It was nine twenty in the morning when I arrived at the used book sale. In forty minutes my English class would begin just down the hall. I stood in line for a few minutes, holding a list of required textbooks and forty euro in my hand. A black Dooney & Bourke tote bag hung from my elbow. Since it was only a few days into the semester, I carried only pencils and a yellow folder with me. Other minuscule details lived in the bag: lipstick, hair ties, a journal, a new currency.
Three students worked the book sale. They searched for and retrieved textbooks based on ISBN numbers. I handed my list to a girl wearing a mustard yellow turtleneck and round glasses. She walked to the room behind her, examining my list. In a few minutes she would reappear with a stack of books pressed to her chest, the pages already wrinkled with sentences highlighted, and notes sketched into the margins. All signs of someone else’s experience with the text. And soon, my own cursive evidence would be added.
For a moment, I peered over the collapsible table, watching the girl search for my books, using her first finger to guide her eye along the shelves. I pictured her in a library doing the same thing. A bustling sound near my feet pulled my eyes away from the girl. It was another student. I could only see the top of his head–tan curly hair, a navy blue collar lining his neck. He was digging through a cardboard box filled with soft and hard cover books. A sign was taped to the box: TWO EURO EACH. I squatted down next to the boy, joining his excavation. I placed my tote bag on the floor next to me for optimal use of my arms. A strange territorial mood overcomes me when a box of books appears before me for so little a price. I makes me ravenous, excited. I love to sift through the books, listening to the thump of book covers falling into the next. A few minutes passed and the boy had left. I continued my search in privacy: just my squatting body and a large quantity of discounted books. A familiar title fell before me: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It had a different cover than the one I read, the one that didn’t make the journey with me over the Atlantic. This cover was better. It was the silhouette of a woman with her hair parted in the middle. The dark browns and purples of its soft cover were irresistible. It felt like a portrait. And suddenly, I realized, I needed the profound consolation of Jhumpa’s words and stories. I needed it on me, bouncing within my tote bag.
I walked to English class with a stack of books beneath my chin. It was now nine forty-five, fifteen minutes until the professor would continue her lecture on Queen Victoria’s life and reign. After settling at my desk, I opened the two euro paperback to a short story titled Mrs. Sen’s. It felt good to read it for a second time, like revisiting a terrain I’ve walked before. Jhumpa’s writing is simple, inviting. Many people describe it as unpretentious and I agree. I read the first page, noticing how it feels to be familiar with words and details. The story is about an Indian woman named Mrs. Sen who babysits a young boy. During the day, she chops vegetables and skins fish in her living room on a piece of plastic tarp. And just like Eliot, the boy she babysits, the sounds of Mrs. Sen’s chopping and the jingling of her bangles invigorate me.
Because I was reading mindfully, aware of each word’s essence and impact, I only got through a page and a half by the time class began. The professor, a tall British woman, entered the room. Her bell bottom pants sat high on her waist. They looked uncomfortable but regardless she moved fluidly. With her back toward the students, she wrote that day’s topic on the board. Queen Victoria: Empress of India. It was written in an effortlessly pompous script that only a woman of her demeanor could contain. I was hardly amazed by the coincidence. Something about it made sense just like finding Jhumpa’s book earlier that morning.
Later in the semester, March 18th to be exact, I met Jhumpa Lahiri at a public event in Rome. I skipped my six o’clock religion class to cross the Tiber River and helplessly search for the address listed on the FaceBook event. After excessive wondering and nearly giving up and going home, I found it. It was a theatre with wide stone steps and massive pillars. Inside, the room was hot and filled with people. Every seat was taken. Some people even sat on the radiators. I saw a table in the back corner stacked with Jhumpa’s books. I noticed that, after purchasing the books, people formed a line in front of a chair that held a beautiful Indian woman. It was Jhumpa. In the most gentle and sincere way, I was envious of her. Of her talent and success. Of her ability to affect people. Of her use of words. Of her culture.
I joined the line. Waited. Listened. When I got closer, I heard a woman telling Jhumpa that she was an English teacher, that her students just studied her works. When it was my turn, I pulled the softcover book from my tote bag. A mild shake ran through my arms. I handed Jhumpa the book.
“My mom turned me on to your writing. Could you sign it to her, to Erin.”
It is now a Sunday evening in August. Since giving her the signed copy of Interpreter of Maladies, my mom keeps it on the coffee table on top of a stack of Food Network magazines. I spent this afternoon re-reading a short story just as I did that Monday morning in Rome. By the time I finished the story, my mother returned home from grocery shipping. She walked into the living, asked me what I was up to.
“Reading,” I stated, holding the book up into her view. Suddenly, I imagined Jhumpa’s hands holding the book, bending the soft cover in order to sign the book to my mother.
“I can’t believe Jhumpa’s held this book,” I said. And then I realized how Jhumpa’s mark, her inscription is embedded into the pages. Her presence will always be contained within the softcover, beneath the silhouette of a woman with a middle part in her hair.
I am grateful to have met Jhumpa. But most importantly, I am grateful for the companionship her texts provide.