Trail of paper cuts: mapping paper memories

Introduction by Sam: This post explores the sensual aspects of humans and their objects of writing. Not only writing instruments, but the paper, the surface, the act of writing itself… and their associated memories and feelings are dissected in an almost compulsive way to show the romantic relationship that we construct with the experience of writing.

I share a *relationship* with words. I tend to romanticize those roundels and angles, gifted to the reader in me, by the storytellers. For me, an untold story and an unopened book reek of uncut onions; each eager for the chore of unpeeling the delights within and tearing the eyes up with thrills no astrologer can predict. I recall the stories recited by my father at bedtime when I was three, and four, and five, and six (and further ahead), remembered not through sounds or images, but by the memory of words stepping on the grooves of my imagination, kind of like ink doing a Rorschach on a bubble of water – slow-motion burst, lazy snake undulating, and more of that suspense that shushes you into silence just so that you don’t miss out on the turning point, the twist in the tale. Yes, fathers know how to keep your breath squeezed in!

Tools to tattoo our memories   A love-affair with paper and words means that an infatuation with writing instruments cannot be far behind. I was more favorable to the pencils and fountain pen varieties made in Japan, than the grace of a Made-In-India ballpoint. Scribble-Jot-Doodle-Doodle-Jot-Scribble-Jot was the Morse-Code tattooed on textbook margins, notebook covers, books loaned from the libraries and the glossy Sunday Times newspaper. Here, let me make careful use of the word *copious*, to refer to my jottings on the last two pages of several storybooks (why call it fiction when they only contain stories) – blankness ripening towards black rot with every loop and dash and dotted i’s of my childish scrawl. Was never any good at drawing you see, so words comforted me, and plied me with the bribe of glory in the years ahead.

A decade-and-more hence, I flip through my old textbooks, saved by the virtue of a tradition that prides itself on hoarding anything dated *yesterday*. Pencils have left smudges, and the inks, consistent stains that leak beyond the confines of my words. This is whom age resembles, a smudged and blotted nostalgia whose value lies in decay. Note the smells of oldness; the rigors of crushed tree-wood, industrial chemicals, press machines and dust-wrought ink and graphite mingled with the sweat from my wrist and palm, the saliva that tipped the pen top and beat a staccato rhythm on paper when words took their time to mouth. They all simmer within these pages. And the act leaves me no choice but to exhibit nostalgia. Again and again as the pages flip and my fingers wait to discover old phone numbers, hearts looping the names of crushes, X’s and O’s, and numbers that fit into these three forward slashes / / / each slot inked with the days, months and years that committed my words to their hearts.

***

I have more than 200 books, collected since childhood and saved from the ruthless family’s intentions of selling them off as paper junk. I simply cite sentiments as reason enough to save the oldies. A new bamboo bookstand stands-in as their old-age home and I revisit them once a week, my index finger gliding through their spines (and I am sure, causing a tingle of excitement). The yellowed pages now stock a menagerie of silverfish and black-winged beings, too tiny to be labeled insects. However, the prospect of re-reading no longer spells a.n.t.i.c.i.p.a.t.i.o.n. and I am left feeling cheated by the astrologer’s prediction of “thrills ahead”. I still collect bookmarks but promptly forget to use them: old habits die hard and Miss Dog-Ears and me go back a long way.

Today, when I browse new titles in a bookstore, I feel eager to consume the text. The text, and not the story. A sense of leisure has been lost while I groped and then became adept at navigating digital texts. Book reading routines are eulogized thusly: lie on a bed, lean against mile-high-stacked pillows, foot crossed at the junction, and two hands propping the book on the belly, the right index finger ever eager to turn the page (never, never used a speck of saliva to turn pages). Reading on digital devices meant a slouched back resting on the seat of a swivel chair that aided in the fidgety flights of tapping foots, clicking finger (on mouse) and upper body perpetually swinging in the pendulum motion of forward-backward-forward-back depending upon the size of the text | image being scrolled and enlarged and reloaded on screen. I know you are imagining this.

I am used to accessing physical markers of the past – letters written to Santa Claus, postcards, stamps album, old books, Nat Geo magazines 20 years old, pen-pal letters from Botswana and Germany – stored in cupboards for those times when you can sit cross-legged on the floor, with a raggedy cloth nearby to wipe away the cobwebs, and spread out all your memories in circular chaos around you. No, I shall resist the urge to turn this into a sordid rant against the wreckage wrought about by the wired world. Urban legend maintains that it’s still about storytelling; nothing has changed, except the medium. Reminds me of this line I *tweeted* (what’s the time frame it takes to morph a noun into a very form?) a few cyber-eons ago: do iPad haters / tech naysayers want their stories and news digests delivered to their doorsteps on papyrus and palm leaves, as was the practice in ancient Egypt and India, respectively? Could there be other forms of nostalgia that are birthed via digitized platforms? Are archives, chat transcripts and folders a time-machine into missed remembrances?

                                                                                                                      ***

Humor me. I have this terrifying thought that the screen-age has upside-downed the way we write. I no longer *see* what I write. My eyes are on the screen as my fingers do the *seeing* and *writing* for me. It’s disconcerting to have my eyes edit words “as”  “they” “begin”  “appearing“  “on”   “screen”, whereas, on paper, it was my hands that steadily measured the slants, dips and ellipsis that would christen each line. This Word Document doesn’t get closure even after my fingers tap on Alt+F4; it waits until the next time I re-open it to realign the indents, hold trials for Calibri-Times New Roman-Bookman Old Style-Verdana-Oh-Calibri it is then, and play around with the margins (all in the name of aesthetics and options).

Guess you could tell by now that I romanticize the idea of history, an idea I find uncomfortable disassociating from paper. I try eliciting the sound-action of crumpling up paper from this screen and it mocks me with its white-lit ennui. How many movie memories are made great with the idea of the writer chipping away at his masterpiece one crumpled piece of paper after the other? Today, the memories of crisp white paper and its furlong sounds are evoked more in the ritual anticipation of buying a new notepad – which don’t evoke the same white-noise as that of a school-book or single-lined journal. What haunts me today are the ghost-memories of paper cuts on my right index finger. While my fingers whisper thanks to the cushioned comfort of the keyboard, my mind rebels and waits to feel the slice of a phantom paper cut. All in the name of romancing paper.

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