Over the years

From being immersed in books to an age where only the classics appeal, my journeys into the world of books have become less frequent

I became a village reader at a young age. I think I was nine years when I first began reading stories from religious and mythological texts to an audience of illiterate and semi-literate women of my village. They gathered after an early dinner in a small room next to a cowshed where I read out to them, loud and clear, in the light of an earthen, mustard oil lamp stories from the Kalyan magazine, published by the Gita Press, Gorakhpur, or from some children’s book of stories drawn from the Mahabharat, the Ramayana and the Panchatantra, or from books like Bharathari in Brijbhasha verse, written by Pandit Radheshyam Kathavachak, of Hathras. Sometimes when the weather was agreeable, the gathering would move out into some open courtyard where I would read in the moonlight a play such as Sultana Daku, intoning Captain Young and Sultana Daku’s dialogues like they did in a nautanki those days. I must have been terribly fascinated by the character of Sultana Daku, for he remained my role model for a long time during my early school days. There were few such books in our remote hill village those days and most of these were badly tattered for they must have been in use for long years. When there was no book with new stories to be read and my audience of women felt bored with tales they had heard a hundred times, someone would fetch from her or his house a copy of the Tazirat-e-Hind or the Hindi transliteration of the Urdu version of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which greatly interested everybody, especially because of the examples of village crimes given alongside different clauses which everybody found a lot more interesting and stranger than fiction.

From then on, I have lived inside books in a bookish world. Like me, many of my close friends also come from bookish backgrounds. We read books, talked books, loved books and ate and slept with books in our hands. We had little pocket money and so could not afford to buy new books. We, therefore, rummaged and ransacked secondhand bookstores, pavement bookstalls and wholesale raddi dealers in search of what were to us then more precious than gems. There was a time when everybody at the Fez Road Sunday Raddi Bazar in Delhi knew us as well as we did them. They even waited for us to come and choose the best of the lot on offer. We were a large group of friends with interest in all sorts of books in Hindi, Urdu and English. We hunted for bargains, haggled for hours, cajoled, bullied, and at the end of the day somehow or the other got the books we wanted at a price that seemed to make everybody happy. We collected all sorts of books—poetry, plays, essays, novels, humour, history, philosophy, Nehru, Gandhi, Aristotle, Marx, Kalidas, Shudrak, Tagore, Sartre, Camus, Faiz, Ghalib, Mir, Kabir, Nirala, Renu, even books about mathematical games and, when we were grown up enough, erotica. You name an author and at least one of us was sure to have a work of his.

Those days are long past. Most of my old friends have grown out of that bookish world of college years. Books no longer seem to interest them. The passion for reading has dimmed with age, the vigour for collecting every book in the world or, at least, every great book in the world has turned into weariness. Until some years ago it wasn’t unusual to bump into a friend at some bookshop or at a book launch. Even some of those who were once given up for lost or dead would suddenly turn up at the book fair with their grown-up children or grandchildren. However, now I hardly meet anybody from those years other than some booksellers.

There was a time when I and my friends used to visit the Delhi Book Fair on the very first day. I still go but only on the last or the last but one day. I don’t read new books any longer. Increasingly, I feel the age of great poetry and great fiction is long behind us. This is the age of the mediocre and the ludicrous. Even essay as a genre is dead. Books have become ephemeral. Books, illustrations and bindings as living art no longer exist. Only non-fiction remains alive and readable. I now read only old books, the classics and collect works from 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the period I really love. And for that I am going to the Netherlands where a great exhibition on printing and the art of books is on until mid May at the Amsterdam University, something one can never hope to view here.

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