My Mother’s Books: Symbols of Resistance

Among the many old books on my shelves are a couple of dozen especially battered ones. Some belong to my father’s collection (I will write on these on another occasion); some belong to my uncle’s. And then there are another two, especially fragile, their pages browned and brittle, also brought back from India, just like those previously mentioned, one missing a cover, the other about to lose it.

The former is: Herbert Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (Forum Books, Columbia University Press, 1946; republished by Forum Books); the latter, Albert D. Van Nostrand (ed.), Literary Criticism in America, Liberal Arts Press, 1957. Their former owner’s name is visible inside the Nostrand book, along with a note indicating her program of study at the time: Satish Sabharwal, MA Final.

Satish Sabharwal was my mother. She would change her names–first and last both–after her marriage to my father, after she had completed that final year, the ‘MA Final’ of her master’s degree in English Literature (with a specialization in American Literature).

It is an enduring legend about my mother, in my mind, that she resisted two attempts by my grandfather to get her married off before she had finished her graduate studies. He had first attempted to do once she had finished high school; then, she had indicated she wanted to attend university and obtain her BA in English Literature. My grandmother was suitably supportive then; later, when my grandfather again attempted to marry her off after her BA, she agreed to back my mother up when she rejected a suitor for her arranged marriage, claiming that she wanted to keep studying and earn her MA next. (That young man, recently returned from the US with a graduate degree in engineering would instead marry her younger sister and return with her to that distant land.) Finally, after she had finished her MA, she agreed to her father’s suggestions that she meet a young man, a dashing air force pilot, who seemed like a good ‘match’ for her.  She liked her potential groom, even though she thought he was a little stuck-up and distant; he, for his part, expecting a small-town girl to be considerably unsophisticated, was pleasantly surprised by her keen interest in his flying and his European travels. That pilot, of course, was my father.

I brought these two books back from India several years ago. Occasionally, I take them down from the shelves and glance through their contents. The Schneider book has chapters–among others–on ‘Platonism and Empiricism in Colonial America,’ ‘The American Enlightenment,’ ‘Nationalism and Democracy,’ ‘The Transcendental Temper,’ ‘Radical Empiricism,’ ‘A New Naturalism and Realism.’ The Nostrand book includes essays by–among others–Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, George Santayana, H. L. Mencken, Robert Frost, Edmund Wilson.

I do not know why I still have not read these books. They seem very fragile and I fear they will fall apart in my hands as I read them. My wife has often urged me to bind them and I suppose that if I want to own them for much longer, I will have to do so soon. But I resist; binding will shape their form, turn them into something else. As they are, they maintain a certain kind of continuity with their past, and thus, with their former owner. By doing so, they continue to remind me of very particular and distinctive acts of resistance, conducted many years ago, against someone who would have been surprised to have seen his directives so withstood.

These books aren’t just historical narratives of intellectual traditions; they are also testimonials to a life sought to be conducted on its own terms.

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