The Reader

By Gautam Bhatia 0

A schoolgirl of fierce intelligence, determined to forge her own stubborn path through the world. Gautam Bhatia remembers his singular sister

Illustration by Gautam Bhatia

Illustration by Gautam Bhatia

Some years ago, turn by turn, my mother and sister were stricken with brain disorders—one with motor neuron disease, the other with multiple sclerosis. In both cases the degenerative emasculation of the body, the decline in faculties, and the physical decay of skin and muscle was so rapid, I began to see changes daily. At first these appeared in my mother, a physical atrophying so pronounced that it was painful to watch: she began to lose weight; her eyes hollowed into deeper, more cadaverous sockets; the bones became more prominent; the skin acquired a sallow, uneven pallor. From a healthy 65-year-old she became a sagging, weightless 80-year-old within a year. Like a child she would curl up and remain unnoticed in a chair. Amongst diseases motor neuron disease was a real pro; it demonstrated its effects and intentions in the most physical visible way possible. Once the destruction was complete on the outside, it invaded the insides, there was no escaping its all-out attack. The failure of kidneys, liver, stomach lining came first. And within a few days of its move into the lungs my mother was dead. Some months later, my sister felt twinges and a loss of sensation in her arms and feet; soon enough she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The process of decline started almost immediately. The family gathered around her, believing subconsciously that she too was destined to go the same route as her mother. She was. From the very first day of her affliction, she felt that she was on her deathbed, and the people around her were not there to show sympathy, but were merely watching an embalmed body in a casket. When she died, I remembered her short but unusual life, especially the early school-going years we spent together as a family in Washington, DC, where my father was a foreign correspondent.

*

The light in the attic was always glowing. Day or night, the tiny space on top of the house was inhabited by the greats of American literature, their work impressed on Gauri’s mind. It was a studio of sorts, the act of obsessive reading transforming the bare, low-ceilinged room into a space of literary imagination. The real mind of the house was the attic. Gauri borrowed books by the armload from the public library, and began her reading in the car on the way home; her noiseless isolation up above was a sign that some writer’s greatness was being rigorously tested under the bare light bulb left on through the night. When she finished a stack, she borrowed more, then more.

The dim light in the attic was the only reminder that Gauri was home. She participated in no family activity and only grudgingly joined us at meal times. Called down to dinner, she’d complain: “Oh, Ma, we just had lunch. Do we really need to eat again?” Outside of the books, there was no life; everything else was a strain. Her math teacher, Mr Weinstein, complained to Papa at a PTA meeting that Gauri was incapable of the most rudimentary of math equations. “I’m not saying she’s slow. She’s just not interested. She makes no attempt to participate in class.”

“But she got an A?” Papa said.

Mr Coggins of Driver’s Education class also complained. “Gauri has absolutely no hand-eye coordination.” She had rammed the school’s Camaro against a stop sign and stalled the car a week earlier.

“Well,” Papa defended her again, “she did bring the car to a halt.”

Only reading mattered. Till one day the repository of books ran out.

When Gauri realised that some of William Styron’s earlier works were missing she made a formal complaint to the librarian. The simple act started a chain reaction. Libraries called each other in a bewildering search for novels that existed somewhere in the Virginia Public Library System, but were somehow missing from the shelves of Gauri’s branch library in Strafford. Searches were carried out through all the county libraries—first Arlington, then Annandale, Falls Church and Fairfax. Written requests were put to other counties. There was such urgency to the task, it was as if a warrant had been issued for some horrible crime and the criminal was waiting to be apprehended.

One solitary girl of 12 had somehow upturned the system by her reading capacity. Even the state governor was told how one reader had discovered gaping holes in the system. In an astonishing goodwill gesture he had the missing books bought at government expense and gifted to Gauri. “That child is a product of the Virginia school system. I don’t want to deny her any help whatsoever.” A small front page story of the governor’s appeal and Gauri’s picture appeared in the weekend edition of the Virginia Star.

Gauri read the books, thanked the governor and returned the books, saying they belonged in the public library. She wasn’t ungrateful, she was just not a collector, and discarded anything—books, films, toys—that had outgrown its use. While filling up her mind, which seemed to have an endless storehouse capacity, she kept her room a sparse, monastic cell.

There was no disputing her individual view of the world. She chose to hear and believe only what she wanted. As an eight-year-old, at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, she was loading her bicycle with the six books members were limited to borrowing, when she heard there was to be a children’s cycle race on the cement track behind the pool. Only one of three participants, she fancied her chances among a group of puny children. Two silver trophies stood shining at the far end. So when the race began, she peddled furiously and stood at the finish line, ready to receive her prize, wondering what was taking the other two so long to complete the trifling race. Unfortunately, she had missed the fact it was a slow cycling race. Denied the silver cup she felt she deserved, she said huffily, “How stupid is that.” But she came home and cried. It was her last participation in a public event. She returned to reading.

*

Robert Clayton Monroe could not be mistaken for anyone but a boy of high breeding and aristocratic ancestry. He wore a button-down shirt even when he played tennis—a look that lent extra style to a peculiar backhand that could only have been learnt at a country club. His blonde centre parting was proportionately balanced by a prominent chin and an unusually erect bearing that resembled his great ancestor James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. He wore no blue jeans, but navy, grey and black pants in a series coordinated for different days of the week. When he talked of his family home in Nantucket, there was a hint of New England in his accent. He had approached Gauri’s table with the hope of getting a seat in a crowded school lunch hall, where—like the foreign students—he himself seemed a sort of outsider.

“Would you mind?”

Gauri barely looked up from her Hemingway, nodded her assent and continued reading. He ate, she read. In the few minutes it took Robert to gauge the seriousness of Gauri’s literary leanings, he had decided that she was a girl worth knowing. His own knowledge of American literature was not enough to impress, so he had stoked the fire of friendship with his knowledge of English literature. He had pulled out a bran muffin and a carton of milk from his bag and dropped a few literary hints of his interest in the Bloomsbury group.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched the curl of yellow hair that fell across a pink forehead, and said, “They were all just private radicals, nothing more.”

A statement so abrupt and categorical would have been enough to put a clamp on the conversation; but Robert acknowledged that this was not a personal attack, rather Gauri was a woman of strong beliefs, which if she had her way, she would keep to herself. She was not a girl inclined to custom and convention. Even at home, she would enter a room full of dinner guests, head straight for a plate of food and depart without uttering sound or greeting. Her stoic, yet incandescent face, lit up from within, showed no interest in people or surroundings; she said almost nothing, asked no personal questions.

Robert didn’t take Gauri’s silence to indicate a lack of interest in him, just a greater interest in Hemingway. She had been reading The Sun Also Rises in chemistry class, as she read novels in most classes except English literature, and continued to read in the lunch room. She shuffled through the pages in rapid succession, looking up only to check the time on the wall clock. Robert said nothing. What was there to say? He knew nothing about her, her family, or whether she liked muffins. What he had noticed was the nose ring that glinted below eyes so sharp they could bore a hole in him, and the black hair so severely brushed back, it left no messy reminder of its presence on the forehead. He had seen her name on the masthead of Crossed Sabres, the school journal, and he knew she liked Hemingway and Faulkner, probably more than she would ever like him—and that was that. All this only had an odd numbing effect, as if in her presence Robert couldn’t quite fathom the real source of his attraction. But the absence of any conversation that day was a sure sign that this would be a long and intimate relationship.

*

At 13 Gauri become the youngest editor of Crossed Sabres. “Washington-Lee romps to victory against George Mason. Quarterback Boyd headed NCAA way,” the paper’s primary interest was sports. “Couple of guys throwing a ball around, how stupid can you get?” With such a description Gauri relegated all sports to the dungheap. “Hey, do something useful with your time,” she would tell the junior reporters. Instead of publishing the usual school news about sport, student awards or retiring chemistry teachers, she took the journal in a wholly different direction. Connie, her favorite correspondent and best friend, was asked to research Hemingway’s early school years to see if the man had had a literary spirit in his youth. She herself wrote a fictitious interview between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and gave it a double spread on the centre pages. “This is outrageous, Gauri,” Mrs Perkins, the head of the English Department and the paper’s editorial advisor reprimanded her. Gauri stood across from an open copy of Crossed Sabres on the oak desk, and looked out of the window behind Mrs Perkins. “The school paper,” Mrs Perkins pointed out, “is meant to convey news about students to students!” Gauri defended her decision: “Surely Mrs Perkins, you are not comparing Crossed Sabres to the rag they publish at Fairfax High? Ours is a literary journal, not a gossip sheet.” Mrs Perkins looked at Gauri with exasperation—and admiration. How could anyone deny the skill that had gone into the imaginary interview, that too by a 13-year-old foreigner whose official language was Hindi? But Mrs Perkins too stood her ground. “I don’t want you spending so much time on extracurricular activities. I notice you have a D in Phys Ed.” The idea that you could be graded in something as silly as putting a ball through a hoop struck Gauri as outrageous and, as a form of protest, she refused to even appear for basketball class. Added to all her As the D brought her grade point average to B+.

That year, and throughout the two years of Gauri’s editorship, the circulation of Crossed Sabres, available to students for free, plummeted to less than 50. Piles of copies lay stacked near the school entrance, in the lunch room and outside the gym, only to be replaced a week later by the next edition. Kids wanted to know how good the Washington-Lee football team was, and what losers the Yorktown lacrosse players were. They wanted to know who was likely to succeed Richard Blewitt in the race for student body president…but Gauri wasn’t about to tell them. After the second year, she was unceremoniously fired, and Grayson Dermott, a Straight C student, but a potential quarterback, took over as editor. But under Gauri, Crossed Sabres won three national awards. It also won the best college journal award, even though it was only a school paper. Gauri’s story, “Another World”, about the discovery of a planet where people are completely sightless, was published by Harper’s.


This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.

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