society History & Culture

The unrelenting bibliophile

Retd IAS officer Parthasarathy along with his wife showing huge collection of books at his residence in Hyderabad. Photo: Nagara Gopal   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

In a house teeming with sculptures, giving it the hallowed Chettinad look, S Parthasarathy, a retired Civil Services officer says his wife has a better idea about the number of books perched on innumerable shelves in his house. Shobhana Parthasarathy, a teacher by profession, has filled several registers diligently with the titles of books her husband has collected over the last five decades. “He thought it would be around 8000 or so, but at last count, there were 12000 books in various nooks and corners of this house,” she chimes, like a true accomplice.

“I was 16 when the bug bit me,” Parthasarathy reveals, “thanks to three professors of mine at the Hansraj College and later at the Hindu College.” Bright enough to pass the IAS at just 23, he fondly remembers those three professors – Bipin Chandra, Randhir Singh and SS Gandhi, the last idiosyncratic in the way he would bring a pile of books to the class — five biographies of Bismarck’, Parthasarathy remembers, having started with history and political science titles in his teens. “I would spend my pocket money on Penguin paperbacks which would cost just four or five rupees,” he gets nostalgic, thinking of the times when he frequented Nai Sarak, the haven for second-hand books in Delhi, and Dariyaganj with its piles of books so high one couldn’t see the booksellers. He gathered rare copies of Encounters and Economists from Flora Fountain in Bombay and from Blossoms in Church Street, Bangalore.

Some of his books were also picked when he had travelled to England, along with nine other Civil Servants attending a course on agriculture and poverty alleviationspending a lot of money mailing those books back to India, musing about a cinema hall converted into a bookstore. “Some of those books were available at half the price in Dariyaganj,”’ Shobhana, who runs her own book-club, recollects with a gleam on her face.

“It is amazing how a book travels,” says Parthasarathy, “from hand to hand, city to city,” showing the books which from the markets in London and the USA found their way through the bookshops of Delhi and Mumbai to his shelves.

Classy collection

Parthasarathy’s book collection has titles most wouldn’t have heard about, and cannot be found any more. “It is hard to put a value on these books now because they are off the market,” he says, going through his cricket book collection which has biographies of legends like Garfield Sobers and Barry Richards. Peter Roebuck is a oft-repeated name and so is Neville Cardus and Ramachandra Guha, three of his favourite writers. There is a rare Wisden History and Double Century, a 200-year history of the MCC, stacked among other titles like Spirit of Cricket, Penguin Cricketers’ Companion, and Peter the Lord’s Cat and other Unexpected Obituaries from Wisden. There is a lovely copy of Barclays World of Cricket, edited by Swanton Obe. The man has an eye for rareness, class, art, and the weird.

He doesn’t discriminate among subjects either – history, philosophy, political science are his pets, but the shelves are inundated with titles from sport, movies, fiction, and poetry.

Jahangirnama sits atop one of the racks gracefully and so does an entire set of Winston Churchill’s volumes on the Second World War, original publication by Chartwell Edition, worth 90 pounds. He strokes the binding affectionately and utters one of his favourite catchphrases — “a copy that cannot be found for love or money.” A librarian in Mussoorie once told him these books are worth a crorebut that could a gross understatement. There are travelogues and biographies, and reams on wars and revolutions. “Civil services gave me a chance to travel, and that helped me catch up on a lot of reading,” Parthasarathy says, having once finished Wittgenstein travelling from Delhi to Cochin and back. He loves poetry from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Pablo Neruda, throwing light on the credentials of a man who owns a glowing red bound copy of Rumi, a green bound Asiatic Society publication copy of Ain-i-Akbari, The Annotated Shakespeare edited by AL Rowse, and a precious boxed set of Bertrand Russell. There is a rare dog-eared limited-edition copy, one of 3000, of The Light of Asia. A frequent visitor of the iconic Strand Book Stall, Parthasarathy – who doesn’t like the Kindle – boasts of passing on his bug to his granddaughter, “who spends all her birthday cheques and vouchers at Crossword.”

Isaiah Berlin, Foucault, Feynman, Marco Polo, Brodsky, Keats, Yates, Orlando Figes, Odysseus Elytis – the names go on and on. A centenary edition of Kipling, several volumes of Scrutiny, five volumes of The World Crisis by Churchill, three volumes of Letters of Victoria Collection, several copies on the Crusades, BBC Lectures – these and innumerable other titles, themes and subjects fill the shelves of his house. There is the colossal bound copy of Complete Dickens. Then there are books related to Zen, Buddhism, Hindu philosophy, Greek philosophy, Yoga, Taoism, Western Philosophy, and entire volumes of prolific personalities like Jiddu Krishnamurthy.

Choosing with care

A favourite of the second-hand bookshop owners, Parthasarathy, who would at one time spend hours standing on pavements, likes using the expression ‘lovingly bound in leather’; he has painstakingly gotten every title bound aesthetically.

Not fond of picking damaged books, he boasts of the mint condition of The Raja of Harsil, a book about the legend of Pahari Wilson. Endless books, endless names, endless memories.

Parthasarathy, who is open to talk to institutions that would like to procure some of these titles, (his email ID: silverfish1950@yahoo.co.in) is in himself, a Wikipedia, of innumerable titles across a dozen subjects; a book-lover, whose house is a treasure-trove of parchments from another world, paperbacks and bound copies redolent of a world gone by!


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Printable version | Jul 20, 2021 4:30:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/book-collectors-personal-book-collection-s-parthasarathy/article24863584.ece

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