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Secrets between old covers

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

The strangest thing I ever discovered between the pages of a second-hand book was a pair of silk stockings, priced in pennies and sealed within the crinkly cellophane wrapping that had yellowed with age. I had been fascinated, my pre-adolescent imagination already beginning to whisper possibilities and stories to accompany this delightful find. Of course, back then, a lot of what I read or did was carefully curated by my parents, and for some odd, unexplained reason, my mother seemed to be against those poor stockings the moment I pulled them out from the book. I hardly think she’d be able to explain her discomfort even today. Back then, she certainly didn’t, and over cries of protests and pleas, I was simply instructed to throw the poor forgotten stockings out. That this extreme and stern a reaction was out of character for my otherwise mild-mannered mother, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t been able to even open the packet and confirm the mundaneness of the find, only fuelled my imagination, and I think I did some of my best storytelling around the episode.

Endless possibilities

Even with the actual object gone, I couldn’t quite forget the thrill of finding such a tangible mark of the book’s previous owner hidden within it. I can’t say that it sparked my interest in second-hand books; frequent Sunday morning browses in Kolkata’s college street had already done that, and occasional trips to Delhi that came with the promise of a Daryaganj book market-rummage had only intensified it. More than anything else, a good bargain is a good bargain, and to begin with, that’s what second-hand books promise. But there’s more: perhaps the potential of an unexpected find, or the act of sifting through all that you don’t want in order to stumble upon what you do want, or even the idea of discovering something you’ve never heard of before. The thing is, a second-hand bookshop, more often than not, makes you work for your next great read — it can be frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding. In Satyajit Ray’s ghost story, “Mr. Brown’s Cottage”, the protagonist stumbles upon an actual diary of a long-dead Englishman while browsing for bargains in a second-hand bookshop, and it leads him on a pretty wonderful ghost-hunt. I haven’t found a diary yet, but there’s always the possibility…

And then there are other possibilities, the ones that tie together the reading of the book with the act of finding it, in knots too tight to unravel. I would explain if Ramachandra Guha, in The Picador Book of Cricket, hadn’t done it so poignantly already: “A dream I have every so often begins in an unfamiliar station where I have to change trains. I arrive in the morning, and the connection is in the early afternoon. After leaving my bags in the waiting room I set off in search of a second-hand bookstore. With the aid of an auto-rickshaw driver I find one. The shop is dimly lit, and with closely packed shelves. The owner is there, somewhere, but no words are exchanged. I must search this place thoroughly before I return to my train. Eyes racing, I espy a faded spine with “Cardus” written on it. The book is taken out and I turn the pages, to find that this is the first (1949) edition of the Autobiography. I turn to ask its price — and am woken up.” Every reader who has hunted through stacks of dusty, moth-eaten covers, sifted through endless names and titles to chance upon something precious and unexpected, can feel the thrill of the dream Guha describes.

The tell-tale marks

A few years ago, I felt a little of it myself, when I chanced upon a used copy of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road while browsing at a pavement bookshop outside the PVR Anupam complex in South Delhi’s Saket. The book had a single word inscribed on its flyleaf — “Comrade!” It made me smile, and though I already possessed a copy of it, I bought this one too. The passage in Hanff’s novel that the word referred to probably sums up the pleasure of buying a book that once belonged to someone else — “I do love second-hand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.” That word, printed in loopy cursive on this otherwise ordinary copy, seemed to stand for both an invisible community I’ve somehow become a part of, and the idea that books do, after all, contain the stories of their readers.

Of course, I never found another pair of stockings again (and if I do now, I’d perhaps be a little scared myself), but then, you don’t need hosiery every time.

There are signs we leave on the books we read; some clearly visible to even those who won’t actively search (inscriptions on the flyleaf, notes in the margins, filled out forms for subscriptions we never send out) and then there are the little marks we didn’t mean to make — a tiny drop of curry carelessly splashed on the page you lingered over during dinner, the spine especially cracked at a point in the book you kept re-reading, the now dried and curled up cover that got damp in the rain. Our books, especially the well-loved ones, begin to carry our mark, so that even without a name on the cover, it can tell you a lot about who we are.

After the stocking incident of 2004, I began to actively look for those marks in the second-hand books I bought. Sometimes I was lucky, like in the case of a copy of Molly Keane’s Time After Time, with the slightly altered lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” neatly and beautifully inscribed for someone called Anu, or John Masters’s Bhowani Junction, which came with a two-page note to someone the writer of the letter calls “Presh”. There were poetry collections with the best poems marked out; classics with meanings of the longer, tougher words helpfully written in the margins; a pressed, still fragrant flower; and even a Nancy Drew that came with its own advice from a kind girl called Julie — “Feel free to fold the page tops to save places”.

Sometimes, I have to look for the signs, to actively hunt for them, and more often than not, I find them. Sometimes, there’ll be books that look almost new and unread; their condition pristine, their pages white. But then they’ll fall open to reveal forgotten bookmarks and library cards, or old laundry bills and grocery receipts, left there like secret handshakes by the otherwise careful, neat owners.

Buying memories

Reading is a pretty solitary act; never lonely, but solitary. It’s quite nice then to come across a particularly lovely passage and find it marked already, to read a word you don’t understand and discover its meaning in the margin, to know that not just the story you read but the very book you hold has been read and loved by another.

There’ll be those who won’t agree; readers who need a clean, fresh copy of a book they can make entirely their own, so that it only falls open to the pages they love best, and the only ink it carries comes from the printing press or their own pens. Sometimes I agree with them, but my reasons are perhaps not always the same as theirs. A new book, fresh off the press, has room for memories and imprints. It allows me to take it in, love it, let it remember me. And then maybe one day, it’ll reach someone else, so that they too will find that sometimes fifty rupees can buy you not just a book but a lifetime of memories.

swati.d@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 5:41:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Secrets-between-old-covers/article14593350.ece

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