On second thoughts

Navtej Sarna’s book might just tempt you to revisit your bookshelf

March 05, 2016 05:25 pm | Updated 05:25 pm IST

Pradeep Sebastian

Pradeep Sebastian

In Second Thoughts , Navtej Sarna returns us to the hard-won pleasures of reading. Stuck in an airport once with a yawning transit time ahead of him, he grows desperate when he discovers he can’t use his laptop, and then rejoices at finding a copy of Cardus on Cricket in his carry-on bag. It is as if he had run into an old friend or an unexpected companion. That a book can still do this for Sarna, rescue him from boredom and bring him pleasure, says a lot about his relationship with reading, and by extension the way books can turn into lifeboats for all serious readers.

He invests books with persona: they are, by turns, his best friends, dependable companions, promising strangers. One day, caught in a mood to dig into his collection of travel literature, he revisits his bookshelf. He knows what’s in these books, he has read them all, and soon enough the weekend is spent with “the travellers on his bookshelf.” Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, but most of all Robert Byron. Sarna talks of Byron’s “architectural observation and lyrical prose” and provides you lovely excerpts but what is just as beguiling is Sarna’s own prose that follows Byron’s.

Sarna writes, “I too have walked the streets of Tehran at dawn and watched the chinar leaves float gently into bubbling water channels. I have stood in the high verandah of the Ali Qappu palace in Isfahan and watched entranced the play of form, pattern and colour of the Sheikh Lutfullah mosque across the massive maidan. I have sat and sipped black tea under the arch of a bridge on the lazy Zayendeh rud not far away. And Byron’s descriptions are only a reconfirmation.”

The breadth of Sarna’s reading is infused by something else that perhaps only he can bring to it: as a high-ranking diplomat, he is often physically and geographically present in the myriad locations evoked in the books he is writing about. Reading the work of a writer for him is sometimes followed by an actual encounter with the writer. For most of us it’s all just armchair reading; Sarna’s sojourns in the diplomatic service bring immediacy, freshness and charm to these literary pieces. Every modern or contemporary writer you can think of makes an appearance here, their work and life elegantly and incisively discussed, and delightfully annotated by Sarna’s personal asides and travel notes.

I naturally gravitated towards his pieces on bookshops. My favourite is the one about discovering, as a child, the Classics Illustrated comics. “In the sixties,” Sarna recalls, “Dehradun’s Paltan Bazaar was as throbbing a slice of life as one could ever wish for… Cycling downhill from the clock tower, a schoolboy could weave nonchalantly through the crowd… But one day, this schoolboy took a by-lane. Cycling past a row of ladies tailors, he reached some wooden shacks, selling school notebooks, HB pencils, scented erasers and the now extinct Sulekha ink. In one of these sat a genial old man, his visage amazingly like P.G. Wodehouse, his smile hiding delightful secrets.”

“He pushed aside a curtain and showed me what was to prove my key to literature: a huge bundle of the Classics Illustrated , and I somehow cannot make myself call them comics. Initially only four were purchased, for four annas each. And then a generous father stepped in, bitten by the bug himself. The classics began to gather — Silas Marner , Julius Caesar , Cleopatra , Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea … until everything that the Wodehouse look-alike could procure was bought and handed over to another one of the wooden stores, to be bound in batches of four. I have little embarrassment in admitting that so deep was the impact of those fine images that one never felt the need to read many of the books in full.”

In a book of personal literary essays, what matters as much as the books and writers it covers is the voice that takes you there, and Sarna’s voice is one that you quite willingly follow, whether the subject at hand is a writer you don’t particularly care for, or a novel you are deeply familiar with, or when he’s making a case for a neglected author (such as Henry Green). And if, like me, you’ve become a bit of a lapsed reader, Second Thoughts might just tempt you to revisit your bookshelf, and contemplate the joys of reading again.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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