Essay

The Serendipity Of Finding A Book When You Least Expect It

Prarthana Banikya

March 20, 2018

Finding great books is no mean feat. Knowing where you are likely to find one certainly helps you get there faster. From bookshops to familiar shelves and nooks of our home to study tables and old trunks and cupboards, each of us knows of places where we are fairly certain of finding a good book. But what happens when you find a book at the unlikeliest of places, when you least expect to find it?

It was a crisp Saturday evening and my friend was narrating to me how sometimes it’s not a bookstore, library, or an online site where she’s found a great book, but an unexpected place. With the wind sweeping across our faces and Morrison’s voice in our ears, we were sitting across each other at one of Bangalore’s rooftop restaurants. Her story reminded me of a three-hour long plane ride when something similar happened to me.

It was a summer evening and I was getting ready to board the usual flight I take to travel home to Assam. I knew what to expect – cramped seating that makes your knees jut into the seat in front, your elbows glued to your sides, and the sound of children crying or people talking loudly swallowing the in-flight announcements.

My only solace on these flights was music and a good book to shut out the world. However, due to last minute work and hurried packing, I’d forgotten to carry a book. The stewardess smiled at me as I silently cursed myself for being forgetful. As I waded through a sea of luggage and travellers, I was relieved to find my window seat. Settling in, I started looking for the in-flight magazine that often has articles about quaint travel destinations. To my dismay, there was none. Instead, behind one of the laminated leaflets of the flight’s seating layout, I saw a red-coloured book, its edge peeping out from behind the leaflet. Pulling it out, I tried not to gasp as I glanced over its cover- Why My Third Husband Will Be A Dog by Lisa Scottoline. There was a photo of a furry dog on it. And that’s how we met- the red-coloured book and me.

By the time we landed in Guwahati, I had read through three-fourths of the book and a smile was plastered across my face. The book includes funny and retrospective snippets from Scottoline’s life and is a collection of some of her best columns published earlier in the Philadelphia Inquirer. As I placed the book on my lap, I regretted not being able to read the entire book, but mostly, I was thankful for finding it in my hour of need. In the spur of the moment, I felt an urge to give something back. So I took out a pen and on a piece of paper, I wrote:

“Dear fellow traveller,

This book gave me one of the most fun three-hour plane rides and I hope that in it, you find your smile too.

PB”

Afterwards, I often found myself wondering if another flier found Scottoline’s book with my handwritten note and how they may have felt. I suppose I will never know.  If I knew for certain that a traveller would experience the kind of happiness I felt when I found that book on a flight, I wouldn’t mind leaving one of my books behind.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the only time I found a book in an unexpected place. On a weekday evening, half an hour after sharing pick-up location details with a cab driver who wouldn’t know the difference between a dead-end road and a four-way junction, I was making my way for a doctor’s appointment.

When I finally reached the chamber, I was suddenly aware that my hair was in disarray, my head was throbbing, and my fingers were numb from all my frantic typing at work. Right then, my mind blanked out on why I was in the doctor’s chamber.

As I tried to calm myself down and take a deep breath, I scanned the room. The waiting room seemed more like the sitting room of a home. It was quiet and fading sunlight streamed in through the windows. At the centre of the room, an eight-seater couch was placed around a wooden centre table and on it were bold letters splashed across the cover of a thick book, Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff by Richard Carlson.

Usually, I don’t enjoy reading self-help books, but at that moment, I had to admit how serendipitous the situation was. It felt like someone had placed a book in front of me when I needed it the most. I picked it up and started skimming through the pages. It had short chapters of one or two pages each on how to keep ourselves calm in the midst of our incredibly hurried, stressful lives. As I read, a sense of calm spread over me and I lost track of time. When one of the attendants arrived to lead me into the doctor’s chamber, I was still reading the second chapter and had to hesitatingly part with the book.

Two weeks later, I bought my own copy which now sits on my bedside table, under a lamp that makes the cover’s bold letters call out to me when I’m having a difficult day. On other days, I read it to bring perspective back to the more important things in life. This incident reminds me of something Pablo Neruda said, “The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading.”

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember visiting my aunt’s newly built home in a quieter part of town. It was a spring afternoon and I strolled into her house along with my extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have faint memories of walking into a garden in full bloom and a bright warm kitchen with steaming curries and sizzling meat. However, what I do remember most vividly is the bathroom. Through white lace curtains, sun rays streamed in and coloured the room a bright yellow. Next to an assortment of moisturizers, talcum powder and liquid soaps towered an arch-legged table stacked with magazines and books.

I’d never before been to a bathroom with books, let alone one with a table on which they were beautifully laid out! I don’t recall all the books that were there, but I remember pulling out Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree from the pile. That afternoon, I spent an entire hour reading Blyton and one of the primary reasons I didn’t stay longer was on account of my older cousin’s constant banging on the door because she wanted to try the new lavender soap!

For me, the joy of finding a good book at an unexpected place is much like receiving a postcard from a childhood friend or waking up to a bunch of white lilies at my doorstep. When I said this to my friend sitting across from me on the Bangalore rooftop restaurant, she smiled and asked, “Did you ever consider that maybe you didn’t find those books? Maybe the books found you?”

With that, she bit into a slice of a cheesy, garden vegetable pizza and left me entrapped in a web of my own thoughts.

Have you ever found a book in an unexpected place, especially when you needed it? Share your experiences with us.

Prarthana Banikya

Prarthana Banikya


Prarthana Banikya is a graduate in Sociology from Miranda House with a certificate in poetry. She spent her formative years in the valleys of Northeastern India from where she draws inspiration for most of her writing. Her work has been featured in several journals including Aaduna, Asia Writes, Aerogram, Danse Macabre, Poetry Super Highway, Namnai, and Pratilipi. In 2016, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for poetry and in 2018, was the recipient of the Orange Flower Award for poetry.

She blogs at prarthanabanikya.blogspot.in