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The boy who flew too high and fell for books

This post was originally a caption for this picture on instagram, I wrote it on my phone and well, it grew to become this

Picture taken in readings, by Isbah Khalid

I loved reading since I was a kid.

My favorite childhood memory to this date is my dad taking me on his bike for book shopping. It was sweltering heat in Lahore, upwards of 40 degrees Celcius. The 7-year-old me sat on the front with parched lips, braving wind so hot it felt like someone was blowing air from an oven. I remember going to Ferozesons. I remember its cavernous halls filled with rows and rows of books. The airconditioned air chilled and heavy with the faint smell of glue and paper. People reverently holding the books and talking in whispers. To me, that’s where God lived.

I was the 10-year-old kid who would finish course books the night before the school year started. Every time I visited my relatives my cousins would run off to play while I would hunt for something to read. It could be anything, an old magazine, a woman’s digest, sometimes a piece of newspaper you’d use to wrap the naan would do it. I would then take refuge in a corner and only leave when my mom would stop calling for food and come to fetch me herself.

I read anything and everything. There was no genre too complicated. My dad was in the army so he had a collection of books around Military history. That was the first thing I went through. Imagine a 12-year-old kid learning about the Falklands war, the 500 year Muslim Military history, and the Napoleonic campaign. I reckon I could have passed the theory exam to become a Colonel in Pakistan before I turned 13.

I would read everywhere. I would read while lying on the bed, while eating, while in a car, even while sitting behind my uncle on a motorbike. But I never could bring myself to read inside the toilet. It felt like sacrilege. Reading was never something to pass time. It was as sacred as prayers and you never prayed in a toilet.

It wasn’t just something I loved, I was good at it too. I could read really really fast. Once I started a book I wouldn’t put it down till I finished it. During the night when the lights were turned off and the kids were supposed to be in bed, I would sneakily get up and read my books in the moonlight coming through the window. Sleep would eventually catch up to me but I would take comfort in the fact that we had no conception of time while sleeping. I could sleep and wake up the next moment, ready to finish.

I wouldn’t just read a book once. I’d read it again and again. I remember that I’ve read the whole Harry Potter saga at least 7 times. The complete Sherlock Holmes (The original Strand edition) at least 3 times. My father was posted in Kahuta (a city in Pakistan) for 6 years. When I left, the librarian commented that in his years of service he has never seen anyone check-out so many books. For a 15-year-old, that was a reason to be proud. But I was sad, sad at leaving the books I so loved so much. Once I even thought of taking them with me and telling the librarian I lost them and then pay the fine. But the 7-year-old me couldn’t lie with a straight face let alone steal a book.

I remember in Kahuta, I was at a quiz competition organized by the Corps Commander, who was hosting it himself. The teams were ranking captains and majors, seasoned folks with years of service. I remember there was one question about the Independence movement in Daghestan in Tzarist Russia. Who led this movement? Nobody could answer it so I raised my little hand from the audience. It was Imam Shamil of course. Little did the Corps Commander know that ‘Sabres of Paradise’ was my favorite book and I had read it at least half a dozen times. I could tell him the names of Imam Shamil’s children, his wives, and a summary of his entire life starting from his revolt to his eventual defeat at the hand of Russia. The corps commander wasn’t so happy seeing a 15-year-old kid overshadow his entire Brigade. There was another question that the contestants couldn’t answer, my hand shot again but the Corps Commander said that I cannot answer more than once. It is unfair to others. I felt pride.

Reading was an escape. Kids played cricket. I sat inside and hopped through time and space on top of my books. I think there was no other way my imagination could have been contained. Books were just that good. Then in my late teens, I started playing video games and they became an escape. And then cell phones came and my attention span chipped away till I couldn’t concentrate. The books I read as a 15-year-old, I cannot read them now. The escape is now everywhere.

Reading at such a young age flexed my imagination. But then again it also broke its tether to the ground. I became a person who tended to stay in his head. Lost in his world, detached from reality. Which isn’t so practical when you enter real life. It took a lot of suffering and much of my twenties to ground myself. So I could keep the kite of imagination flying high while it’s still tied to the ground. How I managed to do that? That’s a story for another time. I think I am incredibly fortunate to have had a passion that was so outlandish yet my parents supported and nurtured it. All the knowledge and the abilities I have now is a result of that encouragement. I wouldn’t have a kite, let alone a string to hold it without them.

I was an uncommon kid and it took me much of my adolescence to conform to society. Now that I have played the game of conformity according to society’s rules. I am ready to break them again. Let the imagination of the 7-year-old me out again. Let the kite fly, far and high.


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© 2017-2020 By Hafiz Abdul Manan.

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