The pleasure of finding old books in a bookstore—abandoned books, books passed on, books sold or lost, and books that have no business being where they are—is primarily one of finding something you didn’t think you need. You probably still don’t “need” it when you buy it, but you buy it anyway. You may go back and read it or you may simply let it join the pile of books you thought you would read but you never did. Either way, it’s not what you do with the book after you acquire it that interests me, but rather how you come to acquire a book in the first place. Or perhaps, how I came to acquire some:
‘Varnikaa, IV B’
The childish scribble on the first page of a tattered old copy of ‘Malgudi Schooldays’ captured my attention. I flipped through the pages, only to find more doodles, underlined words and their meanings, and something about school projects on the Himalayas that Varnikaa presumably worked on in her fourth grade. The whimsical pencil sketches on random pages in the book and notes scribbled by Varnikaa were enough to persuade me to buy this old copy of R.K. Narayan’s classic, illustrated by his cartoonist brother and creator of the ‘common man’, R.K. Laxman. Of course, that Varnikaa was a co-illustrator clinched the deal.
Though I have had the book for a while now, I still haven’t read it, despite glancing through the odd scribbles of Varnikaa every now and then, and wondering where all those books and notebooks where I scribbled and doodled in school went, whether someone somewhere might also delight in finding them as much as I did when I picked up the copy Varnikaa once read and doodled in.
‘To my darling Papa…’
This copy of Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ seemed like a misplaced piece of personal history. I could not imagine a father willingly getting rid of a book his son apparently gifted him. Considering the date on the signed page is 17 years in the past, I can only imagine where the father and son in question are. Discounting the obvious possibility of a misplaced book, perhaps the father lost the son to some tragedy and couldn’t bear to hold on to the book? Or maybe someone stole the book and later abandoned it until it passed a few owners to reach the bookshop? Or maybe no one read it, and the book had a mind of its own, so it decided to abandon its owner and hide in the bookshop, awaiting rescue? Yes, the last one must be it.
The Strand, New York City
An English translation of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (with no graphics may I add) that I stumbled on while browsing through the books lined along the sidewalk outside NYC’s ‘The Strand’ bookstore looked like something I could gift this Kurdish-Iranian-Danish friend who likes his stereotypes and wonders if Kamasutra is required reading in India. He seemed happy, even enthusiastic, about the contents of the book, in particular a chapter on ‘the wives of others’. Many a dinner table conversations were enlivened by his mention of this book and the concerned chapter(s) to an audience largely made up of physics grad students. No interesting notes were left in the book, so I couldn’t speculate on its previous ownership, but it was a rather old edition, 1965 I think.
Another book that caught my attention on that New York sidewalk was one on the history of Reuters, the news agency, titled ‘Reuters: The story of a century of news-gathering’ by Graham Storey, published in 1951. It was in great condition, hardbound and with a strong “old book” smell between its pages. Again, this one did not seem to have anything indicating previous ownership, but I was curious how news-gathering evolved between 1851-1951, and how it might have been different in those times from the present vantage point. I had no prior interest in the matter but seeing the book made me curious enough to pick it up, especially when I read the following in the foreword by a certain Lord Layton:
‘Economic and political rivalry and the development on a vast scale of the technique and apparatus of mass persuasion have given rise to one of the major social and political problems that face democratic peoples in our time – namely to keep propaganda out of the news.’
It remains to be read.
Another book I picked up was a glossy one on Sufism, not particularly old nor very detailed, so I find it difficult to explain why I picked it up. I also picked up a play by Bernard Shaw, called Misalliance, which I had never heard of before. The particular copy seemed to have been printed in 1921. It seems didactic in a characteristically Shavian way and I have yet to read it to have an opinion about it, but I consider it a brilliant find! A copy of an art magazine, called Horizon, was probably the most beautiful and visually arresting of all the books I found. I intend to partake in its joys one of these weekends when some leisure is at hand. A piece called ‘Avant-Garde or Blind alley’ was one that caught my attention: ‘What makes avant-garde art really and truly “avant”?… And how can we tell the difference between true and false, now, without waiting for the future to become the past?’ The particular issue I picked up was dated March, 1962.
Old Goat Books, Kitchener-Waterloo
Walking along King’s Street in sleepy Waterloo, partaking in the Canadian autumn, I stumbled on this little bookshop that seemed to be set up in a house. I walked in to see what I might find. The finds I brought home were as follows: Marco Polo’s ‘The Travels’, ‘The complete plays of Aristophanes’, English translation of a Balzac novel, and a popular anthropology text, ‘mirror for man’, by a Clyde Kluckhohn, published in 1965. I find the anthropology text particularly interesting based on my bedtime reading of its first two chapters where, in particular, the notion of ‘culture’ is carefully defined, and a compelling case is made for an appreciation of anthropology as a branch of human scientific endeavour. Again, this is not necessarily something I would have reached out for on my own, but having stumbled on the book I find it an illuminating read.
These three bookshops were found in different places and only in Blossoms did I find real scribbles in the books that let me wonder about their history. Perhaps the other two shops have a policy of not keeping books where people have left “scars”. I much prefer the “scarred” and abandoned books, though.
(This post has earlier appeared in the November issue of Aainanagar)
we walked along a narrow path that afternoon,
in the palani hills,
along the tar road on either side of which
were flowers i could not name,
but i told myself,
“well, they smell the same
to me as they do to those who know the name.
their colours are no different to my eye than they are to theirs.”
but then i do not know this for sure, do i?
surely i can’t see or smell or feel exactly as they do,
or even if i could how would i know?
alas, our inner worlds may never really meet,
and with a misaligned compass each,
north we go,
you yours and i mine.
“true north” is a lie,
you and i live under a different sky.
there were birds i nearly missed until someone pointed them out
so that i had to learn to keep my eyes still,
ears alert to their calls,
malabar whisting thrush, someone heard,
machan says it whistles like a schoolboy ambling along,
i pictured a schoolboy, a water-bottle round his neck,
a schoolbag on his shoulders, happily whistling away the afternoon
tripping on his own foot every now and then.
i listen in but i don’t hear the thrush.
machan says everyone looks like some animal,
and tries to pin me down,
confused, he consults wildlife ‘experts’ among us,
there’s much deliberation but no consensus.
i daydream by the window
as the bus snakes its way up the hill.
on the next day we walked into the forest,
three men came out of the woods,
wielding a big jar of fresh honey,
a bit of beeswax still there.
four hundred rupees a kilo, they said,
and offered us a taste of the sweet and sticky mush.
we tasted some, and washing my sticky hands in the stream,
i still awaited the call of the whistling thrush.
water falling down a cliff some 35 to 50 metres high,
dhruv and bala go down a path, followed by machan and i,
a little way ahead machan says he doesn’t like heights
that the slope was steep and the fall was deep,
my attempts at motivating him don’t work at all
and machan goes back to the top of the waterfall.
going down i reach the stream
following daisy the dog,
washing my feet and catching my breath
i head out further to look for the next waterfall.
i reach a quiet corner in the middle of the woods.
no people in sight,
i sit there and hear a schoolboy whistle, hush!
it is the malabar whistling thrush!
in that quiet wilderness
i sense a yearning,
‘let us go hunting for poetry in the woods, shall we?’
‘because that is where poetry hides?’
‘no, poetry doesn’t hide, she’s not to be hunted either, we can find her right here, in the sounds, the smells and the riot of colours, or the cracks on this glass window blurring our view of worlds on the other side, thirsty worlds awaiting the first scent of rain, or in the wail of the ambulance that rushes past us, lest life succumb to that temptress death again.’
‘but we must find it and kill it and eat it. i’m hungry.’
‘you hunger for poetry, you say. and you would hunt for it, and kill it and eat it? it doesn’t work that way.’
‘how does it work then?’
‘you don’t hunt for poetry, you grow it, you sow a seed, till the earth, water it gently, and you wait, patiently. although you could go to the woods i suppose, but there are no woods to make poetry any more. and, anyway, haven’t we written enough about the woods and bubbling brooks already?”
‘hmm, you could buy some poetry you know.”
‘buy it? who sells poetry?’
‘i know someone, she just sold a poem, though i do not know what she charges for them.’
‘but i don’t have any money to buy a poem..’
‘let’s hope you can bargain your soul for a poem then’
‘my soul for a poem?’
‘great deal, no?’
‘no thank you, i’ll keep my soul, and hunger for poetry forever if i have to, than sell my soul to buy it..’
‘hey look out! open fields, coconut palms, also barren land; a colourful tent, and flags pink and white, a celebration perhaps. that must have been a school i saw, couldn’t read the signboard though. a railway crossing, vehicles big and small, pillows and unripe mangoes, and in another world: the pre-dawn shimmering of a city of lights that sleeps atop a mountain, and in an empty coach with a few men, women, and children sprawled on the seats, she sits opposite me, looking into that portal which separates our world — with its real windows, chilly mornings and temples and birds and railway tracks, smells of all kinds — from what’s replacing it: twittering tweeples and epic fails, ‘likes’ and a subversion of the meaning of ‘unlike’, and #hashtags for subtext..’
‘what are you going on about?’
‘oh, nothing, i was daydreaming, windows do that to me..’
‘let’s go hunting for poetry then?’
I wrote this for someone’s upliftment, trying to answer what ‘uplifts’ me in challenging times..
I think conversations do, over anything at all, with a friend or a stranger. Also, unexpected rains on a dry summer day. Free food, filter kaapi. And a good story, real or imagined. A long walk to the beach where I sit and listen to the sea and, if it is a good day, I might even see a brilliant moon rising over the horizon as night descends upon us all; sometimes I walk overnight with a few “turtle walkers”, especially during December-March, for that is when the Olive Ridleys nest by the coast and their hatchlings, when released, are the most beautiful little things I have seen, rushing straight to the sea after they hatch, no parents obsessing over whether they are ready to do that. Kids, their bright eyes, and unnecessary questions. Older people, who usually have stories to tell, of when they were young and the world was different. And walks in the crowded streets of south India, usually in and around temples, the colours and the sounds and the smells, a rich spectrum that’s almost an assault on one’s senses, and cats selling coconuts.
Postscript: This was adapted into what I called ‘Turn that frown upside down’ in response to Madhu’s disappointment at my lack of contribution to the beautiful little magazine they call aainanagar (the city of mirrors).
I feel old today. I was born a little before the Sachin era, grew up in the shadow of his cricketing career, and will soon step out of this era as the man bids us farewell. Cricket, perhaps like most Indian kids of the time, was the first sport I learnt. I can’t recall the first time I picked up a bat or learnt how to bowl, just as I can’t recall the first time I uttered a coherent sentence or put pencil to paper. I suppose it must be true of a lot of other kids my age, but at some point I wanted to be a cricketer. Spending hours out in the sun, playing with friends from the colony, and fighting over run-outs and scores, a big part of my childhood was spent running between the wickets; besides, of course, having to bear the brunt of the neighbours’ anger when the ball went into their house and I had to go get it because I hit it there. Once into my teens, cricket became less of a part of my regular routine as we moved cities and the new place had no kids my age that I could play with. Besides, my interests shifted to more academic ones, and my only connection with cricket remained the odd one-day match I happened to watch, particularly if it was a world cup match. Or the match summary I read in a newspaper after the fact. The most memorable match, for me, remains the India-Pakistan World Cup match in 2003, and Sachin’s first six off Shoaib Akhtar. I am not much of a cricket fan, but I suppose as long as Sachin played I followed it with some interest, even if I wasn’t playing much. Perhaps it was because I found the man inspiring in all his tenacity and skill, and wondered what it must take to shut out all the noise in the world and focus on the next ball. I aspired, as I still do, to that meditative state.
Why am I writing this? I don’t know, it’s just an impulse borne out of a need to mark the occasion, to make note of it before it becomes part of collective memory. And to place on record the fact that tomorrow and everyday after that will be different from all that has so far been, simply because the only thing constant in my life so far—that Sachin played for India—would have changed. I’ll live in a different world tomorrow, so let me say, on a parting note to Sachin and the times gone by, that I am grateful.
I’ll let you know what’s on my mind. There was a big, bright orange moon I saw rising this evening, by the sea, sitting in the sand. I was dazzled by its shimmer on the black and white skin of the sea, and I waited for the moon to rise up above the clouds, so that when it did, I left. The moon was more beautiful when the clouds covered it, when it melted into the sky and the whole thing looked like an ice-cream melting away, vanilla and orange. I could eat it.
I also saw a little girl standing by the sea, drawing on the sand with her precious little fingers, her left hand. I was left-handed once, at least an old photograph tells me I ate with my left hand when I was her age. I also wrote that way, only my ways were changed to right-handed ones when I grew up, so that now I write with my right hand and punch with my left. I kick with my left leg, am a left-handed batsman and bowler, and if I were to shoot you, I’d pull the trigger with my left hand. But I won’t shoot you because it doesn’t make any sense.
There were little Olive Ridley hatchlings, making their way to the sea. I watched them, and I wondered. I wondered how protected that little girl was, for she had her uncle holding her hand while she faced the sea and jumped in glee when the waves crashed at her feet. She knew she was safe, the sea couldn’t hurt her. On the other hand, the hatchlings were fumbling around, trying to make it to the water; one of them was upside down, so I helped it back on its feet, and it rushed to the sea. They were children of the sea.
There were stars, lots of them, and I was mesmerized by them, I’ve always been. There was also a plane, that rose up on the western horizon and made its way across the sea, to the east. I like flying planes.
I also saw a new bird, a bird I could not name, but it definitely wasn’t a crow. It was hopping across the path I walk past everyday, and I thought its hopping was cute.
(Adapted from my answer to Facebook’s perennial question on an evening when I was particularly ‘high’ on life.)
And always remember the longer you live, the sooner you’re going to die.
(The song starts around 54:00, although you may want to listen to the whole concert.)
I was humming this song all day long today, finding it oddly cheerful. I wonder if it’s because of the song or the voice that gives it a voice. Or, perhaps, because it rained today and I was singing it to myself as I walked to the beach. Rains always make me happy, particularly when they are rare, like in the middle of the Chennai summer. Unlike my usual walks, I wasn’t thinking much; just singing my way to the sea. I might have been a little loud with the ‘bloody’ bit, for I did get some stares from a stranger or two. Or so I imagined. The sand was wet, and I found it amusing that the thing about sand, that the tighter you hold it the more it slips out of your hand, is not true if the sand is wet. I thought of a friend who would always tell me this thing about sand as a sort of metaphor for why one should not cling to the past or its people. I wonder what metaphor she would see in wet sand. Perhaps one for the past clinging to you, unwilling to let go?
It was the perfect afternoon, with grey skies, a downpour, people rushing to bus stops for shelter, waiting for the rain to subside. (It’s my idea of a perfect summer afternoon anyway!) The beach was almost deserted when I reached there, except for some kids. It was still raining, the raindrops making little dents on the surface of the sea before losing themselves to its vastness. The crowds started coming once the rains subsided a little, and the sky opened up a bit, showing patches of blue, grey, and orange. It was almost sunset. My favourite people on the beach are kids — spontaneous, and unashamed of their enthusiasm for the simple things, like seashells and crabs and crashing waves. Of course, not all kids like the sea. To some it’s exciting, to others it’s scary; there was a little girl who would laugh when the water touched her feet and whine when her mother took her away from the sea; there was also a little boy who was watching the sea from a distance when his father picked him and made him face the sea while he squealed in a fright of sorts. Parenting is delicate business.
I sat in the coffee shop, wondering if I could write something like the quintessential writer-sitting-and-scribbling-in-a-cafe. I asked for a regular cappuccino. Staring out into the eastern horizon, coloured by a greenish sea, an orange sky, brownish sand, and people in many colours, I thought of the brilliant brown of the burnt bread I toasted in the morning for breakfast. I also thought of how the other day I declined taking up a responsibility citing a crisis of credentials. I thought of truth, and I thought of beauty. I figured I prefer truth to beauty. Offer me truth and I will come with you all the way, and maybe we will find beauty somewhere. Offer me beauty, but if truth doesn’t have a say, I will not come your way. I thought about living in the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and how I used those words liberally there and then, how I would love to go hunting for poetry again, and how writing for me is often an act of letting go, of laying bare words that would otherwise weave a prison of my own making for me to wallow in my nostalgia, confusion, and the usual existential crises. I thought of heartbreaks, and wondered if it would help everyone to have at least one good heartbreak to heal them all.
At that point the cappuccino arrived, I looked at the heart-shaped foam on top, smiled, added sugar and the little heart dissolved in the coffee. The coffee was good.