by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Once, in Italy, I had gelato in a place with a hidden door that opened into a garden with a gazebo. When I discovered it, it was like entering a movie set. Minutes ago I had herded my young children, negotiated foot traffic carrying ice cream and now I was in the middle of a surprise garden— surrounded by clear glass and a fruity scent. I had barely taken in the scene when I realized the baby needed to be changed; we finished our gelato quickly and left.
The delight was so abrupt that I’m not sure if this visit really happened, that there exists such a garden and gazebo in Turin where you can eat gelato. Did I imagine it? It’s a mercurial but lucid memory; it returns again and again.
There are other recurring flashes similar to this, most of them having to do with books: sitting by the window, reading “Of Mice and Men” as the sky raged with all its monsoon might, the drama of rain in real life entering the world of the novel. I still see the pages in the luscious light of Peshawar rain.
And numerous others: reading “Far from the Madding Crowd” on long summer afternoons, to the click-clicking of the ceiling fan, the faint aroma of lunch still in the air, lounging by the gas heater reading P.G. Wodehouse and eating hot sohan halva during winter-break. My mother reading aloud from an old copy of “mirat ul uroos,” an Urdu classic, the light and shadows on its yellowed pages, her clear, soft voice, my eyes lingering on the corners of the white walls, watching my grandmother’s glow-in-the-dark “time piece” from Mecca as I listened to the story.
A good book creates an uncanny silence, a bubble around the reader so that not only is the world of its offering vivid and deeply felt but the sensory reality of the reader as well: the smooth lamination on library books, the vanilla scent of the paper, the peculiar tone of light falling on the pages, the thumb, the forefinger, the folded paperback. Text blends in, binds with the texture of the sensory moment; the book becomes one with the reader.
The first book of poems I read on kindle was Fady Joudah’s “Textu”— I wasn’t sure how much the “reading device” would take away from me. As I fell into the rhythm of the short poems, their jagged, tender, stark, subtle world, there was a hush, then the sound of the wind chimes came from the patio with incredible clarity, the lamplight took on the glow of Japanese paintings, a familiar filter from childhood.
The brief, dreamlike, lasting spells, the residue of the reading life fills the writing life with the basic element: wonder. Once lodged in memory, it carries on— refilling, refueling the writer. These are the small, deep pockets of memory I reach into when I sit down to write.