Of Childhood, Chicken Pox, and Camaraderie

Falling sick is the most miserable feeling ever. I recently had a nasty bout of cold, along with a sore throat and fever. It wasn’t debilitating in the least, but highly annoying and inconvenient. After spending a whole day in bed, making myself hot tea and soup, fetching medicine, and gargling with salt water (ugh!) – I was sick of being sick, and promptly resumed my daily activities, to hell with the illness.

But while I was complaining about how awful it is to feel sick, and how I’ve always hated it when my body has let me down, I realized that this wasn’t exactly true. Illness is only horrid when you’re a strong, independent woman living alone, and have nobody to fuss over you, plump your pillows, and feed you soup. Sure, I have people who’d fuss over me over text and chat, but unfortunately almost all of them are far away. The worst part of being sick isn’t the illness itself, but the fact that you’re in charge of dealing with it, treating it, and fixing it. Nobody else will set up your doctor’s appointments. Nobody else will check your temperature every few hours. Nobody will ruffle your hair and bring you hot khichadi from the kitchen, unless you specifically decide to swallow your pride and ask your friends to come over and babysit you. Being a sick adult is horrid, however – as far as I can recall, being a sick child was rather enjoyable. My memories might be tinged with nostalgia, but childhood sicknesses always seemed to involve happy events such as getting time off from school, and being taken care of by mom.

One of my fondest memories of being sick is from the summer of 2002. I’d just finished class 6, and was all set to enjoy my two-month-long summer vacation. Two whole months of lazy afternoons in front of the water cooler, eating juicy mangoes, reading a ton of books, and playing Boggle with my friends. This particular summer was made even more thrilling by the fact that two of my favorite cousins were coming over to stay. My kid brother and I were wildly excited. When our visitors finally arrived, we made a happy foursome – Kiddo and I, and both cousins. One of the cousins was a total bookworm, and she and I engaged in friendly competition to read the maximum number of books per day. We drove my parents nuts by talking about Harry Potter day in and day out – after a point we were banned from talking any more about it. Our creative workaround was coming up with a whole lexicon of code words for every single character, location and event at Hogwarts (yes, my Pottermania started quite early). The other, more gregarious cousin, got along fantastically well with Kiddo, who was just 6 years old at that point. Together, we all laughed and teased, took turns at playing non-stop RoadRash on the computer, went to parks, and even had a midnight feast in the middle of the night, Enid Blyton-style, which was super fun to do in secret, but in retrospect I’m fairly sure my parents were aware of all the whispered giggles and clanging of steel utensils in the night!

This idyllic nature of our summer was sorely tested by a sudden and unexpected rash of chicken pox. One of the cousins developed it, presumably after having being exposed to the virus on her train journey, and exactly two weeks after that, my brother and I fell prey to it. The other cousin had enviable immunity, having already had it as a baby. While chicken pox certainly threw a wrench in the proceedings, that summer still went on to be one of the most memorable vacations I have ever had. Yes, the rashes were gross and painful, and quickly transitioned to itchy. Yes, we had to drink a horrible concoction of some herbal remedy, which was supposed to help generate more poxes, and develop lifetime immunity. Yes, we were all quarantined and restricted to the house, and couldn’t see any of our friends. And yes, my poor mother had to take care of sick kid after sick kid all summer. But honestly? For us kids, we had all the companionship we needed, and after the initial fever and shock wore off, we would try to out-compete each other – with who had the weirdest-shaped rashes, and what was the most effective way to lessen the gag reflex after a dose of foul-tasting medicine (crunching a giant spoonful of sugar right after gulping down the medicine seemed to work best).

Eventually my cousin stopped being contagious, and they both left – leaving Kiddo and I alone and still quarantined. Now of course until this point the two of us had gotten along well – we had our occasional brother-sister spats, but were quite fond of each other. However, that month, that summer – was when we transitioned from mere siblings to good friends. Chicken pox left us solely in each other’s company – we couldn’t see any of our friends who were steadily returning from their own vacations at grandparents’ and other assorted relatives’ homes. School wasn’t in session yet, and even if it had, we’d probably have to stay home to prevent infecting our classmates anyway. So it ended up being just Kiddo and I, all day, every day – and it was all kinds of fun. I read out books to him (not surprisingly, a lot of Harry Potter), we played all kinds of games together, and we ended up becoming really close companions. Not to say that we weren’t absolutely thrilled to finally be declared non-contagious, and to get out to see other people – but that was the transition point in our relationship.

Today I consider my brother to be one of my closest friends. He’s an incredibly funny and sarcastic narrator, and our stockpile of inside jokes grows by the day. But aside from all the hilarity, I am routinely surprised at how thoughtful he can be, and at the impassioned discussions we end up having. His perspective and his thoughts are well-articulated, and I sometimes have to do a double-take because all my interactions with him are also superimposed by memories of him as a naughty 3-year old child hiding all my school supplies when I was running late. Kiddo as a child was great, but Kiddo as an adult is pretty awesome as well. This is the one person I have known since the day he was born, and I know that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, he’s got my back – and I’ve got his. Here’s to you, Kiddo – my brother, my confidant, my friend. I’m so proud of you!

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Reason #713 why I love New York: The Strand

I want books piled on my coffee tables, I want window sills stacked high with stray books. Books lining my staircases, books forgotten behind cushions and fleece throws in cozy armchairs. Books snoozing under my pillow, tottering on nightstands,  balancing on the edge of the tub. I want to live in my own little oasis of books, a little world in which my kids can grow up surrounded by witches and wizards, dragons and Shardbearers, boarding schools and midnight feasts, one-legged pirates and snarky Greek demigods. It’s a vividly colorful world, this second world I inhabit, and is a world I will welcome all my descendants into. 

All bookstores are magical treasure troves, but the Strand is pretty much my version of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders.

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Behold, tons of stories just waiting to be read!

At the corner of 12th and Broadway, the Strand has a gigantic collection of rare books, classics with their quintessential leather-bound covers – so solid and indulgent, like books who mean business, alphabetized tall and narrow little stacks you can lose yourself in, all organized by genre and alphabet, an entire collection of cleverly-named candles, witty magnets, mugs, bookmarks, gorgeous journals and totes, humorous socks and other Strand paraphernalia, a banned books section, and a whole row of staff recommendations with detailed notes about how and why this book demands to be read this very minute – and while all those features make the Strand a terrific bookstore, what puts it over the top is the racks and racks of discounted second-hand books lined outside. Starting from as low as 48 cents, these books are wonderfully haphazard and disorganized – and it’s especially thrilling because you never know what you might stumble across. Old copies of Pride and Prejudice crammed against The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mixed in with German folk tales, stodgily standing next to the rules of Hindi grammar, lined up with parenting help books, just adjacent to the single girl’s guide to NYC. I’ve found old yellowed books with notes inscribed in the margins (literary, as opposed to vandalism – there’s a fine line),  as well as books fresh and heady with that gorgeous new-book smell. The sheer variety delights my heart!

I’ve always felt more at peace with books as opposed to people. Those who saw me growing up can attest to the fact that whenever they came to visit, I’ve always had my nose buried in a book, and will only remove it with the greatest reluctance. I like to think I’ve changed a bit over time, become more of a people person, but maybe it’s just that I compartmentalize better now. Growing up, I’d collect books at stores and book fairs, I’d stack them, organize them by genre, author, frequency of re-reads, and caress them lovingly, read them over and over, trying to keep the pages un-creased and the spine intact (what kind of monster ruins book spines?! Or folds down pages?!). My books should remain as new as they were on the day I bought them.

At some point I realized that I don’t just like books, I need them. What started off as an indulgence has morphed into a necessity, and now I need extra ‘hits’ when I’ve had a bad day. While ‘going to the bookstore’ has always been the norm for when I wanted to celebrate some accomplishment (e.g. finished my annual exams and survived!) right from a young age, and getting books as gifts would make me happy in a way new clothes never did – I eventually figured out that a trip to the bookstore would also cheer me up immensely when I’ve had a hard day. Tired, stressed, lost, heartbroken – all these states of mind have been soothed over the years by a mere couple of hours in a bookstore. I feel at peace – like all the internal and external turmoil is held at bay by the hard covers (or paperbacks) of books. I’d go to a bookstore, pick up a novel, and curl up in a comfy armchair, surrounded by books and bookworms, and the quiet rustle of turning pages – it’s like a warm cocoon that wraps me up cozy and tight, a silvery force field of sorts, deflecting the world and all its troubles away from me. It’s my safe space, and nothing can hurt me while I’m there.

Books are something I take for granted, but whenever I stop and really think about it, I feel incredibly grateful to all the authors around the globe who pick up their pens and pick out the best words to share their stories, based in reality or imagination or both. I’m grateful to my parents for loving books themselves, and encouraging me to read more, explore more, as much as my heart desired. Reading is such an integral part of my identity that it’s hard to imagine a parallel universe in which I didn’t care to read. That universe seems colder, harsher, bleaker. My life is so much brighter, because I can choose to live multiple lives, think from varying perspectives, empathize better, and dream more resplendent dreams, all because of all the stories I get to read.

While e-books have revolutionized the ease of reading, I am determined to have a gigantic collection of physical books you can touch, see and smell (oh, that smell! Did you know that the Strand actually sells scented candles called Aged Page, and Cafe Au Library?). My dream house has a giant room full of books – wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, many lifetimes worth of books. But apart from my very own personal library, I’d love to have books spilling over in other areas of my life, quite literally. I want books piled on my coffee tables, I want window sills stacked high with stray books. Books lining my staircases, books forgotten behind cushions and fleece throws in cozy armchairs. Books snoozing under my pillow, tottering on nightstands,  balancing on the edge of the tub. I want to live in my own little oasis of books, a little world in which my kids can grow up surrounded by witches and wizards, dragons and Shardbearers, boarding schools and midnight feasts, one-legged pirates and snarky Greek demigods. It’s a vividly colorful world, this second world I inhabit, and is a world I will welcome all my descendants into.

In Defense of Stories Untold

But ever so often, consciously or otherwise, we curate and edit our stories – and even if we call ourselves an open book, there are certain chapters we don’t read out loud, certain stories we don’t exchange while sitting around bonfires on beaches at night – because they don’t have conventionally acceptable happy endings, or because they paint us in an unflattering light, instead of as the valiant and righteous protagonists we’d like to be.

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We are all storytellers. We express ourselves through Instagram pictures, overly long Facebook posts, public blogs, or even just dramatic retellings at extra long lunch breaks with our friends. We love being narrators, in varying degrees of spotlight, and there’s something incredibly gratifying to have our audience connect with our narratives.

But ever so often, consciously or otherwise, we curate and edit our stories – and even if we call ourselves an open book, there are certain chapters we don’t read out loud, certain stories we don’t exchange while sitting around bonfires on beaches at night – because they don’t have conventionally acceptable happy endings, or because they paint us in an unflattering light, instead of as the valiant and righteous protagonists we’d like to be. So we bury these stories deep, never to see the light of day – and if we do decide to share them, we prefer to add filters to our photos, don masks for our one-man shows, and narrate our stories from a different angle. Maybe we’re afraid of being judged too harshly. Maybe the statute of limitations isn’t up yet. Maybe we are still in denial, and haven’t yet accepted this chapter. Maybe we look back and wonder what we were thinking in the first place, or if we were thinking at all. And so these stories, these untold stories, are kept under wraps because they spoil the overall narrative, you see? They don’t fit the image we’ve worked so hard to project. These stories are the chips in our armor, the unnecessary glimpses of flawed and painfully real humanity. It’s vulnerability laid out bare in front of the world, and we don’t want anyone to see it, because we ourselves struggle to reconcile with it. So we tell ourselves that it’s just a fluke, a one-off, and that the true narrative is still unblemished.

But don’t these stories deserve to be told? Aren’t these tales important? Don’t these chapters offer insights into self and values, knee-jerk reactions and instincts, as much as, if not more than the stories widely published? In fact, more than the stories themselves, the reasons why we choose to keep them under wraps is a deeply insightful, if difficult question, which provides a clear path towards exploring our own implicit biases and judgments. What do we feel, and why are we feeling this way? What guilt, shame, pain would we rather not deal with, and pretend doesn’t exist? While this ruminating may not change our public narrative dramatically, it does help the storyteller understand motives and reasoning of their primary protagonist – themselves.

We all love the image of ourselves we have in our heads – the perfect, flawless, whip-smart version of us who never messes up. Who never makes mistakes. Who knows exactly what to say at the right time. Who is kind and thoughtful, but also not a pushover. Who has no hair out of place, no wrinkles in their perfectly ironed clothes, no chinks in their armor. Who’s always more talented, more unstoppable, simply more than who we are in reality.

But you know what? That isn’t who you really are. You are not perfect – instead, you are real. You are real, and flawed, and just figuring out those flaws, and working on what you think warrants change makes you gloriously human. It’s hard, so very hard to remember that vulnerability is not weakness. Your messy emotions, your honest-to-goodness pain, your rawness, your awkwardness – may not be perfect, but they don’t have to be. You don’t have to be. All you have to be is your unique self, flaws and all. So let’s remove those filters. Let’s throw off those masks. Let’s read out those stories, loud and proud. Here’s to being fearless, instead of flawless!