Our house was not devoid of things to read, but the offerings felt scant, and were of little interest to me. There were books about China and Russia that my father read for his graduate studies in political science, and issues of Time that he read to relax. My mother owned novels and short stories and stacks of a literary magazine called Desh, but they were in Bengali, even the titles illegible to me. She kept her reading material on metal shelves in the basement, or off limits by her bedside. I remember a yellow volume of lyrics by the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, which seemed to be a holy text to her, and a thick, fraying English dictionary with a maroon cover that was pulled out for Scrabble games. At one point, we bought the first few volumes of a set of encyclopedias that the supermarket where we shopped was promoting, but we never got them all. There was an arbitrary, haphazard quality to the books in our house, as there was to certain other aspects of our material lives. I craved the opposite: a house where books were a solid presence, piled on every surface and cheerfully lining the walls. At times, my family’s effort to fill our house with books seemed thwarted; this was the case when my father mounted rods and brackets to hold a set of olive-green shelves. Within a few days the shelves collapsed, the Sheetrocked walls of our seventies-era Colonial unable to support them.
When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that, in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others. I did not write alone but with another student in my class at school. We would sit together, this friend and I, dreaming up characters and plots, taking turns writing sections of the story, passing the pages back and forth. Our handwriting was the only thing that separated us, the only way to determine which section was whose. I always preferred rainy days to bright ones, so that we could stay indoors at recess, sit in the hallway, and concentrate. But even on nice days I found somewhere to sit, under a tree or on the ledge of the sandbox, with this friend, and sometimes one or two others, to continue the work on our tale. The stories were transparent riffs on what I was reading at the time: families living on prairies, orphaned girls sent off to boarding schools or educated by stern governesses, children with supernatural powers, or the ability to slip through closets into alternate worlds. My reading was my mirror, and my material; I saw no other part of myself.