Confessions of a bibliophile: 2

April 30, 2010

I got my love for books from my father. Pitaji, a retired Hindi teacher, has a huge collection of books. Not that he could afford to buy them, these were pieced together in different phases. The earliest books in his collection are from the time when he bought books while doing his PhD. When he became senior enough, he was a part of the committee deciding the course books for his university, sample copies of books followed soon enough. And when he became even more senior- and his earlier students too became senior- he began getting his books written by his students (and sundry other fans) gifted to him. Now, when Pitaji is 86, wheel has turned a full circle and he is back to researching- and buying books! His passion for the last couple of decades has been Vinoba Bhave which he reads and reflects on regularly. He buys all the Vinoba literature he can lay his hands on.

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Books, you may think offer either diversionary or intellectual delight. You read them for fun (“time-pass”) or for feeding your intellect. I firmly believe that they go far beyond this. They offer emotional support, memories of years gone by and even sensual comfort.

Let us take the last one, first. The sensuous feel of the glossy jacket, the textured cloth of a hard-bound book once you remove the jacket, and most importantly, the fragrance wafting from the pages of a newly purchased book. Rare is a book-lover who has not delighted in these.

I have this habit of inscribing my name on each book I buy. Mainly to record my ownership, and deter the occasional borrower who may wish never to return it. I also date my purchase and write the city where I bought it from. And when I go through my collection, the date and place trigger memories of distant times. Some books being milestones of sorts. This is the book when I bought when I got my first salary. This was when I got engaged to be married. That one was bought when our first born was on his way. And that one, over there, was bought at the airport when I was about to embark on my first international trip. Etc, etc.

I had this habit, now extinct, of covering my books. It was an elaborate process, buying those special “plastic”-y sheets (a thinner and longer version of those A4 sized sheets we would use to make our OHP presentations in the good old days.) Those were the days when I could afford only paperbacks and I thought these coverings gave more life -and character- to the books and the book collection. I was pretty religious with this exercise, however over a period of time got discontinued due to the growing volume of books, growing pressure at work (hardly any weekends) and then lesser number of paperbacks available for covering. I was now able to afford hard-cover first editions of books. And who covers hard-covers?

I have this habit of dusting my book-collection once-in-while. This is less to do with book hygiene and more to do to re-establishing my relation- my familiarity- with the books. I find household chores tedious, but there is greater joy than spending a few hours on a weekend just dusting and rearranging books!

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I normally do not lend books. Many a guest has been tempted to borrow a book or two. With experience I know that borrowing a book is easy. Reading it, difficult. And even more difficult is returning the book. No, sir, I do not lend books.

It takes some guile on my part to refuse lending books.

“I am still reading it, I will let you have it when I am done”.

“This one does not belong to me, I need to ask the owner if I can lend it.”

“My wife is reading it, she will have it reached to you when she is done”

Some are dogged in their demands for books and invariably they never get return it. Ever!

It is not that I never lend books. I do. But only to those who I think will love reading it. I actually pull out a book and offer it to a friend/visitor, “Please do read this book, I think you will like it.” They go ooh-aah. And accept the offer willingly. And they also invariably return it. This has a side-effect. Most of my favourite books are dog-eared due to this circulation. But I am glad I still have them.

I know a book-lover friend of mine who actually keeps his collection under lock-and-key. He refuses to part with any in his collection.

There have been other milestones too. Like this book, which I recovered from my ex-boss, after I resigned from my job. He called me for an “exit” interview. I flew from Delhi to Bangalore and was led into his office the moment I reached. Before he could start the interview process, I asked him: “Where is that book of mine which I lent you eighteen months ago?” (I had loaned him George Mikes’ “How to be an alien”. This one deals with the Brits and their view of life. It is written by Mikes, a Central European. There is a chapter in his book on Sex. I reproduce the entire contents here: “Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” That’s the entire chapter!)

My boss sheepishly reached into his book-rack and handed over the book to me. It had strange black burn marks around the edges. My boss’ office had been gutted a few months ago. But luckily my book had survived. And that is what matters to me the most, at that time.

It was an even-sum game, I gave up my job, and I kept my book.

xxx


Confessions of a bibliophile: 1

April 27, 2010

Those of you who know me would know I love books. And those who have visited my house would know that I love being surrounded by them. Some of you may have read one of my earlier posts, “Books, oh books” about my fascination for books.

I love books, and I very often buy them. I have always had this “other love” in my life. Books. My wife reached this conclusion pretty early on in our married life and she would point this out to me with unfailing regularity, the moment she saw me returning home with a bagful of books. Till she realized that I was a compulsive buyer of books. And incorrigible. She sighed, and reconciled, God bless her. I have written earlier regarding my love for books and that I could not afford to buy books. I would borrow them from friends, from circulating libraries and from school or college libraries. And when I started earning, my salary liberated me- as it were- and I plunged into buying books.

Lest you think that I am a book-worm, let me tell you, I am not. I confess here, publicly, that I have read not even half of my collection. But show me a book-lover who has read all in his, and I will show you a liar!

This used to trouble me a bit. Not a bit actually, but hugely! Till an enlightened book-lover friend of mine told me: “I buy when I can, I read when I can”. And that took off from my conscience the load of guilt accumulated over the years! And now I have this stance: “Sure I have not read this book, but what the hell, I like what this book is about and I will read it one day”. And I often do. Many a time I have pulled out and read to the finish a book a bought five or six years ago. And I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

There are many books which I have not read cover-to-cover. Some half-way, some two-thirds. So what if I do not complete them, I know when to turn to these books depending on what I seek. You do not need to unload on your body the entire bottle of perfume to know what it is all about!

There is another aspect which a book-lover may encounter. Feeling guilty about exiting a book-store without making a purchase. I did. I would enter the bookshop, browse for hours and would feel “obliged” to buy a book or two. I felt guilty leaving without giving the store any business, and to part company with books I would come back to again-and-again in the hours spent at the shop. How could I not give any business to the shop and more importantly, how I could leave behind my objects of desire. So there I was queueing-up at the cash counter, pulling out my wallet and saying thank you to the cashier as he packed the purchases into a polythene bag.

Till someone- another book lover- told me that it was ok. It was alright to leave without buying a book. I put this maxim to practice. It was difficult the first few times, but then I got used to it. And it has been a breeze since then. I breeze into a book shop, exchange a few pleasantries with the book seller, browse and breeze out. Simple!

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I had written in the earlier post:

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…..

Now that I think more, having books are like having great thinkers as friends. Great friends are those with whom you can spend hours with, turn to them in times of need, ask them for appropriate advice when needed. Great friends are non-demanding, they just stand around and let you be as you do your own thing. Friends with ages of wisdom, tons of good wishes, and- more importantly- always at hand. I wonder if you have realized that you may have a large circle of friends, you may consider them as great friends- which they indeed are- but you rarely turn to any of them at random in times of specific need. For example, if you have some issues with your better half, you may ask a select few. And these select few are different when you are besieged with problems at work, or with your finances, or with multiple such distinct issues clouding your life. Such is the case with books. All great friends, as I have just described, but each fulfilling a different need. Provided of course you know what to seek in a particular book, just like you know what to talk to a close friend about.

There is a small difference though. How many great friends you think you have? 4? 7? Ok, maybe 9! I would be surprised to hear a figure in double digits even with the most socially active people. And if you do think you have a large number of great friends, my humble recommendation is maybe you should start redefining for yourself what you mean by a great friend. On the other hand, you may have a large collection of books and each could be your great friend, in the manner listed above.

…..to be continued….


Something’s Missing…

April 6, 2010

My elder son wrote his 10th Board exams last month. While most of his friends had chosen Sanskrit as the “second” language, we prevailed upon Ved to take Hindi. The reason being we could help him with Hindi and not Sanskrit. I took it upon myself to teach him Hindi. After-all, I am the son of a Hindi professor. My grounding in Hindi has been good, I topped my class in Hindi in both 10th and 12th.

Ved’s syllabus had Kabir, Meera, Pant, Mahadevi Verma etc which I think we covered with relative ease. There were some interesting interludes though. When studying Meera and her devotion to Krishna. She says that she would do whatever to get Krishna residing close to her. Said Ved to me, rather seriously, “Dad, if I were Krishna I would never ever even look at Meera. She is crazy!!” Aah, what a difference a word makes! Would not the Hindi baawari be better than crazy?

In of the chapters there was a reference to Krishna coming to Draupadi’s rescue during her “cheer-haran”. And Ved wanted to know who Draupadi was. And he freaked when he got to hear that she was married to five brothers, all at once!

See the erosion in knowledge over three generations? My father is fluent in Sanskrit, and here I was convincing my son to take Hindi for his boards as I was not confident of helping him with Sanskrit. The next-gen extends this to absence of knowledge about a commonly known detail from the Great Epic. The kid is not to be blamed, he has just not been exposed to this story. And my wife and I are the “culprits”, so to speak.

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Don’t you think something getting lost here?

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Not that I have not been trying. It is an old habit of mine, listening to “Hanuman Chalisa” in the morning, on my way to work, in our car’s audio system. The family car has changed over time, the medium has changed (cassette, CD, and now thumb drive); but this little habit of listening to the “Chalisa” has not. What has also remained constant is the “teaching” I do to my kids as we drive together on their way to school. I explain to them the story of Hanuman and the meanings of the words in the “Chalisa”. Sample this: “Ramdoot, atulit bal dhama, Anjani-putra, pawan-sut nama”. Now you need to picture two lads- my sons- in their early teens, having lived nearly all their lives in Bengaluru figuring out what those words mean. Figure “doot”, “atulit”, “baldhama”, “Anjani” etc. They quietly imbibe the daily lesson. But that’s about it.

I fret sometimes, there is “something” being lost here, in this decline of knowledge about our cultural heritage. And I don’t know if something is being gained in the process.

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Mai, my mother, God bless her, is going strong on 81 now. She can still sing in her strong voice the Bhojpuri folk songs of yore, sohar, chaiti, vivah geets etc. Creeping dementia makes her repeat some of the lines again and again. But she holds forth with great enthusiasm. And that enthusiasm is very visible when on a recent visit to her place (she and Pitaji, going on 86, stay all by themselves in Jamshedpur) I take out my laptop and begin recording her singing. Long forgotten songs from my childhood now digitally captured on my lap-top hard disk.

My wife is cheerfully though silently joining in some of the songs. She is more “humming-along” than “singing-along” as she does not know the words of many of these songs. Here is another aspect of our culture being lost. The next gen will probably have no clue about these age-old folk songs, forget about associating each song with a specific occasion.

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My wife is at least aware of festivals and sundry rituals accompanying the festivals. She still does teej and rakshabandhan and lakshmi puja during Diwali and other such activities. She still covers her head with a dupatta and sits down to do Durga path during navratri. She still banishes non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays. Much to the chagrin of the children who adore non-vegetarian food at all times of the day.

As for me, I am not into pooja etc. Neither do I visit temples unless it holds a “touristy” significance. I do know the significance of the festivals but I have a “could-not-care-less” attitude. I am not a compulsive non-veg eater, but if it served to me on Tuesdays on my travel, I am perfectly fine. I do not fret if I miss Holi or Diwali due to my business travels across the globe.

Something is indeed being lost here.

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Pitaji fretted when he was getting me (and prior to me, my elder brother) admitted into the school where we finally passed out from. After-all he was then a Hindi lecturer in a prestigious college. And our school was an English medium one, run by Irish-American Roman Catholic priests. Some of Pitaji’s colleagues remarked on his hypocritical approach; teaching Hindi for a living and having his own sons admitted into an English medium school. While others told him this would make the sons’ future, why should he impose his personal preferences on his children. The latter camp won. We passed out from this English medium school. This was in the 60’s and 70’s when English medium schools were not common, though highly coveted.

I am sure, Pitaji too would have wondered again and again, is something getting lost here?

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My wife and I had both decided that we will speak to our children only in Hindi. No English words even. This was rather tough as they both grew up in a mixed society in Mumbai, Pune, and Bangalore. Not the ideal places for Hindi speaking friends and classmates. But we persisted. Till the schools where they went to summoned us- in case of each of them- when they turned five that enough was enough and it was high time we started speaking to them in English. Or else they would fall behind in class.

With great diligence- and effort- we switched to English. Kids made slow progress with conversational but with eventually did succeed and with strong long-term effects. So much so that now, when the children are in their teens, it is normal for the family to converse only in English. Sometimes, when I insist that they talk in Hindi, the conversation is so stilted that we switch back to English.

Something surely has got lost here!

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Wonder what you, dear reader, feel about this loss. In a future post I will give my version about what I think is indeed getting lost.

xxx

PS: Ved struggled with his Hindi exam preparations, he was exultant when I went to pick him up after his Hindi Boards. “No more Hindi for me, ever!” he exclaimed. I quietly assured him then, “Ved, another twenty years or so, you will long to come back to Kabir, Meera and Tulsidas. You will. And then you will thank me for the works of these poets I have in my book collection.”

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