My obsession with books started when I was a kid.
Not the “text-book” type of a book, that was a student’s occupational hazard. What fascinated me were books of the story variety. Books which took you away from the routine and into a land of imagination and fantasy. Books which smelt good when they were new (and even when they were old), books whose covers shone with the radiance of a million promises, books which gave endless tactile pleasures. If they had a hardbound, laminated cover you would caress it before opening the book at random and inhaling the ambrosia wafting from within. Books would entertain, engross, educate and mystify.
Books brought you into a mystical communion with writers past and present. Books whose writers were not mere pen-pushers but confidants sharing life’s secrets and mysteries. A book was an entire package of life’s treasures and all its sensual goodness packaged into one volume.
I would ache to possess books. Just to get them into my physical proximity. But the catch was there was no money around to buy these books of my dreams.
There was this Hindi “Baal pocket books” which advertised itself as a quarterly book-mailing club for kids. You could subscribe to the club’s membership at an equivalent of 10 paise per day. Remember in those days children’s monthlies, “Parag” and “Nandan”, cost 50 paise each. The government publication “Bal Bharati” cost even lower. “Chanda Mama” and “Lot Pot” we considered infra-dig. “Champak” was too kiddish. While CBT’s “Children’s World” has hardly available in the market. The all-time favourite kiddies books by Enid Blyton were far more expensive. So was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Three Investigators” series when I grew old enough to fancy them. The hardbound Hardy Boys’ series (there were no paperbacks of these then) were even more expensive.
There was this occasional monetary gift from relatives, initially in paises and then later in rupees. These were assiduously collected in an improvised piggy bank fashioned out of an old tin can. Money saved to purchase a new book. Yes, one long desired book, totally new. Wholly my own. The cheaper the book the better. Not cheap books, I assure you. (I did read some of them- the cheap ones I mean- but that was much later and certainly not with my painstakingly saved money.) I am talking about more-read-for-the-rupee, so to speak.
Some of these low-priced books were primarily sourced from the pavement stalls on Bishtupur Main Road, just opposite Central Bank of India. I refer to the magnificently produced books of a now forgotten publishing house from the then USSR, “Progress Publications, Moscow”. They had these eclectic collection of books right from the illustrated biography of Lenin (in colour and on glazed paper!) to folktales from the distant corners of the Soviet Union to some excellent textbooks on the sciences. Many a weekend morning and much of one’s savings was expended acquiring these.
Then there was the ever popular and unbelievably inexpensive books from Geeta Prakashan, Gorakhpur. Mostly found at the railway station. That one publishing house which has done pioneering sevice to the spread and dissemination of Hindu religious literature. They also had publications for kids with stories from Ramayan and Mahabharat in a simple-to-understand way or some moral stories with a neatly packaged homily at the end of the story. All-in-all, entertaining, enlightening. And more importantly, very, very inexpensive.
Also available at the railway station were ELBS books, low-priced English language paperbacks from an institution called “English Language Book Society” which had taken upon itself the responsibility of selling low-priced textbooks primarily for the student. Never mind the binding of these paperbacks wore off after a few weeks of handling. A book was a book, right? How does the fragmentation matter!
I had the recourse to a substitute to buying books though. Not something which would enable possession of books but certainly I could get to read them. My father was a college lecturer and hence entitled to borrow a number of books from the well-stocked college library. Those were friendly days; no problem if I strolled into the library and borrowed a book or two (or five). The library was at a walking distance from the college staff quarters where I stayed. On Saturdays and during the school summer vacations (the college library was open through the summers) that was the place to be in.
Most of my reading of the classics by Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne etc. is courtesy the college library. And lots and lots of Hindi literature or Hindi translations of world literature. Premchand’s stories and novels, the magical “Chandrakanta”, “Chandrakanta Santati” and “Bhootnath” series. Translations of Bengali novelists Vimal Mitra and Shankar. Marathi writer Sane Guruji’s “Shyamchi Aai”. Translations of Gorky, Chekhov, Camus etc. I am not sure how much of these I understood, probably nothing, but it was an honour and a pleasure to be holding these tomes and reading away! At the risk of sounding immodest, I admit that I was a bit of a precocious kid. My father, Pitaji, did nothing to discourage me.
Our school too had a most wonderful library which we were allowed to access only when we entered the high school. An extraordinary collection of books! The entire collection of Enid Blytons; all of her series including Mallory Towers and St Clare’s which we young men thought were oddities in an all boys’ school, but we read them nevertheless. The most-in-demand “Hardy Boys” series and “The Three Investigators” series presented by Alfred Hitchcock. Biggles, Billy Bunter, William. Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”. Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley. The mandatory Classics. And tons of other books. And yes, shelves and shelves of text books too.
The library was under the stern supervision of Mrs Irani who could be immensely strict. You were punished if caught even whispering in the library. She would closely examine the books as they were being returned. I shudder to think of the punishment boys would get when they turned in a soiled, or worse still, a dog-eared book. But Mrs Irani could be utterly loving too, in her sweet parsi aunty kind of way. Ah, those endless hours spent in the library pouring through volumes of old National Geographic magazine! And the old, bound editions of Dharmyug. And browsing through Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Sometimes in my early teens, in my pursuit of books, I discovered the “circulating” libraries. These were tucked into the bylanes of the interiors of Bishtupur market, diagonally opposite the famous mithai shop, Manohar Maharaj. These shops lent pulp-fiction for a pittance. And it is here that I got my quota of James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And so many others. Needless to say that these reading exploits were carefully concealed from my parents- or so I always thought- by covering these books in old newspapers and reading them only when I thought they had gone to sleep! Ah, those heady days of growing up!
Bishtupur also had two book shops, I am not sure whether they exist now. There was this “Sanyal Brothers” up the Bishtupur Main Road which would specialize in fiction and best-sellers. Down the road was “Sen and Co.” which sold mostly text books. These were holy destinations for me, Sanyal more favoured than Sen as it allowed window-shopping and browsing. There was one more shop tucked into the bylanes of the market, not far from the aforementioned circulating libraries. This was actually a fruit juice cum fruit shop turned into a book shop, “Bhatia Pustak Bhandar”. The sardarji there displayed a mouth- watering selection of fruits and books too! The books-cum-gift shop “Wasava Singh” at Kamani center happened much later, when I was in my high school perhaps, maybe even later.
The situation was not very different in my college days. The financial resources were still scarce, the love for books heightened further. But I had access to some of the best libraries and to some great book shops (for window shopping) in my college days. In those days of discovering myself the reading tastes swung wildly! Ayn Rand was an absolute must for all of us who had even the faintest ambition of being called thinking people. Then reading swung among sci-fi, Vedanta, psychology, politics, Marx, Sartre…. The more ecletic the better. Never mind if I could not understand most of what I read!
I became totally unhinged in my love for books when I started working and earning a salary. But that is a story for another piece!