In the summer of 2001, I met Anne Frank for the first time at a books exhibition in my school. There she was, looking straight at me, and smiling from the cover of her book. As I picked up 'The Diary of a Young Girl' and browsed through its pages, I knew I had to buy that book and get to know Anne personally. So, I happily parted with my entire month's pocket money and took Anne's diary home.
I read the whole book in one sitting. Anne felt like the best friend I never had. She was fun and funny. I loved how she judged her classmates, spoke about her frenemies (although that wasn't a term back then), discussed boys and swooned over Hollywood stars.
However, what stayed with me most was how she gave words to my every feeling and thought, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Anne's story has such a universal appeal, because, at its core, it is a coming-of-age story. Anne Frank's diary also happens to be a personal account of the Second World War, which not only makes it a seminal text but also gives it a heartbreaking first-person perspective into the lives of Jews under Hitler regime.
When I finished reading the book for the first time, I felt a gnawing pain in my chest. Her death felt like a personal loss, as though a beloved friend was gone forever. For the next couple of days, I dreamt of Anne in a concentration camp and would often wake up in the middle of the night, trying to catch my breath. In my head, I reimagined many scenarios in which Anne manages to escape and lives a long happy life.
I touched her words over and over again as if doing that, in some bizarre way, will make me feel closer to her. I underlined the lines I especially liked with a blue glitter pen. The book left me so shattered that all my self-preservation instincts kicked in and I decided never to reread it. Although I remembered Anne as a fun, vivacious friend I once had. Inspired by her, like most teenage girls across the world, I also picked up diary writing.
Over the years, thanks to Anne Frank, I discovered how cathartic writing down one's thoughts in a diary can be. My journal keeping, which began as a hobby, has now become a habit of 18 years. In all these years, I have realised that Anne was right, written words can truly be 'a great source of comfort and support'. Whenever I found that people had less patience for me or my words, I turned to paper, like Anne had recommended. I have rarely known any words to be truer than Anne's when she said:
"I can shake off everything when I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."
Anne also taught me how to deal with isolation and confinement. She told me, "deep down the young are lonelier than the old." As a teenager, growing up in a nondescript corner of West Bengal, in the pre-internet era, often made me feel isolated from the rest of the world. I felt confined in my small town that didn't have one proper bookstore or a movie theatre where girls from 'decent families' could go.
However, Anne's account of her days in the secret annex and how she dealt with her life when confined by space, relationships and the lack of opportunities gave me courage and hope. It told me, no matter what constraints you face in life, you have to learn to be optimistic about the future. She also taught me to appreciate nature. As she sat at her attic window and pined for the outdoors, it made me realise how indifferent I was to the beauty of nature until that point.
In her diary, Anne wrote, "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet alone with the heavens, nature and god. Because only then does one feel all is as it should be. "
The second time I picked up her diary was three days after my father's death. By then I had forgotten how depressed I was after reading it for the first time and hoped that flipping through enough pages of her diary will finally make me exhausted enough to sleep. However, that did not happen.
I ended up rereading many passages of The Diary of a Young Girl and thank god I did. This time around I understood that her story wasn't a sad one, although the circumstances under which she wrote it, was. In fact, her life was an eternal spring of hope and positivity. I still remember these lines from her diary:
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."
Despite her teenage angst and naivety, she had profound wisdom and like a true friend, Anne knew what to say to me that night. She told me that "misfortunes never come singly", but, no matter how horrible the circumstances "Where there is hope there is life." She told me to not wallow in self-pity and go to sleep. "Sleep makes the silence and the terrible fears go by so quickly," she said, it "helps pass the time since it is impossible to kill." Anne Frank was a true inspiration in those darkest times and I am forever grateful to have a friend like her.
#BeingAWoman is a special series to celebrate womanhood in today’s India on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.