Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Dukedom Large Enough

The Strand book sale was on some time ago. Book lovers in Mumbai will know what that means. It means you set aside everything else and make that pilgrimage to Sunderbai hall at Churchgate for the sale. 

It isn’t every day that some of the greatest gems of English literature, not to mention history, biography, design, architecture and a host of other categories, are marked down to such a great extent. For those people whose heart skips a couple of beats on sighting the words, discount, sale and books, in the same sentence, this is truly a treat.

I have fond memories of the Strand sale. Some of the most priceless gems in my collection hail from there. As I sat down to write this post, I could think of other books that were waiting for me. I yearned to shut shop at work and rush to the sale, and yet the sale began and ended, and I did not go. Why, do you ask?

That’s what happens when a book lover marries a non-book lover. While I regard books as food for thought, my husband considers them food for termites. Where I think of them as storehouses of knowledge, he sees them as gatherers of dust.

My husband told me some time ago that I may not buy any more books, that if I wish to buy any more books, I must give up the ones I have. A sharp intake of breath escaped me. I could not believe my ears. Had my husband just asked me to give up my books? How could he be so cruel?

He claimed, in his defence, that he had never once seen me read them since our marriage. Insufficient grounds for desertion, I countered. How do I explain to him that merely having them in my life, within reach, is a great comfort? I may not have read those books in the last few years, but they are mine, familiar and homely, and it is with a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart that I regard them.

Besides just because he hasn’t seen me read them, doesn’t mean I haven’t. If there is anything that exceeds the joy of reading a good book, it is the joy of reading a good book AGAIN. The experience can be likened to that of visiting an interesting yet familiar place in the company of an old friend. The fact that you know exactly what is going to happen next matters not one whit.

Mind you, I do not buy books unless I have read them before. They have to be ‘keepers’ before I put my money down for them. Of course, I enjoy a good whodunit as much as anyone else, but for such so-called ‘best-sellers’ there are always the famous ‘circulating’ libraries and the street booksellers, who stock both cheap two-penny and classic literature. 

It is at one such unassuming street bookshop that I bought my copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, with ‘To Manohar and his charming consort, Bharati – on their wedding day, 1903,’ inscribed on the flyleaf. The pages were brown and fragile when I bought the book (and at my shoestring college budget it was definitely dear at Rs 80), but how it must have been cherished by the bridal couple. And they must have been Shakespeare enthusiasts to get a gift like that.

There have been other jewels that I picked up from these street book haunts. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute, The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West, and A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams, among others. I could barely keep the excitement out of my voice, when I bid for those books. I was so afraid the hawker would see that I wanted those books and hike up the price.

Could I give up any of these?

What about the volume of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller that I cannot go beyond page 9, which I will finish some day?

Or the abridged editions of The Prisoner of Zenda, The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, that whetted my appetite for the real thing.

What about books like Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis that taught me that prose could be poetry, that it could bring tears to your eyes and give you goosebumps?

Or Animal Farm (which by the way, I wish I had written) and 1984 by George Orwell that created such a stir in my mind?

Could I give up the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde and Saki and the Complete Short Stories of O Henry that occupy pride of place on my bookshelf? Not to mention All Things Wise and Wonderful by the inimitable James Herriot. (Note to self: Need to lay my hands on All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Lord God made them all.)

I could not part from One Minute Nonsense and Prayer of the Frog (parts I and II), both by Anthony de Mello, from which I am always able to glean new wisdom.

And you better not ask to borrow Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl which I read in college, and was greatly influenced by.

Nor can I do without my English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dictionaries and my Roget’s Thesaurus.

There are so many books that have become a part of my life. Could I give them up? No way.

We have a shared history, these books and I. To me, these books are not just storytellers and purveyors of information. They have created their own worlds in my imagination and peopled them with characters, sometimes lovable, sometimes ruffianly, but always memorable. 

They are my friends, an inseparable part of my life and my consciousness. They have left an indelible mark on me. I am a changed woman for having read them. They have forged my thinking, fashioned and re-fashioned my perceptions, changed my life. To them, I return time and time again for conversations that are always spirited and alive.

Above all, I must make room for the books that haven’t been published yet. Books whose existence is now confined to a few manuscripts of long hand, but will someday come into their own — with my name on them.

Portable Magic
Books were always a life-saver. When the electricity conked off, or our national Doordarshan programming was disrupted, I turned to my books. I could spend hours reading, racing through each book, so that I could rush back in for another treat.

What fears did loneliness have then that could not be quashed by a book? When friends were scurried off by their parents on vacations, we had our books for company.

When we ourselves travelled from Bombay to Goa on the Great Indian Railways on a journey that seemed to take forever in the torpid summer heat, it was books that came to our rescue. Books were, as Stephen King put it, “portable magic.”

Decorating = Building bookshelves
I have always fantasised about having a library in my home, a room with books on all the walls from the floor to the ceiling. In that fantasy, I used to reluctantly set aside space for a low door, under which a true book lover would gladly crouch.

I have always felt that any room with bookshelves in it is well-decorated enough to suit me. I recall the library scene in the animation film, Beauty and the Beast. I fail to remember what exactly happens there in the library in the Beast’s mansion. But what I cannot forget are the stacks of books piled high from the floor to the ceiling. Only the room was massive, and the ceiling stretched as high as the spires.

Books and I
By non-reader standards, I was a strange kid. I could spend hours poring over old newspapers and tattered books and magazines. There was always something interesting to read there.

I remember how excited I was the first time I stepped into a library as a child. In that heightened state of excitement, I remember trying, mentally (and feverishly), to multiply the number of books with the number of shelves, and wondering if I would be able to finish all the books in that room, if I read, say, one a day. I also recall a distinct thought I had back then: that heaven must be a place where you could find all the books that had ever been written, in all the languages of the world.

When my brother became a member of the British Council Library, I used to go to the library in his stead every Saturday, borrow four books, devour them as fast as I could and return to the library the following Saturday to borrow another four. One of the librarians there would eye me warily, wondering perhaps when I found time to do the things that normal human beings do. I would hope desperately that there was no library rule against making too many trips in a single month.

We weren’t gifted any books as children, for reasons I’ve mentioned before. So all the books that my brother and I had were those that we had received as prizes at school for having topped a particular school subject in class. We used to spend the week after our school annual days devouring the books that we had received.

One year, I heard a nasty rumour that the school planned to hand out cash awards, instead of books, as prizes. I doubt any other kid was as upset as I was.

Teaching a Love for Reading
The habit of reading was inculcated in us at a very young age. Neither Dad nor Mum actually sat us down and read to us. That was an age when parents had no access to Better Parenting books. So they just let centuries of instinct and intuition supply what they lacked in knowledge.

And so it was that while today I have the benefit of knowledge, gleaned from scores of websites and books, on the best way to raise a reader, my father just read books. It was the sight of him reading, the look of absorbed reflection and delight so evident on his face, that told us, without words, how much fun reading could be.

As we grew older, Dad showed us his books. There was an air of quiet pride when he did that and I learned to understand what a treasure it is to have and hold your own books. It was then that the seed was sown, the determination to be the proud owner of my own collection some day.

I also have one other childhood memory relating to books. I remember asking Dad, “Will you give me your books when I am older?” I added, “I don’t want anything else,” perhaps intending to soften the blow.

“Oh yes,” he had said then, smiling at me. And he was as good as his word.

Today I can see Matilda, Winnie the Pooh and Noddy trying to encroach into my space on the bookcase and I am thrilled beyond measure. I want to raise a family of readers. Some of my most treasured moments have been spent with my daughter, my arms wrapped around her affectionately, with a book on our laps. 

As we read her favourite stories, over and over again, holding her chubby forefinger as we trace the embossed lettering on the books, I know that the words that she is listening to are dancing across the blossoming expanse of her mind. 

I modulate my voice to sound like Noddy or Tigger or Agatha Trunchbull, Matilda’s adversary, knowing well that she is literally hanging on to my every word. Sometimes I deliberately omit a particular word, only to be forcefully reminded of the remission.

There are many reasons why I cherish these moments with her. For one, it is time that I set aside for her alone. Movies, TV, household chores, office work, my own reading — everything else takes second place. All other noises are hushed. 

Little as she is, she knows that her multi-tasking, much harried mother is making her a gift of time – always a precious gift. But more importantly, she realizes that she is being initiated into the delights of reading, a pastime that is dear to her mother’s heart. Her mind is expanding. Her imagination is breaking boundaries. Her world is being enlarged. And the only equipment that is needed to achieve this is what author Christopher Morley once describes as “(not) just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue.”

How much is a Book Worth?
Time and dust, the two eternal adversaries of all things finite, have left their mark on my books. The covers of some of them, once shiny and bright, have faded. One or two of them are scarred by the blot marks of a wayward fountain pen. And the unkindest cut of all, one for which I am thoroughly ashamed, is the dog’s ears on some of my most cherished possessions. But neither time nor dust could diminish their worth in my eyes.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Pats Herself on the Back
Last week, my daughter held my face between her palms (a fail-proof way of getting her mother’s attention), and said to me, “Mamma, I become big then, you’ll give me your books, please. I don’t want anything else.”

I don't want anything else either.

(The title of this post has been adapted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)


  1. Your interest and enthusiasm is really great. I had also accumulated lot of books relating to advertising without reading. Like your husband with the curse of my daughters and wife, I had to dispose to avoid feeding termites.

  2. Hi Cynthia,
    It was lovely reading your post. I felt as if someone was echoing my thoughts. Though not as passionate a book lover as you, I too can never imagine life without my books. Kudos to you on this passion and may it continue to grow and spread around.


  3. Hi Pat,
    I understand your plight. And I must learn from your experience, and look through my treasures more often in order to eliminate the pests. Good to know that you too used to collect books. Sad to know that you "used to." Sigh! So many books, so little space.

  4. Hi Vinita,
    Welcome to my blog. It feels really great to know that you too feel the same way about books. May our tribe increase. Thanks for your comment. Hope to see you around more often.

  5. What a lovely post, Cynthia! Those last two sentences brought a lump in my throat! I'm happy to see Avanee flip through her hardpaper books, too. I know exactly what you feel. (hug)

  6. HI Saee,
    I know what you mean. As mothers, I think we feel most fulfilled when we are able to pass on a piece of ourselves to our children. Imagine how you will feel the day Avanee expresses a desire to be your sous-chef. :) A hug to you too.

  7. Hi Cynthia
    Your writing skills are amazing! And more importantly your articles appear to be written frmom the heart and hence touching and meaningful.

    I think kids of today ought to read it and learn values from them.Will get my kids to read them.

    Wonder how you find time to write such beautiful articles with your busy work schedule, travel and home commitments

  8. HI, Avril, Thank you very much. I am glad to know that my writing has touched you. Writing is difficult, particularly with the work and home commitments. But the long commute gives you something to think about.



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