It is always a pleasure to hold a new book in your hands -- even more if the book happens to arrive at your doorstep in a parcel. It is the time taken to tear open the parcel that heightens the pleasure. You know what exactly is inside, but the effort that goes into unravelling a brand new book is what really makes it worthwhile.
Then just imagine the pleasure if the brand new hardbound book you pull out of the parcel happens to be printed forty years ago! I must have been only a few months old when, in 1971, Alfred Knopf printed the American edition of Shiva Naipaul's best-known book, Fireflies.
I, of course, wouldn't know how many copies were printed and how many got sold from that lot, but it is now certain that some copies remained, unsold and untouched, in some storehouse where no light reached for forty long years. So what I held in my hands last Saturday was a first-edition copy of a celebrated book published at the time when I was born (Andre Deutsch published it in Britain in 1970 and Alfred Knopf published it in America the following year).
I kept rereading, in amazement, these words on the opening page: Alfred A. Knopf / New York / 1971. And also what the jacket of the book had to say about the author: Shiva Naipaul was born in 1945 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and was educated there and at University College, Oxford (where he received an honors degree in classical Chinese). Fireflies marks his debut as a novelist -- he has previously published short stories, three of which have appeared in Penguin Modern Stories 4. Like his brother, the novelist V.S. Naipaul, he now lives in England.
In a recent edition of the book, if at all there is one, the author intro would stand drastically altered. Shiva Naipaul would be described in the past tense (he died in 1985, aged 40) while V.S. Naipaul would not be called a mere novelist but a Nobel laureate. Fireflies, though I am yet to start reading it, seems to be Shiva Naipaul's answer to his elder brother's A House for Mr Biswas. They are equally voluminous and are set in Trinidad.
Between the two Naipauls, I somehow prefer the younger brother. While the elder one is like a dour-faced teacher who looks down upon you (yet you stick to him because you've got so much to learn from him), the younger brother is a good-natured soul who takes you along on his journeys. I have read, cover to cover, two books of Shiva Naipaul -- North of South and Beyond the Dragon's Mouth -- to be able to say that.
Somehow, Fireflies always eluded me. Each time I decided to look it up on Amazon, either the book would be out of stock or my credit card would have crossed the spending limit. Finally I got a first-edition copy, thanks to Soma.
Soma and I were born around the same time. We lived and grew up in the same neighbourhood and went to the same school. We were in the same class. As kids we were great friends, but adolescence erected a wall of awkwardness between us. I don't recall having a single conversation with her during our teenage years. By the time we could step out of teenage, she was already married and had gone off to America. We ceased to exist for each other -- not that it mattered to either of us. Then, one day, some twenty years later, Facebook reunited us. We were two different people now -- both embracing the age of forty and much wiser.
About a month ago, Soma came down to India to visit her parents in Calcutta. Since I was going to be in Calcutta too around that time, we planned to meet up for lunch at Peter Cat on Park Street. A couple of days before she took the flight out of the U.S., she pinged me: "Dude, is there anything you want from here?"
"Nothing at all," I replied, "But just in case you happen to visit a bookshop before you leave, and if in that bookshop you find a book called Fireflies, please pick it up for me. I'll pay you."
Little did I know that she was going to do what I also could've done sitting thousands of miles away in India. She went to Amazon.com and ordered the book. Unfortunately, the book reached her home after she had left for India. Which meant I could not get my copy of Fireflies during the lunch at Peter Cat (I was secretly hoping I would). But so what, I've got it now and I can finally proclaim, proudly and honestly: That's what friends are for!
Really, the copy of Fireflies is a certificate of that friendship -- a friendship that goes back forty years, when Shiva Naipaul had just finished writing the book and when Soma and I were still in our nappies.
P.S. Talking of siblings, my brother Rohit also has a blog now.