She runs her hand lightly on the spines of the books on her towering shelves. She picks one at random, reads a few pages, puts it back, picks another, puts it back. Her mind cannot stick to the story, or the characters. When it does, she feels even more lost and trapped. All her books seem to be about inevitable pain, and helplessness in front of fate. Even the summaries on the back of the books talk about already “doomed” protagonists. When did her books become so depressing, and cynical, and tragic? She remembers when she started reading “grown up” books; books that were not in the Young Reader’s section at the book store. She was thrilled, she felt like a grown up. When did growing up become synonymous with tragedy?
Unable to settle, she roams about the house. Her grandmother’s room looks to the east, and the rays of the sun are slipping through the crack between the two curtains, lighting up the haze of dust. She draws the curtains aside, only to be blinded by the light. She cannot comprehend the emptiness of the room, but the utter silence is somewhat comforting. After days of endless chatter of her relatives, the necessary small talk, the societal rituals of mourning, the silence feels like waking up after a long harrowing nightmare.
The landing on the first floor opens to a terrace balcony. A worn out yoga mat sits in the corner, its navy color fading. She wants to smile at her innocently good intentions. She tries to ease the wrinkles on her forehead, but that is oddly uncomfortable. Her face struggles to get back to the new normal, unable to handle the momentary release from the strain.
Memories of this terrace flicker across her eyes. She remembers sitting her in the evenings, getting her hair oiled by her grandmother, eating almonds. She remembers endless games of carom, accompanied by lemonade. She remembers the frustration and sleepless nights, when she dealt with her exam stress by walking to and fro in the cool night air. She remembers tears of joy and relief at finally getting admission to her first choice of university. She remembers dance practices and hard work. She remembers long discussions, the aimless chatter, the unhesitating laughter. She remembers the mechanical answers as she replied to variants of Congratulations on your first job! She remembers the loneliness that slowly sneaked up on her, as she became quieter and quieter. She remembers the months of guilt as she willed herself everyday to function, to show up at work, to pick up the pieces of her life, to switch off the autopilot, to do more than simply exist. And she remembers the phone call, the dread, the cold sweat breaking over her again and again, as she begged, and prayed, and hoped, that she had heard wrong, that Naani was fine, that it was not her fault that she had not been available to talk, or to listen.
The attic smells musty. No one has come up here since ages. The place is crammed with boxes, and knick-knacks lie scattered on the floor. She sees several dinner sets that they never got around to using, each gifted to the family by someone or the other every Diwali. She sees her old bicycle, stabilizers thrown into the basket. There are four huge boxes full of old photo albums, picture stories of three generations.
She has never been intoxicated. Always the model child, she never had the urge to try out something forbidden, to experiment, to experience. She never rebelled, never sneaked out at night, never had a secret party, never even painted her nails black. She wonders if she missed out on things, but she knows, deep down, that she never would have dared. She has been raised on a diet of obedience and guilt.
And yet she often finds herself thinking of the small bottle of brandy in the medicinal cabinet nowadays, fighting a mad desire to take a couple of swigs. She wonders, almost academically, what it would feel like to be drunk. Would she really forget for a while?
She finds what she is looking for. In this corner of the attic are boxes labelled Books. Here lie the stacks of Nancy Drew, the literal mountains of innumerable series of Enid Blyton, the Judy Blumes. These are the books that made her fall in love with reading. These are the characters that are brave, and never fail, and are always the heroes of their own stories. They are never hindered by things outside their control, they never feel helpless.
She is meticulous this time, and picks up the books in order of their series number. The characters wave at her like old friends, the familiar words ease the knots in her stomach. If she concentrates very hard, she can just taste her childhood. She tells herself this is healthier; at least she’s not zoning out in front of the TV.
It is dark in the attic. Her eyes turn red with strain as she devours book after book. The characters from all the series are getting mixed up but she doesn’t want to stop. As she drags herself down to her bedroom after several hours, her eyes nearly closed, her head pounding, and her body heavy with tiredness that comes from mental exhaustion, it strikes her that the brandy may not be the only way of getting drunk.