Old books are like family albums. You wipe off the dust, turn the pages, and the past smiles at you. Sepia-tinted photos are infused with new life — distance in time fails to diminish emotion. It’s the same with writers. You may not have picked any of their books for years, until one fine day, while cleaning, you stumble upon a book that you read in your college days or even earlier. As nostalgia knocks, you give in to temptation and forget about cleaning for a few minutes. You are happy to sit in a room with cobwebs, surrounded by books and magazines yellow with age.
Such exercises invariably have their rewards. I found mine with a copy of Coolie, Mulk Raj Anand’s masterpiece, often called an epic of misery, yet in its own way, uplifting, enlightening. The book’s central character is Munoo. As a little boy, I once identified with Munoo, often being similarly addressed by my siblings.
Many years ago, as I read about the journey of Munoo from Shamnagar to Shimla via Bombay, sometimes smiling, at times lamenting about the world, many a glass of steaming milk placed on the table by my mother went cold. She only mildly admonished me, knowing Munoo’s story occupied my mind space.
My parents could often go to sleep in the afternoons thanks to Munoo. But for him, I would have been trying to hone my extremely limited skills as a left arm spinner on the cemented floor of our verandah. With Munoo, cricket could wait. The afternoons were all for him. He was sometimes a basement worker, sometimes a rickshaw-puller, sometimes a servant. My heart beat for the underdog. All the pages were age-worn and some half torn when I bought the book for a grand sum of Rs. 3 from the pavement market of old books in Daryaganj.
I had picked up a copy of the book simply because the name rang a bell! It gradually rose to a crescendo as I started reading. It was, however, not love at first read. Mulk Raj Anand was as close to my heart as algebra; a tad too serious, a shade morose for a little boy barely out of Archies and Champak. However, it all changed. And I started reading about the boy who stood as a symbol of protest against the colonial masters. It was not a universal struggle against colonialism, but the incessant struggle of a boy for freedom, his ability to cut through swathes of cloud to see a sliver of hope. When Mulk Raj Anand passed away, Coolie, along with Untouchable and Two Leaves and a Bud, was hailed for giving voice to the voiceless and oppressed heroes. Munoo’s was hailed as “a fight for survival that illuminates, with raw immediacy, the grim fate of the masses in pre-partition India.” That was then. This summer, as perchance I laid my hands on Coolie, the past repeated itself. The words came rushing back, memories of my early days came surging. Again, I read a few pages of Coolie. Now that I often read Amitav Ghosh and, occasionally, Dan Brown, it appeared a thin, really thin book. It was far from feeble, though. It grabbed my attention yet again. I forgot all about cobwebs and cleaning.
This time, my wife faintly admonished me for reading the book sitting in a room full of disused and unusable items. Like with my mom earlier, I observed silence and read on. A little later, she brought me a cup of tea, and balanced it on a heap of books waiting to be sorted. I forgot the cup for a few minutes as I revived my association with Munoo. The tea went cold. I had better brew with me.
As I came out of the room, a thought struck my mind: doesn’t Coolie deserve to be read again for its nuances, for its sub-texts? Or, am I guilty of nostalgia?