Of Words and Book Thieves

There is a story in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The Führer, a little man with a desire to conquer the world, decides to plant great forests of words so that they take root in the minds of people until everyone starts believing in them. Yet in that same forest a little girl nurtures tree that grows to be the tallest of them all. It is born of one word – friendship. The combined might of the Führer’s army cannot bring it down. And all this only because the spirit of the little girl – who is the source of the friendship – holds it upright.

Such tales needn’t always have a moral, but they definitely have a message. Young Liesel, the eponymous book thief and the girl for whom the tale is written by a Jew in hiding, spends many hours wondering about its meaning. Words hold a special significance in her life: when she wakes up screaming from the nightmare of the cold stare of her dead brother and the disappearance of her birth mother, her wonderful ‘silver-eyed’ foster father Hans sits with her and teaches her as best as he can to interpret the squiggles on the page and to make meaning from a book that seems to hold the essence of her past.

Through this nightly ritual, she finally reconciles with her past and calms the spectres in her dreams. Ever since she hungers for words, is nourished by them. The Jew hiding in her basement notices this word-love and imagines her as a ‘word shaker’ – one of the people climbing the Führer’s trees and shaking down words. She is the girl hiding in the branches of the tree of friendship, nourishing and supporting it. Through her own interpretation of the act of reading and her reclaiming of words, she can counter the horrors of war, repel the fear of death in the short-breathed bomb shelters, and remain a beacon of hope in the darkness possessing the nation.

Liesel draws meaning out of this tale, but never reveals it to the reader. What then is it? That words are essential shapers of our reality? Perhaps. Or is it that just as words can be used to conquer and control, they can also be the source of subversion and individualism? That words are the source of evil, but also the source of good? That the Führer’s forest might stretch endlessly, but the tree of the word friendship grows taller than all others and eventually crushes them all?

What better way to plant a tree of friendship than to gather wordsmiths and bibliophiles in a global celebration of the beauty and harmony of words.Such a gathering promotes understanding and shares word-love, leading to greater empathy. And at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, this is what we try to do in a celebration of melody and miscellany.

Perhaps the most important message in the story is that an effort must be made to counter evil: we must hunger for words and their positive power before we can create a world we can love. Liesel, who eventually directs her love for words towards creating them and becomes a writer, says at the end of her story: “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” And that is all we should try to do, each and every one of us: to make them right.

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