This post is being written at the request of BlogAdda, which is running a contest on 'My Oldest Book and its Memories'. I am writing it, not with the hope of winning a prize, but because it gives me the opportunity to escape from an incomplete manuscript one more night.
I grew up surrounded by books at home, but they were all Bengali books. All hard-bound, all smelling delicious. I think my father wanted to be a writer. As a child -- I must have been eight or nine then, and my father about 35 -- I have seen him filling up a bunch of foolscape papers night after night. I was too young to ask what he was writing or who he was writing for. At times, I would find chunks of the manuscript crossed out with a red ball pen. I am not sure if he ever published anything. Or else I would have known.
My father's habit of reading and writing was eventually killed by my mother. She would keep on badgering him to take on more responsibilities of running a family, and soon, my father became like any other father in the neighbourhood. The foolscape papers disappeared first and then the hardbound books. After that I never saw a book at home. Though there were magazines floating in the house all the time: Manorama, Grihashobha, Saheli, Sarita, Filmfare, Star & Syle, Showtime, Stardust, Cine Blitz, India Today, Sunday, Probe, Mirror, Society, Savvy, Women's Era, Eve's Weekly, Femina, Gentleman... I grew up on them; they were largely responsible for my becoming a journalist.
It was on February 1, 1993 that I became a journalist. I reported for work at the Pioneer office in Lucknow, where I was to spend two weeks before returning home to join the soon-to-be-launched Kanpur edition. At the Lucknow office, I was told by the resident editor to return at four; that's when the newsdesk of a paper comes alive. So I went for a stroll in Hazratganj. There, I bought my very first book, Roget's Thesaurus. But a thesaurus cannot count as a book; in any case I rarely use one because I feel it only makes you adopt words that you don't need. A theft is a theft, why use 'heist'?
My first book, which I bought with my own money, with the knowledge that I was buying a book, was V.S. Naipual's An Area of Darkness. I bought the book sometime in 1994, shortly after I joined Pioneer. I used to be a regular reader of Gentleman magazine, and a guest columnist had once listed this book as one of the 10 must-reads. So I went to Current Book Depot on Mall Road, and bought the book.
I tried reading the book, but could not proceed beyond the very first paragraph in which Naipaul describes his landing at the Bombay port (his first ever visit to India) and being asked by a Goan who had been sent by the travel agency to see him through the customs, "You have any cheej?" It was not clear to me if the Goan actually meant cheese, or simply cheez, which means "stuff" or "goods." Naipaul himself did not seem to be clear about it. I left the book at that.
An Area of Darkness, therefore, is the oldest book I possess. When I moved from Kanpur to Delhi in August 1994, it travelled with me along with about half-a-dozen other books. Once in Delhi, I bought a small bamboo rack, big enough to hold only 30 or 40 books. I never thought I would ever need or come to possess more number of books than that.
Today I've lost count. The number of books in my collection could be anything between 800 and 1,000. But An Area of Darkness will always be special.
Back then, occasionally at nights, I would pull the book out from the bamboo rack and try reading it. It did not appeal to me the way, say, the autobiographies of Ruskin Bond, did. But it did plant the seed of travel in my subconscious -- the idea of travelling in order to discover people and places, and in the process, discovering yourself.
It's been a long journey since then; today I won't be able to recognise the young man who walked into Current Book Depot and bought An Area of Darkness. I've read the book several times since then, and each time it means something different to me. The last time I read it, which was a few months ago, it read like a complaint book.
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