Confessions Of A Bookworm

Hazaribagh in the early 1960s. I was ten when I first got to know Dr. Binoy Chatterjee: I don’t know how old he was, but he looked pretty old to me because when you are ten everyone beyond forty looks like he is a centurion. Dr. Chatterjee was our family doctor (he even treated our pet bull-terrier), a homeopath, and I don’t think he charged us even a penny for those white pills he handed out. He was a big, burly man but I think he had some problems with his feet because they were always heavily bandaged and he never stepped out of his house. Why do I remember him after almost 60 years? Because he introduced me to the wonders of the English language and the habit of reading.

I was studying in St. Xavier’s, Hazaribagh, and as you can imagine, we were given a constant overdose of the classics and Wren and Martin and Palgrave there. These did not, however, excite Dr. Chatterjee much. “Abhoy,” he used to counsel me in that rolling Bengali accent which in later days Mamata Banerjee transformed into a rolling-pin, “classical literature is useful, but it puts the English language into a strait-jacket. Na, baba, it makes it too serious. Language must be fun, you should be able to play with it like a puppy with a ball; it should be capable of many meanings, like the fleeting glance of a beautiful woman.” I saw what he meant, vaguely; I had a puppy at home and every woman looked beautiful to me, but each in a different way. And so the good doctor took it upon himself to initiate me into the unfettered world of an English language that could convey the joy of living, and not just its grim tragedies.

Leave the classics in school, he told me sternly, and plied me instead with Mark Twain, Steinbeck, Oscar Wilde, James Hadley Chase, Perry Mason, Bennet Cerf, JJ Hunter, Jim Corbet, Max Brand, Billy Bunter, Zane Grey, Manohar Malgaonkar, Alistair Maclean, Spike Milligan, Richard Gordon  (the Doctor series), even the first edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam! He had the most wonderful collection of books, all carefully packed in cartons, catalogued and indexed. On top of his list was P.G.Wodehouse – Dr. Chatterjee considered him the greatest exponent of the living English language. There were many others whose names are now lost in the mists of time. The prescription was simple: one’s reading must be eclectic, every genre is as important as the next, if reading is not fun then it’s a waste of time. And then there were the magazines: back issues of Punch, Reader’s Digest, Imprint and a glossy precursor of the National Geographic whose name I now cannot recall. The good Jesuit fathers at school would have been horrified to see my weekly reading list. And I didn’t have to buy a single book: Dr. Chatterjee had trunk loads of these books and disbursed them to me lovingly, after conducting a short viva voce on each book returned by me!

The doctor’s bug made me a bookworm for life. My family moved to Calcutta, where my grandfather had two bookshops in New Market and one in the Grand Hotel. I soon struck a Trumpian deal with him: during my school/college holidays I would hang out at the shops, help in selling the books (for which I received a commission of four annas per book), and spend the rest of the time devouring as many more as I could. I could never afford to buy a new book, of course, having started life on a pocket money of five rupees a month, which subsequent inflation took to twenty five in my college days. So one scoured College Street in Calcutta, Navin Market in Kanpur and the Red Fort/Chor Bazaar markets in Delhi in later life for second hand books. I still have them – handsome, leather bound books picked up for as little as eight annas in those pre-globalisation days. Till today I cannot buy a book at its printed price – it has to be either a discounted Amazon one, or a Book Fair offering, or a gift ! Old habits, like old Gods, die hard.

During this journey from Mulk Raj Anand to Bill Bryson, however, I have picked up quite a few quirks and oddities of behaviour. During my younger days I was not beyond filching a book or two from a bookshop when in a severe state of penury, which was most of the time; the SOP was quite simple, really: walk in with three books and walk out with four, the desired title sandwiched between the others. Fortunately, this phase didn’t last long, thus preventing me from becoming the head librarian in Tihar jail. I don’t like people borrowing books from me: I consider it an invasion of my private space and akin to borrowing someone’s girl friend. I hoard newly bought books and defer reading them for as long as I can. It’s like these tomes are my capital, a kind of fixed deposit, and reading them would amount to breaking the FD and depleting this precious stock. So at any given time I always have ten or fifteen unread books on my shelves and feel the richer for it.

My sons have strenuously tried to introduce me to Kindle and digital reading, without success. How does one explain to them that a book is a living entity and not a jumble of algorithms? That it must feel good to the touch; smell of paper, ink and time; fondly remind one of where and when it was bought; enable one to make notes on the margin? How does one convey the pleasure of physical possession, or the occasional lambent brushing of fingers over the titles on the bookshelf like caressing a woman’s tresses? It’s a difficult feeling to convey, but I think Jawaharlal Nehru came closest to it, though in an entirely difficult context; it bears repeating. At a formal dinner once, Nehru and Lord Mountbatten were having tandoori chicken. Nehru was eating in the Indian style, with his fingers, but Mountbatten was making heavy weather of it with knife and fork. Panditji observed the struggle for some time, could contain himself no longer and told the Viceroy: ” My lord, you should use your fingers. Eating tandoori chicken with a knife and fork is like making love to a beautiful woman through an interpreter, you know!”  That is exactly what Kindle does to reading: it can make you a promiscuous reader but not a faithful one.

Having bared my bookworm heart, however, I am now confronted with a problem as I revel in the idyllic ambience of my village these days. I have just acquired my latest tome, Ram Prasad Guha’s latest opus: GANDHI: THE YEARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD ( 1914-1948). It’s at no.16 of my wait listed books, and in the normal course its turn for reading should come in 2020 or 2021, about the time when Rahul Gandhi’s turn for Prime Ministership should be manifesting itself. But it is all of 1129 pages and weighs about four kgs. If I wait too long I may be too weak to lift it or the Grim Reaper may knock on my doors before I finish it. I have seriously considered doing a Chetan Bhagat on it, i.e. read the first and last pages only, and instantly get the gist of all that lies in-between. But that would be worse than using an interpreter – it would be like employing a stenographer: dots and dashes can never convey the beauty of a book, or of a woman, can they? So I think I’ll just give it away to Arnab Goswami – it’s about time he learnt something about someone other than Mr. Modi, anyway. It will fill the yawning gaps in his education about India, but best of all it would have made Dr. Chatterjee happy: he loved to show the light to Philistines.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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