The other is slightly more predictable. Stationery. In a stationery store, I transform into a spectacular bumbling idiot. I just stand there and ogle, like a teenager drooling over some namby-pamby boy band; the rows of pens, pencils and books looking at me, making puppy eyes at me, begging me to take them home. And if I am left unguarded, I can do much damage on the bill.
I never have to buy any of the things I buy. I just have to have them, that’s all. As of now, my table holds a regular post-it pad, an xxs post-it pad, a speech bubble shaped post-it pad and an apple shaped one – not because I need to post reminders to myself, for that I have a really cool post-it software installed on my laptop, but because I saw them, and they looked really nice. Really. I have a pen stand spilling over, sagging under the weight it holds. I bought the same stack of pens twice, because I loved them so much. And of course in case I run out of ink or something in the next two years. I have a pack of crayons and a box of pencil colours, coloured paper-clips, paper holder, a little pink stapler, a bookmark, erasers, sharpeners, paper pins, etc, etc, all tastefully tossed into an open green basket, sitting on my shiny brown desk. I usually can’t take my eyes off it, which probably explains so much about my writing.
Habits like these don’t develop over night. They start young. They have to be mastered and turned into an art form over the years. And almost always, as it is with taking to habits, a parent is responsible. In my case it was both. I learnt early. And I learnt quickly. I remember how much I used to love the days leading to the start of a new year at school. In Zambia the new term begins in January, post the crazy New Year parties. By default the first day of the year was spent in recovery and lethargy. The 2nd and 3rd day of January were spent sprawled on the carpet, ripping out the twelve months of the last year and dressing my new notebooks in them. We didn’t have uniform brown paper, and the freedom to choose covering paper usually put a creative, almost competitive spin on the process. Since the first day at school was invariably spent in critiquing other students, their bags, new hairstyles and books, the end of every year was spent in choosing the most interesting calendars available. The theory being today’s spectacular calendars make next years fabulous book covers. Mine were generally covered with exotic landscapes, castles and other such natural wonders. Not only did ruined castles and romantic waterways attach themselves brilliantly on to my books, they also helped me slip into a day dream with much ease, during class hours.
One concept I really struggled with in school was the ‘rough book.’ I couldn’t digest the idea of having a book to scribble in, to desecrate, to soil with equations and reminder notes. It made me incredibly uncomfortable to see people around me vomiting their untidiness on these precious notebooks. My rough book was probably the neatest one around; with neat equations, essay and story themes all in bullet points – a), b), c) - even my doodles were neat and pretty.
My pencil box was my most treasured school possession. It used to be filled to the brim with smart yellow, well sharpened pencils, all sitting in a row, awaiting further orders. Once a pencil got too short, I quietly discarded it, and replaced it with a smart new one. When we moved on to pens, life got more interesting. Ink pen, pilot pen or ball point pen? Blue pen or black pen? Since it was compulsory to use blue ink in school, by default I preferred the black one. How many pencils with how many pens? The permutations and combinations that my pen case could hold was a process involving much deliberation, self doubt, agonising and sacrifice.
The introduction of the mechanical pencil, or the pen-pencil, as we knew it, ushered in a whole new era. I started out with the cheap plasticy models and gradually worked my way to the sleeker and definitely sexier Faber Castle. Since I was so obviously in love with my stationery, lending it out always led to a nervous break down of sorts. I can’t stand stingy characters, so I always lent out the extra one. But I never forgot. The lent pen hovered around in my brain like a bee, drowning out all of what was going on around me. And when people absconded, it led to mood swings, incessant mutterings and deep sorrow. I could have just asked for it, but I was always worried about being petty. So after a few tragic episodes, I began carrying a pair of unglamorous-lending pens. A little petty, I know – but it saved me so much heartbreak and lending almost became fun.
Stationery was the only reason I passed math. I lived for math-loathing. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t solve it. It was only created to torment me. But then I met geometry, more importantly I met the geometry set. I passed my tenth boards solely because of this set. It seemed like a fair trade off – I pay attention in geometry class and be allowed to use all the toys in the box.
As I moved on to college, files and paper joined my collection. Though my allowance never supported it, I collected snazzy files and beautiful crisp white sheets of paper – not that whole sale, by the kilo, yellowish paper for me. I was invariably left with no money at the end of it all, but I was happy. I still am.