I was in my native Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. Across a stretch of humid, languid days at my mother's house in Colombo, I turned my attention to these bookshelves. Much of it well preserved but in disarray since my father's passing over ten years ago. Now poignantly reflective of the chaos of the time. In one sense, it is a shadow of a much larger library. An entire room that inspired awe across my childhood but splintered upon my grandfather's passing and the subsequent (stereotypical) drama of selling his house. The proverbial and literal dust having settled, these are storied reminders of him and his love of books.
In another sense, it is a tapestry that is home to three generations. As I took care to empty the shelves and dust each book, I was often arrested by the unexpected treasures they'd yield . Many of the books across these shelves are far older than I am, some close upon a century. Old stamps, penned observations and (now iconic) newspaper cuttings among the unexpected treasures between their pages. Some penned by my grandfather in high school. Upon the shelves are the works of Aristotle, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Hemingway, numerous biographies, decades of National Geographics and books on Buddhism, to name but a few.
I spent hours cleaning and of course, pouring through their contents before I organised them back on to the shelves. Yet beyond the breadth and age of these books, what struck me was that the library has, by virtue of circumstance, expanded to house the books of three men that barely spoke to each other. My father had a poor relationship with my grandfather (his father-in-law), never feeling approved of, their few interactions were frigid and painful to bear witness to. This was punctuated by physical distance given that he worked overseas. Fortress-like with his emotions, my father and I had a largely transactional relationship, centered on functional pragmatism. My sister would likely attest to this as well. As for me and my grandfather, most of our time together was after my grandmother's passing. Undiagnosed, his ensuring struggle with depression was a gulf beyond my abilities as a young teenager. I was wrapped in my own angst.
Pouring through these books, I was as struck by how much these books revealed about us as it did the conversations we ought to have but never had. My father's cryptic notes on Krishnamurti's philosophical views or outlining the spectre of neoliberalism with my grandfather (formerly an IMF economist) being but a few of the charged conversations I'd have liked to have had. More importantly, there was so much of our emotional landscapes that romaed across these pages but remained private isles, beyond the realm of cartography.
Yet somehow, like cool embers after a raging fire, we find a certain peace across these shelves. Even if only through the opaque lens of the living, our interests, our conflicts, our wanderings, and our yearnings settle into comfortable grooves. All preserved by the woman who binds us together, my mother, who loved us all, even when we could afford little of it to ourselves. Here in this house, she wages daily battles against tropical humidity, ravenous insects and the encroaching dust to save these books and an array of paintings, trinkets and furniture. Not out of greed or reluctant obligation, but as part of fulfilling her part in an elaborate web of meaning.