One of His Many Books

I want to read Demian, by Hermann Hesse, again. It has been a few years, since I read it. And as I was cleaning the shelves today, this book just called out. It will have to wait, as I finish the book I have on hand. But Demian is next.

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This is a book that I did not buy, borrow or steal. It is an inheritance.

I remember seeing this book on my father’s shelf. As a child — I must have been 10 or 12 at the time — this book scared me, because of its cover. That expressionless face, with those empty marble-eyes devoid of focus; celtic-like tentacles flowing out, where hair should have been. The stony under-eye-textured face, and those tentacles again, that slid dreadfully to the back cover creepily intertwining a screaming skull. In my immature mind, Demian was another word for a Demon.

*

Years later, when I first left the country for a long-term assignment, fifteen years ago, I took this book with me. I remember the time, when, with much trepidation, I opened the book; my childhood fears still alive and begging me to close the book. In a foreign country, alone, afraid, adventurous, audacious, and animated at the same time, I added to the excitement and the fear, and opened the book. At the end of the two-page prologue, I discovered:

The life of every man is a way to himself, an attempt at a way, the suggestion of a path. No man has ever been utterly himself, yet every man strives to be so, the dull, the intelligent, each one as best as he can. Each man to the end of his days carries round with him vestiges of his birth — the slime and egg-shells of the primeval world. There are many who never become human; they remain frogs, lizards, ants. Many men are human beings above and fish below. Yet each one represents an attempt on the part of nature to create a human being. We enjoy a common origin in our mothers; we all come from the same pit. But each individual, who is himself an experimental throw from the depths, strives towards his own goal. We can understand each other; but each person is able to interpret himself to himself alone.

~ Demian, Hermann Hessse, translated by W. J. Strachan, Granada Publishing Limited, first published in 1960; last reprint in 1976

This concluding paragraph of the prologue was hopeful, and frightening at the same time. The original fear had manifested itself, and I felt the presence of new invisible fears. What lies ahead; in the hundred-and-fifty-odd pages that I am to read? I can never know. Leaving the safety of home, when I asked my father, if I could take this book with me, he seemed happy as he handed the book to me. I remember little now, but perhaps, he was smiling. I think he knew that this book terrified me, as a child. But, if he was smiling, it wasn’t because of the irony, it was, perhaps because he sensed that it was the right time for me to read the book.

This book is unique, for me, because he never signed it; it is bereft of his marginalia. There is a small pencil-scribble on the first page. Top-right. ₹9.50. That’s what he must have paid for the book. There is nothing to say that this book was his and he read it, other than the fact that I know he did. Only a few sticky-notes (mine; I dared not enter marginalia in a book that did not belong to me; even now, I do not) stay glued, neatly above paragraphs, where some questions terrorised me. And this fear was different. It had nothing to do with the cover. It became real. I hoped that I’d have a conversation about these questions with him someday, but we never found the time. And without a spoken or a written word, that sudden day, his books were bequeathed to me and my sister. And we had to find our own answers, since that day.

Time passes. Our questions change. And therefore, our answers.

It’s time for Demian.

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3 thoughts on “One of His Many Books

  1. Hesse is one of my top five writers — not because he is a great storyteller. He’s not, not in the sense that some of my other favorites, who are great story-tellers are. But he is one of the most audacious writer, in terms of themes that he was ready to explore on. And his ability to talk of “internal” worlds of his characters, and how he connects that to the external world, is really what makes him special for me.

    Strangely, this has been on my list for a long time and I’ve never read it. I even bought a vintage looking copy from a second-hand store. This may just push it to somewhere near top of my stack.

    Meanwhile, see if you can lay hand on Peter Camenzind. Simply delicious.

    Liked by 1 person

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