Books! Books! Books!

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I remember once reading about two friends who were waiting for their train in the morning on a railway station in London. They got to talking about a book, and one of them mentioned that he had seen it in a bookshop in Liverpool. Those were the days before email, SMS and the internet. The only thing they could do was to physically go there and find out for themselves.

And that’s exactly what they did, changing their minds about their day’s routine and taking the train to Liverpool where they spent practically the whole day, coming back in the afternoon with the trophy in their hands! I owe it to myself to go on a similar hunting trip: to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is almost twenty-five years ago that on a holiday trip there we were walking along the Mall Road, and as my eyes are literally trained to spot bookstores, they fell upon a small one. We all went into this quaint little store, which was somewhat dimly lit but had a cozily warm atmosphere, a most welcome change from the outside chill.

One could immediately make out that this was a collector’s bookshop: practically all the books were bound in cloth or leather belonging to an earlier era. The person at the counter was, not unsurprisingly, an elderly man whose tweed coat and woollen monkey-cap perfectly matched the aura of the place. I managed to look through only a couple of books before I was pulled away by the family who were in a hurry to go visiting around, as we were only on a day trip. That is when I told myself that one day I will come back again. I have yet to keep that appointment with myself – but fortunately I can see that it may come soon enough…

And so too another wish that I hope will also materialize in a foreseeable future: a walkabout in College Street in Kolkata, which used to be a favourite haunt during my medical college days. It is almost a kilometer long, lined with pavement bookstalls which happily coexist with the regular bookshops. All of them are ever busy with customers, for they sell all manner of books and at wildly affordable prices. I have bought books for as low a price as Rs 1.00, and I still have them! Amongst others is the autobiography of an American Public Health doctor, Victor Heiser, which was published in 1932 if my memory serves me right.

I periodically allow myself to indulge at leisure in this kind of nostalgia, especially when there are triggers. One such was the book sales exhibition which is being held by the Ramakrishna Mission at the seat of the ashram in Vacoas. Every year I make it a point to visit, and it goes without saying that I come away with a heavy collection of diverse books. I was there on Saturday last, the first day of the exhibition, and I have to make another visit before it is over on 9 December.

I spent a lovely time browsing, well over an hour, I am currently going through the un-put-downable ‘Swami Vivekananda by Himself”. I have reached the chapter where, he is narrating some aspects of sojourn in America in the 1890s, including his address at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in September 1893, and I am held spellbound. Often I wonder what it would have been like to meet him in person, and to hear him expostulate about Vedanta. I have to console myself with his words, over which he has such mastery. His descriptions are tinged with subtle humour, and that is part of the appeal of his writing.

There are books for all age-groups at the exhibition, in both English and Hindi as well. Children will be happy with the collection designed specifically for them, and which includes bandes dessinées ones as well. For example, the Panchtantra Tales and the stories about Birbal and Akbar are very pleasant and useful ways for parents and grandparents to impart moral values to children – shall we sa  ‘seamlessly!’

But adults will find ample fare for themselves too, books of inspiration and aspiration, some written in scholarly style, others in a lighter vein with anecdotes and examples to illustrate given points or issues, but all done with great seriousness and dedication by authors who are masters in their respective fields. There is variety to suit all pockets.

Books, of course, remain for life. Among the oldest books in my collection are a volume on genetics that was published in 1908, and facsimiles of books on medical themes that were published around 1700. There must also be many like me who have seen collections of books that go back to the 1400s. They are, simply, labours of love that must be respected for only that if nothing else, so venerable do they look. One shudders in sadness to think that the library at Alexandria was burnt down – but knowledge marches onwards, and that will never cease; is in fact unstoppable. It is a total mystery why knowledge should disturb and rattle: who is afraid of the Truth, and why?

Book lovers can be proud to have one passion that can never do harm or be excessive. It is one that I would commend to those who are still on the lookout for something good to do, to themselves, to children who can be gifted such beautiful books as are widely available these days, and in this process help to prepare soundly the future generations. And don’t forget friends, and young things about to begin their journey together who need to be given, unobtrusively, guidance and messages that will put them on the right path for leading their lives meaningfully.

Good books make no other demand save that of being enjoyed! So why not start and get hooked for life in an occupation that can transport one on a perpetual grand tour across and beyond space and time!

* Published in print edition on 7 December 2012

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