Now this is really strange. Only last evening, I went to Landmark, the bookstore, to buy myself some books -- something I had not done in a long time. Of late, I've only ordered books online, but the convenience of using your credit card from home does not match the pleasure of walking around a bookstore and looking for books to pick: you don't get the atmosphere. The atmosphere, I strongly believe, plays a big part in kindling one's ambition to become a writer.
When I walked into Landmark, I had three particular books in mind: Angela's Ashes and 'Tis by Frank McCourt, and the revised edition of my all-time favourite, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (one of his grandsons has 'restored' the original version, in the belief that Hemingway's fourth and final wife had distorted the unfinished manuscript after he died).
McCourt's books I possessed till a few years ago, when I happened to lend them to a friend who simply drifted out of my life, along with the books, that is. I wanted to get those books back into my life. They had helped me every time I felt angry with the world. Angela's Ashes I read only once and did not want to go back to that: the humour only enhances the gloom the book chronicles. But I still wanted it in my collection -- for record's sake. 'Tis has its share of gloom too, but you can see a man sailing cheerfully through it, even though he never really sails out of it. It's been the Bible to me for many years -- I have looked up to it when I have not been able to write and I've sought solace in its pages when I felt ignored by the world.
It is also true that the book would not have been such an inspiration had I not been aware of McCourt's life-story: even after a poverty-stricken childhood and a youth riddled with uncertainties, life was still not kind to him. He remained, for over 30 years, a mere school teacher who taught English and creative writing in various schools and took a modest salary home. Lady luck smiled on him only after he turned 66, when he published his book, Angela's Ashes, which went on to win the Pulitzer. At that age, most Indian men consider themselves to be a spent force and are waiting to be taken to their graves. But for McCourt, there was no looking back.
His life has been a shining example of the old saying which has been done to death in Hindi films -- 'Bhagwaan ke ghar der hai, andher nahin' (In the home of God, there might be a delay, but never darkness).
Unfortunately, I did not find any of McCourt's books at Landmark yesterday. I did not even find the revised edition of A Moveable Feast, which was understandable because the book has just been released in the West. So I picked up five other books and checked out.
This afternoon when I logged on to the Time magazine website soon after I walked into office, I noticed a piece mourning McCourt's death. I found his death more strange than shocking: precisely at the moment while he was breathing his last in New York, a great fan of his living miles away, in south of India, was actually scanning the shelves of a bookshop to find his masterpieces. Had I found those books, I might have possibly earned the distinction of being the last person to buy his books while he was still alive.
Actually, I did have a chance of earning that distinction: I only had to approach the help desk. But as a rule, I like to fish for my own books rather than seek help from one of the guys who can barely tell between a horse's mouth and ass. The charm lies in hunting for your own book in a bookshop.
I am not at all sad that McCourt is dead. I am, in fact, rejoicing that he managed to savour the success of being a celebrated writer for a good 13 years before he died last Sunday at the age of 78. I am also rejoicing the fact that he wrote a masterpiece called Angela's Ashes: but for the runaway success of this book, Mr McCourt would have gone to the grave unnoticed along with his story-telling skills.