Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My First Book

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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Anonymous said...

The old books talk more with smells than with words...and that particular smell suddenly springs up so many long forgotten sights and feelings...!
Nice post!

Rushina said...

Loved LOVED this post. It's reminded me of so many old favourite books... Thnaks BG!

Anonymous said...

Very well written. You have a wonderful way with words Ghosh-babu, please don't waste it by writing odes to Kishore Kumar all the time.

While you were writing about the books you love, Ruskin Bond would have probably written about the bamboo rack you so casually mentioned. He would throw in a description of the dingy corner store in Mussoorie, he bought it from, and a paragraph about the unkempt store owner, who must have quarreled with his wife in the morning. If you want to feel how powerful words can be, you should read a short story he wrote describing his last day with his father. I remember tearing up the first time I read it.

Naipaul is another man. I remember reading An area of darkness in the eighties, shortly before making a trip to the Caribbean. I almost wanted to see the Banyan tree in the botanical gardens, where the Hindus would perform their ceremonies after taking permission from the authorities. The man is brutal, and spares no one. His description of the boring north Indian style of architecture in Trinidad, brought over by the indentured workers makes you feel like there is no future for us Indians. I remember a little section where he makes a trip to his ancestral village in India, only to be followed around by a distant relative carrying a sack full of rice, who wanted Naipaul to have his fair share of the family's inheritance.

He probably treats Kashmir with a little bit of respect. While Ruskin Bond would have gone around smelling the Deodars and the Chinars, Naipul simply restrains himself.

I think you picked an awesome book as your first one, but if you like to enjoy your small-town hopping trips of India, taking mental photographs of the quaint bungalows and airbrushing the weeds out, Naipal will shatter your dreams. He definitely broke my heart when as a Desi in Pardes, I could no longer resist the tugs of home.

Will look forward to more such posts from you. Time for my Sundowner, it's amazing how good life is when Malibu tangos with pineapple juice...

Sepiamniac said...

well I have always admired your collection of books...

love this nostalgia...

Srivalli said...

How wonderful!..this reminds me of my own collection..great reading..

margee said...

you remind me that all my collection is going to go in my 'wedding-chest' kit when some day I get married....BOOKS ARE TREASURE IN DISGUISE !!!!
liked your post :)

Neha said...

Great post! I don't even remember which book did I first buy! And now, its a few every month. I actually look forward to book-shopping and I want to buy each one I lay my hands on!

Anubhuti said...

Mr Ghosh, You call a theft a theft & not a hiest, that is why I read you.
Years ago, as a student of litrature, I discovered that often the greatest of writers use the sipmplest of words.
I also discovered that most of the indian writers, love to use eloquent verse.
By the way, ever paid attention to Mr Bond? People think he writes for children, I think he writes in a manner that touches your heart. That I was born in Dehradun, might just be a coincidence. :)