The book is so small I wonder how it survived the shifting of homes and cities. Small because the font is smaller than the usual and the lines are not double-spaced. Clearly, the Indian publisher had tried to save on money. I had bought the book more than 10 years ago from a shop on Janpath in Delhi. The inscription is intact: '"BG, 5 Feb 1999." The price printed on the back cover is Rs 80.
Rs 80, even in 1999, was peanuts. My monthly salary at the time, if my memory serves right, was around Rs 18,000. Those were the days when I spent a substantial amount of my salary on books that cost Rs 300-400 each. Today I am pretty careless about my collection but back then, I would spend almost every Sunday dusting those books and arranging them in a certain order on my modest cane bookshelf. Many of the books I never got around to reading, but I preserved them like embryos just because I had spent a fortune on them. Therefore, it was a big surprise that this book, which cost only Rs 80, should have survived when I shed excess baggage each time before shifting homes and cities. I mean, I could have easily -- and smugly -- given it away to somebody: "Here, take it. It's a good book. Remember me when you read this."
I am so glad I didn't. The book in question in India File by Trevor Fishlock, once upon a time a foreign correspondent stationed in New Delhi. It was published in January 1983, when I was 12 years old. He subsequently wrote another book based on his experiences as the India correspondent, On The Cobra Road, which I bought a few years ago in Chennai and read and reread it only because I spent Rs 400 on it. But India File sat untouched on my shelves for more than a decade. Maybe the small font had put me off. But this evening, I do not know why, I pulled it out and flipped through its yellowed pages. And then I started reading it from the beginning. I had no idea -- what a fucking fool I was to have judged a book by the font size of its text -- that I actually had a gem sitting ignored on my shelves for more than a decade.
If you want to know about India, even if you are an Indian, please read India File. But I think the book is out of print: can you imagine how lucky I am! Let me reproduce the very first paragraph:
"At last the gasping newcomer floats free to take up his inheritance of India. If it is a son there are murmurs and grins of pleasure. A conch may blare and the midwife's fingers close over a large reward. If it is a daughter there is neither tip nor fanfare. Birth is the beginning of what Hindus believe is the soul's adventure on earth and one of the tutting women around the nativity notes the time of day, for the family starmonger will want to know what planetary and stellar forces were tugging when the cord was severed. This sage will consult his charts and draw up a horoscopic identity card which will have to be produced by its owner at life's checkpoints: before his ritual toddler's tonsure, before marriage, examinations, journeys, a new job, elections, war, ceremonies, crop sowing, business transactions and other gambles. Indians embrace the universe and their fated imperishable souls move to its mysterious awesome rhythms, out of one life and into the next, sins and atonements inked in heavenly ledgers."
Mr Fishlock, are you there? Please remove your shoes and socks. This Indian wants to touch your feet.