Bookshops are universities anyone can enter.
– Tony Benn
The above quotation is from the October 1995 issue of the Reader’s Digest. A few years ago I visited with my brother-in-law his old house in the north of the island, which was still unlived in after the family shifted to Quatre-Bornes. I chanced upon a bundle of old magazines, books and school notebooks that were piled up in an obscure corner in a room adjoining the kitchen. My curiosity could not stop me from prying that open – and to my delight there was a collection of issues of the Reader’s Digest dating back to the 1960s. I sat down then and there and started flipping through them. When we left I had yet another treasure pack of reading material which was travelling with me to Curepipe. Carefully dusted and aired to get rid of the humidity that had inevitably permeated in between the pages, these magazines have now found a place in my bookshelf. I have avidly read some of the articles of interest to me, a few of which I still remember having gone through in those days.
I love books and reading. There’s nothing like curling up in bed on a cold winter night and enjoying a nice story until one succumbs to slumber with the book in one’s lap!
I am an inveterate collector of books and reading material, literally anything and everything. I have books that were bought from pavement vendors in College Street in Kolkata (then Calcutta) for prices ranging from one to five rupees. College Street is probably so named because it houses many of the colleges that form part of the University of Kolkata which is found on that street. Booksellers line both sides of the pavement for almost a kilometre, and best of all they are open till quite late at night, so one is in no rush and can browse leisurely to the heart’s content. I have a classic on medical statistics which I bought there for a mighty Rs 5 in those days, the mid-sixties of the last century when my monthly stipend as a medical student was Rs 250. I still refer to it from time to time – as far as books are concerned, they defy the adage that familiarity breeds contempt: in fact, it’s quite the contrary.
Books are indeed the most faithful companions; they never backbite, never shout back, never get angry or have moods. They are available to delight and give solace at any time of the day or night, and never resent being handled and fondled – some books are indeed objects of dear love. One such is Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the anthology of poems in English which was the standard book for English poetry at the Royal Colleges (and I presume the Queen Elizabeth College as well) when I was a student. My copy was returned as it was part of the book loan scheme prevailing then. More than two decades later I was in one of my favourite bookshops in Connaught Place in New-Delhi when I came upon a facsimile edition of Palgrave’s – as it used to be known to us of that generation – a hard-bound copy for all of Rs 35, and it was the last copy there. No need to say that I immediately almost lapped it up!
Wherever I have travelled, and even if would be at some place for only a few days, I make it my business to find the booskshops around, and all my spare time is then spent in them. To places that I have returned frequently I have my favourite haunts, but as new outlets keep opening up, I keep busy visiting them also as time permits. For all the love I have for my little island, this is the one thing that I miss most, bookshops of the scale and variety that are found in big countries. To compensate, I make it a point to find some time and visit books sales exhibitions whenever there are some, but of course it’s never the same as obtains elsewhere. Still, from time to time one comes upon a little gem, and one such that I bought at a Jan Palach sale in Curepipe was about Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. I was not surprised to learn about the parallels found in these two most ancient systems of medicine, given their emphasis on the flows of energy in the body and their similar notions of physical and mental balance in a person’s well-being.
Foyle’s on Tottenham Street in London and the Barnes and Noble chain in the US have provided me hundreds of hours of joy. One – at least I – can spend whole days in such oases of tranquility and quiet recollection, where the sense of time is lost and all bodily sensations get automatically suspended as one becomes engrossed, moving from shelf to shelf and floor to floor. At the Barnes and Noble outlet in Union Square in New York, one could sit on the floor and read, or go up to the canteen and do so, return the book to the shelf and move on to the next. There is no obligation to buy any book – but who can leave without doing so!! So many are there that all tastes are catered for, and personally I have never missed picking my lot from the book sales sections every time I have been there. One of my prized possessions is An Anthology of Mystical Verse which I bought a couple of years ago for only a few dollars – literally a pittance for a large volume beautifully hardbound. There have been many such acquisitions and explorations – and many more to come still, of that I have no doubt!
But Chacha, or Uncle, my nephews and nieces ask when they look at my lined bookshelves, have you read all these books? Clearly no is the obvious answer. Unlike Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whose collection I have seen in the Teenmurti House where he lived as prime minister and which is now a museum. There are thousands of books, and I picked up several at random: each one that I opened had been underlined at several places, with handwritten notes in ink in the margins. What a prolific reader he was! Although I have not read all the books that I have, I have definitely flipped through all of them and picked up nuggets that I am delighted to share with friends and my readers. However, in order to write one has to read and refer widely, and all those books are valuable references to which I turn with increasing frequency – so the answer is, yes, by the by all of them will be read, perhaps not all with the same thoroughness but read nevertheless.
Which means that I keep adding to my collection, on my own and courtesy my friends who, knowing my propensity and my reading tastes, surprise me with ever more titles when they return from their holiday or business trips. Bless them!
But now, I must go back to my shelf – and so, more later.
- Published in print edition on 24 July 2015