reading that were largely unknown to genuine book lovers. He fell in love with the idea of reading as he wanted someone to fall in love with him because of this good habit he cultivated. On the way to school, whether inside the bus or train, he always sat with a storybook, trying to cast a furtive glance and observe the bevy of girls noticing him engaged in this pedantic pursuit. He had faith that some girls would become curious and smitten very soon.
With the fond hope of a conversation with them someday, he kept doing the same thing. The book covers kept changing. As he became desperate, he picked up a romantic novel to send the signal. When he did not have a storybook, he fished out a textbook. The compulsion to have some reading material in front of his eyes helped raise a façade of erudition. He wanted to be seen as a reader whenever girls were pottering around.
The impact of reading was severe for him. He was classified and identified as a bookworm. The bespectacled first-rank holder in our class never read so much. Much to his disappointment, girls did not take an interest in him or his reading. It was scary for the fun-loving types. The guys who boarded a moving train at the last minute or disembarked from a speeding bus were heroes to them.
Driven by fatigue for the first time, he was ready to flirt with other options. When he realised books were futile in winning fans or praise, he switched his strategy to something that involved more daring. He went and stood near the entrance door. Ignoring the warning sign ‘DO NOT LEAN OUT’ crafted capitals and in red, he put almost half of his body out of the train compartment, suspending his weight with the support of the hand railing above his head, hoping to be noticed by girls for his bravado.
Before he could realise what had happened, he was hit on the head and rushed to the nearest hospital at the next station halt. He underwent multiple stitches and survived a life-threatening experience. When he regained consciousness, no girls were waiting with bouquets and get-well-soon notes outside his cabin. He found just a few of us with fruit baskets. Such a misadventure, though unintended, did not elicit any wave of sympathy, but he ended up being famous as a silly boy who could not keep himself safe.
Some girls enquired how he was after he rejoined, but it was a formal query devoid of affection. The one he had a soft corner for did not seek any update. The poor fellow failed miserably in reading as well as heroism. Now he was always made to sit inside the coach, never allowed to stand near the door. Some of us cracked jokes, but he often lost his temper after this brain injury. We read it as a change of personality traits. He sat with a bandaged head for some days expecting sensitive queries, but he had stopped being an object of curiosity or pity for the entire class.
Inside the school, during the recess hour, he stopped playing indoor games like chess. He changed his strategy by approaching a lady teacher with suggestions for his reading list during lunch break. He went to the library and got some uncommon books issued, expecting that lady teachers would gauge him better, unlike the carefree girls. Inside the classroom, he raised irrelevant questions and drifted our attention to storybooks, making other students grumble as the lessons were incomplete.
When the copies arrived checked, he performed below average. Soon, the new English teacher understood his ulterior motive. He used difficult words to flaunt his vocabulary and to impress the woman English teacher. Most of us did not know the meaning of the words he used. He derived wicked pleasure as we were shown as ignoramous despite scoring better in English. He loved the idea that he was advanced in reading. He firmly believed someone would appreciate him better and attune themselves to his wavelength. Turning bespectacled before eighteen was a plus point for him as he thought readers looked like that. But the truth was that some vitamin deficiency had led to his poor eyesight.
Most of us saw him spending time in the library scanning books. He would ask us the names of the author on his list. He recalled many names and titles unheard of as his memory appeared sharpened after the head injury. Since we failed to answer, he was pleased to find us ignorant. He mentioned some names to enlighten us. Most of us thought he would become a writer one day since he was discussing what we never bothered to know in such depth. Perhaps the system of education was not doing justice to him.
When we reached high school, a creative writing contest was organised in which the toppers took part. He was asked why he had stayed out of it. He was quiet for a while and then replied the teachers who were judging had not written anything in life, so he would not insult himself by writing for them and submitting to them for assessment. We did not know whether it was his arrogance, or his statement had an iota of truth attached to it.
Years later, it was shocking for him to know I was dabbling in writing. He was still trapped in the world of books, as it appeared from the pictures he sent me of the sprawling library at his residence, and his various poses with books. I asked him what he was doing when Google did not list his name in the top five pages. He said he was doing a regular job for a living that gave him ample time and freedom to read and write. He also said he was the president of the local literary club for youth and a part-time social worker. Although he was eager to know what I wrote, he did not ask me anything as he feared being asked what he wrote all these years, I guess. I told him what I read, and he said he had finished reading those authors a long time ago – pretty advanced, as usual.
He mentioned without radiance that he wrote love poems in his mother tongue using a pen name. It must be for the girl he liked – who qualified as a doctor. Maybe, he still went around her old house on his bicycle to feel her presence though she had moved overseas to another country long ago. His unreciprocated love had many shades, and he kept it alive through poetry.
He forwarded me pictures of reading in the garden, terrace, recliner, et al. In this age of emojis, if you are seen reading, you get hundreds of likes. But in those days, you did not get a single like. These likes – for the book or his reading nook – would have made him confident then. The well-crafted image of being a pretentious reader he remains stuck with – despite no rewards. Possibly, these likes warm the cockles of his sad heart.
I realised I owed him a few likes and pressed the love icon for some of his social media posts as an act of repentance. Being a friend, he deserved likes from me. He messaged me saying one like during those school days would have worked. Even though I praised him today, he understood I was faking like many others. True, I was always a miser when it came to showering praise.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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