Of Books and the Reading Life – One Bangalorean’s Personal Journey
I am writing this in my “study,” a room sixteen feet by twelve, crowded with books – about five thousand of them sitting on slotted-angle racks and spilling out of cartons, collected across nearly four decades. I have permitted myself this luxury – or madness – (depending on how people view it) and see no reason yet to repent. It is a pretty eclectic collection, including fiction, poetry and nonfiction and covering a range of fields from literature, philosophy, archaeology and evolutionary biology to history, religion, cultural anthropology and a whole lot of ” miscellaneous” stuff. Some people tell me that most of this is unnecessarily space-consuming because technology has conspired in our day to shrink the whole lot to the size of an external hard-drive you can carry around in the palm of your hand. Anyway, a great deal of it can be read online through sites like Gutenberg. I have no quarrel with this point of view, but there’s no way I’ll let its logic sway me into parting with my collection in all its messy dust-offable, touchable, smellable splendor.
There are times when I play auto-critic and bring myself to trial for acquiring and keeping perfectly useless books. “What’s Teach Yourself Typewriting doing on my shelf?” I wondered a few years ago. “You never bought a typewriter and, anyway, the thing is as obsolete today as a hand-cranked gramophone”, my inner critic added. “Right for once, boss” I said and got rid of it. A few Dodos like that still occupy space on my shelf, though. I could swear that not long ago, I saw Better Sight without Glasses staring mockingly at my now bespectacled face. But I let that be, in the hope that another brave effort may, with luck, be launched someday, perhaps just after retirement.
It is a rather lonely avocation, book-collecting, – certainly not as bountiful in fellow-enthusiasts as, say, biking or aero-modelling or even bird-watching. But I am really grateful for the warm and long-standing friendships I have had, and continue to enjoy, with a handful of bibliophiles who tend substantial collections, notably Pradeep Sebastian (he of The Groaning Bookshelf fame) and my colleague Arul Mani (presiding sage of the English department with his luxuriant Socratic beard). There have been innumerable happy moments spent with the two of them at bargain sales and second-hand bookshops all over Bangalore and not a few tugs of envy when one or other picked up the only available copy of a much coveted tome. Mercifully, they have both been generous lenders and very good at the art of the timely tip-off – telling me about what has just turned up where.
The roots of my passion for books and for reading lie in my childhood, spent in the Bangalore of the Nineteen Sixties (another time and therefore another place, retrievable now only through aging memories; please take note, all ye oral historians). We lived in Vasantha Nagar in those days, in the shadow of the then still-young Mount Carmel College. My father and mother being lower-division clerks working for the central and state governments respectively, the entertainment budget was always meager and we (me and my two younger siblings) were mostly at home, barring school, churchgoing, occasional visits to relatives’ houses, biennial trips to ancestral Kerala and one movie, a re-run of Ben Hur, at Lido, most probably in 1969. No complaints about the evenings, though, because there was always marbles, or kite-flying or tops or cricket or lagori depending on season or mood. Precious little money required for those, thankfully! But time hung heavy during the summer holidays, when we were often forbidden outdoor exertions till four in the evening. We hadn’t yet acquired a radio or gramophone. We had heard of TV as something existing in America but a good decade and a half would pass before it could make its entry into much of India. My discovery of the magic of the printed and illustrated page began amidst such entertainment-poor circumstances and in this I am sure I was typical of the members of a whole generation growing up then all over urban middle-class India.
A mere hundred metres from my house was a newsstand-cum-circulating library run by a certain Mr. Abraham, (Avarachan to my Mallu parents). Avarachan uncle (now sadly no more) stocked a whole range of comics that rolled out from the fecund presses of publishing houses like DC, Marvel, Gold Key and, the only Indian purveyor, Indrajal , (Amar Chitra Katha hadn’t yet come on the scene), and for what I recall to be five paise per day per comic, he let you borrow three at a time. With Phantom and Mandrake and Tarzan and Casper and Richie Rich and The Flintstones, time passed agreeably and I happily skipped a good many evening outdoor events in the hols, just trying to keep to the 24-hour deadline on each comic. Before I knew it, the joy of narrative swept through me in waves that have, happily, not abated to date.
It wasn’t long before I added “story books”, as we called every non-comic book of fiction, including novels, back then. I still remember reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island while burning with fever one day and even now the mere utterance of the title almost brings back that fever. Only Long John Silver’s parrot remains in memory. (Oh! What was the blessed bird’s name, now? Must read it again) From then on it was a string of books by Enid Blyton, Edgar Rice Burroughs and, as I entered into the acne-laden years of adolescence, the Wild West authors like JT Edson and Louis L’Amour. All borrowed from friends, or, whenever I could afford it, from circulating libraries. Around this time, I also discovered the Macmillan Classics Retold series and began encountering books like Rob Roy and Kidnapped and Tales from Tagore. It was around this time that the desire for possession took birth in me. I can still remember, sometime circa 1970, going straight to the Tract and Book Society bookshop on St. Mark’s Road (the premises now occupied by Hard Rock Café) with the three rupees and fifty paise that a generous aunt had given me and buying a brand new copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (in the tales retold version put out for young readers by Macmillan, bless them). I read all of it the next day and proudly preserved it for over a decade, after which it, alas, disappeared. I had become a collector. Over the next 40 years, I began grabbing every opportunity to pick up books on the cheap – pavement bookshops, distress sales, clearance sales, library discard sales, book exhibitions, second-hand bookshops). My hoard grew and grew and began spilling out of the storage spaces I parked them in – window sills at first, then cartons and eventually, when I could afford them, bookshelves. I still struggle with storage issues.
I have happily lent books to scores of people, largely friends and students and, yes, there have been times when, alas, both the book and the borrower have disappeared for ever. Net result: I am a more careful lender now. At least I hope I am. As a borrower, I have tried hard to live by the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Of course, in some rare cases, forgetfulness on the part of both lender and borrower has resulted in books gaining squatter’s rights. Cuts both ways, so no hard feelings. I can see that over the years my visits to libraries have decreased in frequency in proportion to the increase in purchasing power; so, I am less and less of a borrower and more and more of a buyer. But, of course, I still prefer the second-hand or the bargain book. I really value the serendipity of finding a surprisingly well written book by an author I am discovering for the first time. With books I am specifically looking for, I find myself often waiting for them to turn up at any of Bangalore’s wonderful second-hand bookshops. Nowadays, If I am more desperate, (which happens once in a long while) I turn to the online bookstores.
Over three decades, I have watched Bangalore grow into a book lover’s haven. Back in the early seventies, there were only a few places where you could pick up good books on the cheap after they had passed through a first or second pair of hands. There was Avenue Road (then, as now, mainly known for boring textbooks with titles like Fluid Dynamics or Chordate Zoology). I remember sailing through Avenue Road (in those happier days of easy traffic) on my Norton bicycle, doing my once-a-month book buying routine(from footpath bookshops mainly), stopping at a few places, and then heading straight to Balepet, where one could escape the tyranny of textbooks and guidebooks and find books for sheer pleasure – an old but well preserved copy of one of Hardy’s or Dickens’ or Tagore’s or Tolstoy’s works. Ten rupees or Fifteen rupees were all you paid most of the time.
By this time I had fallen in love with the National Geographic magazine for its wonderful combination of high-quality photographs and evocatively written paragraph-length captions, making it ideal for collecting. For a long time (over a decade) an elderly man operating from a cubbyhole of a shop in Balepet sold me the Geographic for three rupees per back issue. I still have them. From the Nineties onwards, the scene shifted to Shivajinagar, where the amiable Aaqil Bhai sold me stacks of The New Yorker and The Economist at the most reasonable prices. He still does. Today, when it comes to second hand bookshops the Bangalorean is as much spoiled for choice as with “pre-owned” cars. (Now that’s a euphemism book lovers can do without – no ego consoling labels please, ‘second-hand’ will do just fine). The Brigade Road- Church Street area alone has at least three fine shops for books. Select Book Shop was the pioneer and still bears the stamp of sophistication in its holdings; Blossom Book House has three or four floors of books, both old and new; and then there’s Bookworm – all great places to find good books and have conversations with book-lovers. If Bangalore is to develop a more pronounced literary ethos, these and other similar places hold out some hope.
Until not too long ago the area also had very good spots for books.On Church Street was Premier Book House, a veritable mecca for those with fine tastes in books.It was a small but packed place,presided over by the much loved Mr.Shanbagh,whose personal rapport with each of his loyal customers is still recalled with nostalgia.These fine bookstores are,alas,now located only in the memories of those who frequented them.As Hopkins puts it,”aftercomers cannot guess the glory been.”
I could go on and on, but let me round this off with a bit of personal lore centering around one of the books on my shelves. It is a yellow Faber paperback from the early Seventies of the late but not much lamented 20th Century. It came into my possession as an abandoned stray. It was on the last day of a whole year I had spent in a hostel on the campus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore. I had just completed a one-year course in Medical Microbiology and was also bidding farewell to all plans of a future career in science (I had already applied to the MA English course at Bangalore University). Well, I had packed up, had lunch and still had three hours on hand before my bus to Bangalore was due. So I loafed around the building, walking into and out of all the just vacated rooms. In one I saw a pile of abandoned papers and notebooks on the floor. In its midst there lay this book with the yellow cover. I picked it up and found it was a novel called The Lord of the Flies by a certain William Golding. I had heard of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but this one didn’t ring any bell. I wondered whether I should really take it, since its former owner, whoever he was, hadn’t thought it worth keeping. But a book is a book, my inner voice reasoned, and so I picked it up, shoved it into my bookcase when I got home and forgot about it. Midway into my first year of MA, I read about what a landmark book it was. Soon I was reading the novel and experiencing the jolt it gave to my inner man. I found myself occasionally dipping into this literary masterpiece and re-reading the most captivating and disturbing sections. It had become a treasured member of my growing personal library. But the best was yet to come. In 1987, five years into my career as a lecturer at St. Joseph’s, the British Council brought William Golding, by then a Nobel laureate, to Bangalore. I went to his lecture at the British Library, taking along my copy of his great novel. He had let it be known that he would not sign any autograph books but would gladly autograph any work of his, no matter how old the edition. There he stood after the lecture, in his flowing white beard resembling an Old Testament prophet. His charming wife, Anne, looked on as he signed book after book presented by people in a fairly long queue. When my turn came, I held out the book to him, mumbled something about how wonderful it was and, after securing the coveted signature, held it out to Ann for her autograph. This surprised both of them but I said something about how integral a part of that evening she too had been and how I would like to remember them that way. They were both very impressed and Golding gave his wife a congratulatory grin as she merrily signed away. If books have rags-to-riches stories to tell about themselves, this is certainly one of them, which is why I won’t easily trade them away for anything digital as long as I can help it.