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A bibliophile’s corner

Grandfather had them all, to read and to keep. Then one day…

I do not know at what age my grandfather discovered the Sunday book bazaar. By the time I was eight, he had the whole bazaar in his room.

In the summers I was sent off from a sultry and humid Bombay to a sultrier Hyderabad, to my grandfather’s house. Which was about 8 degrees warmer than Bombay. But when it came to children, everyone presumed they were above the mundane realities of heat and cold — the recurring rashes of prickly heat nothwithstanding. And who was complaining? There was a big compound to bicycle around, many trees to climb and a pond to jump into when the hot surroundings blew dust into our eyes.

Grandfather’s house had assorted unmarried uncles and aunts who were always good to tell a story or two. Or to shell out money for an ice cream from the vendors who went by the gate. A grandmother who made the most delectable gajar halwa. And there was an endless supply of mangoes in April-May (which may have contributed significantly to the prickly heat and summer boils). But most of all, there was grandfather’s room. The kind of room that a bookish eight-year-old would want to enter and not emerge till the hunger pangs got too strident.

For, grandfather’s room had books. They spilled off sagging shelves. They teetered in precarious piles on window ledges. They settled comfortably on the leg end of the brass four-poster. They crawled deep under the bed, making life very difficult for the sweeper woman who was told not to touch them. They snuggled between pillows. They hung in sagging pockets of the tucked-in mosquito net. They even swung on the roof of the mosquito net threatening to undo the knots with which it was tied to the posts. They crowded out the toiletries in the bathroom and were perched on the flush tank, threatening to slide into the potty, from which they had to be fished out, washed and dried in the sun to attain respectability again…. Sometimes when a fresh lot came in they sat outside the door in piles for days, hoping to find a foothold somewhere inside.

It was the most eclectic collection that I now suspect grandfather bought by the lot from the apocryphal Sunday pavement market that transformed the sun-warmed pavements of the Abid Road shopping centre into a book bargain-hunters. The booksellers who perhaps could not read themselves spread their wares on tarpaulin cheek by jowl, leaving little room for the browsers to weave their way through. Coffee table books, novels, old hardbound classics, leather-bound gold embossed collections from some private library, new old tomes and lurid paperback bestsellers overlapped, nudging each other out as they lay in waiting. The best ones were novels with underlining and annotations in the margins by some previous readers who found a passage or a bit of philosophy worth pondering over. And personalised the book forever after.

Once you spotted an author you liked, you were ensnared into a spot of bargaining where you offered exactly half of what was penciled on the flyleaf. The hawker considered it with due seriousness. Then he asked for 40% more. You inched up by another few rupees knowing full well that a new book was worth four times the price. He came down by another few… all along, colourful colloquial metaphors kept even the onlookers interested. A typical protest from the shopkeeper would be, “Why would you want to kick a poor man in his stomach?’ Or “You look like someone who will treasure this book… that is why you should take it free... if you can live with your conscience, that is.”

No doubt, my grandfather held his own in this banter and ended up with a rickshaw-load of books that would then be unloaded and carried up to his room, to lie in happy, sloppy disorder.

And what an eclectic mix it was. Edgar Wallace, a favourite, was deep in conversation with Perry Mason, the suave lawyer who bailed many a seductress out of her entanglement with the law. Sherlock Holmes rubbed shoulders with a fabulous writer named Frank Yerby. Biographies rubbed spines with scientific tomes. Encyclopedias and lexicons and even one very wonderful heavy tome I could barely carry named The New English Dictionary that went deep into the history of every word. One of my favourites was Dr. Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds with the most beautifully illustrated colour plates of birds of fantastic plumage.

I picked on Richard Llwellyn’s How Green Was My Valley because the font size made it look like it was easy reading for a Class 3 student. Then I read it five times more, because the story of the mining family in Wales was so compelling. I also read Gone with the Wind and Pickwick Papers and spent many a somnolent afternoon flipping pages and looking for barely understood descriptions of sex in Madame Bovary. Little Women and then Little Men I had appropriated for re-reads three or four times every summer.

I don’t think I bothered to see what grandfather read, but he was seldom without a book in his hand till it was carefully marked and put by on his bedside table. And heaven help the careless household help who moved it to do some much-needed dusting.

Most times I slept with him and would wake up at night to see him reading by the light of his bedside lamp. Reassured, I would drift back to sleep.

One Sunday he bought me the whole collection of Enid Blyton books, little realising that I was already reading Edgar Wallace and following peerless Perry Mason in courtroom dramas.

Grandfather died in 1966 and the family fell on to stringent times. The three uncles married and emigrated to the U.S. and to Canada. One aunt married and moved to a different city. Grandmother alone in the big house chose to sell it and move in with us in our Bombay flat. The library had to go. No one had the space for it.

They came... the dealers, perhaps the same people who spread their wares on the Abid Road pavements. They brought gunny sacks and two cycle-rickshaws. I looked from the terrace as the teetering gunny sacks seemed almost alive as the cycle-rickshaws drove out of the gate.

I tried to salvage Dr. Salim Ali but it was too deep in the welter and it went too. No doubt back to the Sunday bazaar where some avid book-lover stopped to enjoy a spot of very satisfying bargaining and take home a carton full of books to browse and read till the next weekend.

Since then I have been to hundreds of well-catalogued and organised libraries and thousands of bookshops -- some totally chaotic but where, almost miraculously, the owner could extricate the book that you asked for. But nowhere in the world have I found the sheer vibrancy of an untold and immeasurable treasure that spoke in the silence of grandfather’s room way back in Hyderabad of those days.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 10:38:50 AM |

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