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A conversation on books

  • Published at 04:10 pm May 15th, 2020
Book collage

A bibliophile shares his fond memories of bookshops

There is a certain pleasure reading a book in bed, at dawn. Nothing can be a more delightful beginning to the day. The pleasure goes up in intensity when the book you have in hand is one which brings back to you the smells, aromatic as also intellectual, of a city you love to bits. When it is People Called Kolkata: 55 stories from the resilient city, there is that unmistakable tug at the heart that makes you wish you were back in a city which has been speaking to you, to others like you, of its heritage through the generations.

Kolkata—I would much rather refer to it as Calcutta—has always been a place with which bibliophiles have endlessly fallen in love. On a visit to College Street slightly over a year ago, my search for old books yielded up two invaluable works by Muzaffar Ahmad, the legendary Communist whose place in history promises to remain indelible. His Kazi Nazrul Islam: Smritikotha and Amar Jibon O Bharater Communist Party are a welcome journey back to times far removed from the mediocrity we have been drenched in for years.

Searching for books we have always wanted to read is something of a painful pleasure we go through at some point or the other. More than a decade ago, I happened to step into a second-hand bookstore somewhere in a small town in Yorkshire. The second-hand books looked rather new to me. That was testimony to the care with which the shop owner had been looking after his goods, if you can call them goods. He was there, obviously convinced that I was a serious enough buyer. He pointed to the various shelves in the store, which in itself was for me a rather agonizing affair. After all, you cannot get your hands on all the books in a store, can you? And because you cannot, there is that faint crack somewhere in the heart to let you know of the spasms of regret you are about to go through.

But in that Yorkshire bookstore on that cold afternoon something of a miracle happened. On one of the shelves stood Barbara Tuchman’s much acclaimed The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a tome I had been looking for over the preceding quarter of a century. I must have begun grinning from ear to ear, for the shop owner, a tall Englishman, stretched his hand out to the shelf, let the book slip between his fingers and then handed it to me. I walked out a truly happy soul. Finding a book you have consistently wanted is something akin to reunion with the one you loved before she went missing. Or put it another way. It is something close to communion with the stars after years of trying to break through the nocturnal monsoon clouds.

Tuchman is now with me. She will be with me until the end, after which someone in my clan will hopefully decide to thumb through it as a way of remembering the ages of man and politics the writer focused on in her reflections in a very distant era. In more recent times, I have had the immense pleasure of coming by another priceless work from Tuchman, Practicing History. I chanced upon it at Any Amount of Books, an absolutely comfortable place for people looking for old books to buy on London’s Charing Cross Road. Speaking of that famous road, in a similar way, Helene Hanff will be part of my life from here on. Her seminal work, 84 Charing Cross Road, which by now has taken the shape of a movie, is a book I have wanted to read for ages. Somehow the opportunity did not present itself, for the book proved pretty elusive for me despite all the bookstores I had walked into in South Asia and elsewhere.

But in the final days of quite a long-ago December, on a trip to Kolkata and in a browse through the bookstore Crossword on Elgin Road, I ran into the Hanff book. It is a slim work, a masterpiece which speaks of the twenty-year epistolary correspondence between an American reader and a British bookstore owner on the availability and supply of books desired by the former. No conversation can be higher in quality than one on books. Hanff and the owner of Marks & Co on 84 Charing Cross Road inform you, by taking you on a journey through times when letter writing was an enlightening experience, just what it means to share thoughts on books.

So I have Helene Hanff’s book, now resting proudly on the little table beside my bed. It shares space with Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (with that famous image of Kate Winslet on the cover). I have read it with gusto and with alacrity. No, I did not see the movie made of the work, though watching Winslet is always a riveting affair. Truth be told, movies that emerge from famous books do not always do justice to the written narrative. Years ago, I read Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and then spent days dreaming of the seductive Bathsheba Everdene as she was in my youthful imagination. And then I saw the movie. The book beat the celluloid version of it by miles.

I have often been in the company of Jawaharlal Nehru, indeed many times over. Shashi Tharoor is to be thanked for it, for it is through Nehru: The Invention of India --- among so many other works on the statesman --- that I have been in a process of rediscovering India’s iconic political leader. There was a huge dose of idealism in Nehru. And yet there was turbulence in the man. He was perhaps that rare instance of a politician who would tackle hecklers head on, by jumping off the stage and physically running them out of the compound. And, of course, there was the lover in him. All men endowed with great intellect are fantastic lovers drawn to the sizzling beauty of women. Nehru falls into that category. Tharoor’s work whets your appetite about Nehru. The energetic writing he brings into relating the story of his protagonist’s life makes this book a new treasure in that old trove you have had for years.

Which reminds me. My journey through Richard Sorabji’s account of the life and times of Cornelia Sorabji has been an experience in discovery. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is a work I have already gone through. Jairam Ramesh’s Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi and Rasheed Kidwai’s Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics are new acquisitions that I have breathlessly rushed through. On my table, it is Ramesh’s new work, A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon, which forms part of my current reading schedule.

In Kolkata in February this year, my good friend Garga Chatterjee came over with a copy of a rich work on Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq. Published in 2009 and edited by Amalendu Bhattacharya, it is a rich collection of reminiscences on the great man by writers in West Bengal. In Proshongo: Fazlul Huq, new insights into the career of a seminal Bengali politician are to be deciphered. Insights rich and instructive are also the staple of The Light: A History of the Movement for Progressive Literature in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent (Oxford University Press), a copy of which fell into my hands at Pathak Shamabesh in Dhaka. And from Baatighar there is a world of literary enlightenment one traverses in Buddhadeva Bose’s Atmojoibonik. 

Ah, books and bookshops. That rich bookstore at Kampala’s Entebbe airport a few years ago was a treasure trove for me with Africa’s history lining the shelves. At Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport in Kolkata and the small and cozy book kiosk at Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International airport, the bookshops have consistently been tales of delight, until that unwelcome call for boarding hits your auditory senses.

Before we call it a day, shall we take a brief stroll under the gathering kalbaishakhi clouds and speak of books which add to the magic on our shelves, because they speak of books? Think of Jorge Carrion’s Bookshops, Andrew Taylor’s Books That Changed The World, Sunil Sethi’s The Big Bookshelf and the Henry Hitchings-edited Love Letters to Bookshops Around The World.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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