Friends As Homing Devices

A peeking rose

 

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanc’d true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

I read this poem a couple of days ago. Only because I stumbled upon it, while I was reading a book. A book, which I had no idea existed, and discovered it only because I saw a movie, which was recommended to me by a dear friend, which, I would have never watched, if it was left to me. How and why this poem found its way to me, intrigues me. In an amusing way, i.e., not in a way that makes me weave the wool of conspiracy with needles of reason. Ironically, this book had itself alerted me to this phenomenon that I was to soon experience. I had smiled, when I read it; it was cute, but to have experienced the exact phenomenon couple of score pages later, was a revelation, it said:

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

Importantly, the above line ended with, “How delightful if that were true.”

Ah, well, dear author, here is a perfect example of why I believe that books have homing instincts. My time to tell you the story.

*

Time-travel is my favourite movie/series genre. It fascinates me, much. The actual time travel not so much, but the implications of it all. The scientific and the philosophical. Needless to say, all time-travel themed movies and series have been binge-consumed and there is nothing left. I move to the War genre.

Out of the blue, a friend asks, if I have watched The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) – I tell her, it has been nagging me on Netflix, but it seems (because of the poster) too mushy for my taste. She urges me to watch it. A few days pass. I do watch it. I love it. I tweet about it. Amit thinks I am talking of the book. I say, no, I watched the film. As gently as he can, he curses my wretchedness, that I haven’t read the book, and Amit being Amit, he explains why. Point well taken. I buy the book. I flip through it. I know, what Amit meant. I start reading the book. It’s enjoyable. Then I stumble upon the homing device statement. I smile. Cute, I say to myself. Then I stumble upon the opening line of a poem, that the character in the book writes of; he doesn’t recall the author. Well, I have Google.

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanc’d true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

These are the opening lines of Malcolm Arnold’s “Hymn to Empedocles,” part of Empedocles on Etna. I’ve never heard of Malcolm Arnold the poet before. More Googling ensues. I am reminded of something else, in the book”

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

And suddenly, late as it is, I am reading “Dover Beach. for sheer enjoyment.”

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

I feel blessed. I thank my friend who suggested the movie. I thank Amit for making me read the book.

I am grateful to the homing devices, that are my friends.

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Irawati Karve

I know it’s titled as such, but this post isn’t really about Irawati Karve.

*

There’s never a dull moment with my mami (aunt; mother’s brother’s wife).

I recently finished reading a book in Marathi – and I am proud of it. So proud, that I suffer from the shout-it-from-the-rooftop syndrome, now. Given that it is my mother-tongue, and I’ve formally studied it only for three or four years. My aunt devours books, mostly Marathi literature, but many other genres as well. She is not very unlike my mother, actually. Needless to say, I told mami about this achievement of mine. Again, needless to say, she was very proud of me. Further, needless to say, we got into a conversation about writers she has read, respected. She mentioned Irawati Karve.

She was telling me about a relatively complex analysis of the characters in the Mahabharat: and I was intrigued. As she was speaking, I instinctively reached for my phone (which was nowhere close to me, because it was being charged, at the other end of the room) – I wanted to Google Irawati Karve.

Here she was, telling me all about Irawati Karve, about her life, times, and her work. Yet, in my head, I was automatically reaching for my phone. Of course, I let my phone be where it was and re-entered the conversation. It was time for our ritual 1AM coffee (something that all my cousins are fond of), and we were now talking of Kamala Sohonie. After a while we were back to Irawati Karve. And I got to know a lot about her. My mami recalled that I had finished a book in Marathi, and urged me to read more. It will be a while before you can digest the presentation of Irawate Karve, but, keep at it. It’s only a matter of vocabulary, for now.

What I learnt about Irawati Karve, from my aunt — I could not find on Wikipedia (Yes, I Googled her the next day). And, perhaps, therein lies the difference between information and knowledge. While consumption of information is not a bad thing; acquiring experiences is more important; is what I thought after I saw myself reaching for my phone.

There’ll be more reading. For sure. And there will be more listening, than searching. Thank you, Mami!

Anti-Anti-Library

I’ve often wondered about my library.

3383: David Sassoon Library & Reading Room

I am inclined to buy books and not join a library to borrow them, when I need. There is perhaps an apprehension that I will need to refer to that particular book again, and it will not be handy. It is usually easy for me to remember what I had read in a book; it’s a bit of a task for me to remember exactly what was written. Buying books, however brings along with it, the problem of their keeping. (If you need to know about my relationship with book, read this) Some years ago, I read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which, I read about the antilibrary:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

I am no Umberto Eco, but this helped reinforce, in some way, the raison d’être for my library. My mom always gives me a look when new books come home. But the looks are not for the books (she is as much a book lover as I am) but because she knows some space will be encroached upon.

*

I was a bit hesitant to open the shrink-wrap of a book. The book was for sale; what if I decided against buying it?

Go ahead, open it. Books aren’t meant to be in a shrink-wrap.

And there it was, in pristine condition, Traces of India – Photography, Architecture & the Politics of Representation 1850-1900. Within five minutes of skimming through, I knew I would buy it. And then, it had to happen. I stumbled upon Concepts of Space in Traditional Indian Architecture. Oh, the pain! The dilemma! The budget! I settled for the later, with a heavy heart. (Wise words floated in the room: The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.) I promised the other book: I’ll be back.

I bought only one book, but brought back four, today, from Trilogy. That’s because the Trilogy is not just a book store, it’s a library too. Given that hardly any local libraries stock books of real interest, I had long given up on joining a library. There’s also the inconvenience of returning books to the library.

The Eternal Library - Trilogy - Membership CardTrilogy was started with lots of love by Ahalya and Meethil Momaya and this love shows when you speak with them in their very tastefully done library. (Unfortunately, they do ask that you return the books in two weeks). Meethil happily removes the shrink-wrap so that you can see inside. Trilogy is a bookstore, a library, and an events location, rolled into one, but you feel the library little more than the book shop. These are of course, early days for this fantastic venture. The library provides flexible membership plans for people who generally don’t borrow books (like me) and allows you to borrow more than one books at a time. Eight books, if you take the family membership. I’ll confess, I wasn’t about to join a library when K&S took me there today. I thought, maybe, if I liked something, I’d buy a book.

I was willingly converted; took a membership. [There’s a fun secret about the membership card, but hey, you’ll know it only if you join]

Trilogy is 37kms away from my place. About an hour, without traffic, which is impossible on Mumbai’s main arterial road. Twice a month, to the library is asking for much. But I am glad about joining. Books aren’t just about words and pages and binding. They are about bonding. With people who love books as much (or more) than you do.

There is of course the disadvantage that I’ll not be able to underline and annotate, but I’ll end up using my notebook more. (Inspired by Thirteen1999). And perhaps, just perhaps, I might not take three months to finish a book. There’s your advantage. Visit teltrilogy.com for more information.

Right now, I have to go finish reading a book that I have borrowed.

🙂

What’s Underlying in the Underline

Down South of the Border, West of the Sun, Moushumi is writing about the humble underline. She thinks it is quite underrated. The post resonates with me. For long, apart from my name, the date & place of purchase, I never wrote in a book. No, not even an underline. But, like it has been for her, things have changed for me too.

From the time I started buying books, I have been extremely possessive about my books. Apart from the yellowing of pages, my books look new. No dog-ears, no scars, no tears, no broken spines. A few of my favourite books sometimes get cling-wrapped. They get opened, and they get cling-wrapped again. And definitely no coffee and food stains. It’s a simple rule; at any given time, you either feed your body or feed your mind. So, Moushumi and I are not very different that way. There was a time when I used to lend and borrow books. Once, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest came back home to me, with a large coffee stain on page 38. I once lent Microsoft Secrets, to the HR head of my old company. It never came back.

That day, I stopped lending.

My friends know this. And I love gifting books, so if I really want someone to read something, I’ll usually gift the book. But I never lend. And by the same standard, I never borrow. The Dharma Bum, when he heard of this theory, agreed with it, but has had second thoughts:

I still cannot bring myself to lend or borrow, but the writing-in-the-book rule is changing. Perhaps, it was because of The Journey to the East. This book is inherited. My father bought it on 8th of August 1982. In the book, I found his annotations: underlines, and notes in the margins. It was a sweet note from heaven. I stopped reading the book and started scanning for his notes. All the notes were boldly done in blue pen. A bit of his soul was in that book. While the book itself is beautiful, it became that much more special for me. When I (re)started reading the book, my own annotations and underlines appeared; but not so bold. I used a pencil.

The Journey to the East; Hermann Hesse; Bantam Press

The Journey to the East; Hermann Hesse; Bantam Press

I now use a combination of stickies, underlines, brackets, and margin notes. It is a good experience to go back to a book that you have read years ago, and to flip through the best and the most interesting parts of the book.  But I still do not lend or borrow books. Which means that all the annotations I make, are only for me. At least for now. A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I’d be happy to lend him my books. Only because I know he respects books as much as I do. I’d lend my books to Moushumi too. However, I cannot (yet) bring myself to feel romantic about dog-ears and broken spines. I don’t see the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes out of mutilation (I know, strong word)

But that may change someday, just like the underlines and the notes. Perhaps I’ll learn that from some book.

We never know, how a book and how a friend may change us.

*

Here are some of the underlines from my books:

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Read-Write-Yin-Yang

As is obvious from the recent posts, that were essentially old photographs, with just three lines (not even sentences) below them – I am not writing much. Apart from the three lines, i.e.

I am excluding all the emails and documents that I write at work, and other small things like search strings in Google Maps on my phone and keywords & tags for articles that I bookmark. Which means that I am writing nothing.

Which is not a bad thing, actually.

Because I am reading. I am reading a few books and a few articles, so I am, in a way, taking time off to read what others have written. Which of course brings another problem: because I now think I am reading, I am buying books (and four were gifted, earlier this month). When I do stop reading and get back to writing, these books will have piled up, like the many which came before them, and I’ll be reading less than what I ought to be reading. Somewhere, I’ll get back to reading all the piled up books, but by then more books will be recommended by friends, bought, and the old books will have to wait.

Reading and Writing is like Yin and Yang.

IMG_6377 (1)

So far, of the three books I’ve read this year, one was good, another was interesting and the third was a waste of time. I read it anyway. To be able to finish three books in a month is no mean feat for me. I read slowly and I usually cannot keep a book down if I get into the groove. Which means that I have to read it till I finish it. I don’t like abandoning books midway, but some authors write such books. Even if they are good authors, sometimes they write badly.

For a while now, however, I have been quite addicted to Longform. For one, the collection is eclectic, for another, the curation is impeccable. I have found myself reading about subjects, topics, events and people, hitherto unknown, and I am enjoying it. It’s quite surprising that you can surprise yourself with what you read and find interesting. Of course, I do make it a point to search for familiar topics, but ever so often, and interesting article surfaces and beckons. Here are just two examples: The Disappeared; How the fatwa changed a writer’s life; by Salman Rushdie and America Unhinged, by John J. Mearsheimer. However, unlike books, you can’t add these to a social sharing site like Goodreads, so I have thought about writing reviews of such articles on my review blog (which I’ll admit, I’ve been thinking of merging with this one).

So, while the yin-yang balances itself, you will see many photos, perhaps small excerpts, and links.

I’ll be busy reading.

The Small Bookshop Survival Guide

A small bookshop has opened up, a couple of months ago, on the other side of the street I live on. I was there when it had opened: was offering huge discounts for the opening week. Not a single discounted book was on my wish list. After a very quick browsing session, I walked out, slightly unhappy that all relatively tolerable bookshops are far away or in the cloud. I miss Waterstones. Crossword has become a stationery shop that sells books, and Landmark is a hassle to get to.

Quote from The Journey to the East, Hermann Hesse

My interest in bookshops grew sometime around when I was seven, I think, when my father used to take the entire family at least once a week to the CLS Bookshop, in Nampally, in Hyderabad. We all had our aisles. I think my mother was the only one who used to get a bit bored there – she is a voracious reader of Marathi literature – and they didn’t stock those. I used to be glued to the comic book section. My father didn’t believe in buying comics. So, while going to the bookshop was always a pleasure and excitable event, leaving the shop (empty-handed) usually was a disappointment. Somewhere early in life I resigned to the fact that I would never own comics and that all my life I would have to read borrowed comic books.

In 2001, I was in Hyderabad for a day, and after the meeting, I insisted that my friend take me to the CLS shop. I couldn’t recall that it was in Nampally, then but I described the entire surrounding area to her (in case and as if nothing had changed in 25 years). We did find it, it is derelict now, and it doesn’t seem to have as many books as I remember, when I was younger. And I was surprised, that in all these years that I have been nostalgic about the shop – I was never curious what CLS stood for. (It’s Christian Literature Society; I discovered that in 2001)

But we had a lot books. He used to buy many books, except comics. So we had Aesop’s Fables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Bal Bhagvatam, All of the Panchtantra and Hitopadesha series.  And many more. Very few of these books had pictures in them and they had many difficult words. So our father got us the Kingsway Illustrated Dictionary and a few years later, he bequeathed his Oxford Concise Dictionary to us. The Kingsway Dictionary, I have fond memories – I liked that because it had many pictures in it – the paper was glossy and the pictures were fabulous. I am sure one of my younger cousins or a niece or a nephew is still using it somewhere. I was not very keen relinquish my favourite dictionary, but the Oxford Concise was too tempting. The word “set” I had been told, had a hundred meanings, and my Kingsway had only twelve. And of course, we were growing up – it probably had meanings of words that I couldn’t imagine asking my parents, my teachers and definitely not my sister. We got a big fat dictionary, yes, but still no comics.

I promised myself, I’d have all the comics when I started earning. I told my father that – and he encouraged me to do that, and he wasn’t being sarcastic. In the meanwhile, I was graduating from the Secret Seven to the Hardy Boys to the Three Investigators (library only – my father wouldn’t buy these books either). My father’s bookshelf was ever-growing – with titles that didn’t make sense. And because of sheer curiosity and the cover pages of the books on his shelves, I was drawn into the world of Richard Bach, Hermann Hesse and Martin Buber and RD Laing. Not much was understood, but it was still read. I stayed away from Demian, because of the cover. For a very long time, I did not buy books. The library circuit was flourishing in Pune and in Mumbai, when I was a student.

Then, I started earning.

I still did not buy comic books, but was raiding my father’s bookshelf more often. I think age made a lot of difference, and we now could talk books, not just read them. A few years later, he passed away and that entire bookshelf was now mine.

My father rarely borrowed books. Even his use of libraries was limited to reference or research. We never understood why he couldn’t do what we did – subscribe to a library. We ended up reading more books for a tenth of the money he spent on books. And when we moved homes, which was often, at least three crates were of books and such. Once, reading through a book that he owned, I saw many notes in the margins. Blue ball-pen. Pencil. Black ink. Darker blue-ball pen. Thinner Black pen. Faded pencil. Even the handwriting was slightly different in each of the notes. He had read his books more than once. I smiled, as I read the text underlined in faded blue:

I, whose calling was really only that of the violinist and story-teller, was responsible for the provision for the music of the group, and I then discovered how a long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength. ~ Hermann Hesse, in The Journey to the East

I think I know now why he did not buy comics for us. In his mind, perhaps the re-readability of those books was limited. In the last ten years, my bookshelf has been stacking-up with alarming consistency. It has swelled to the limit of spilling books, when my mother with her easy air of finality, warned me that I was not to buy any more books unless I bought a bookshelf. For many years now, I have not joined any library, except a sweet birthday present – a subscription to the British Library – and I don’t borrow books nor do I lend, with a few exceptions.

That small book shop, which opened up, a couple of months ago, on the other side of the street I live on seemed to want me to step in yesterday, if only to take-up a few minutes of my time. After about an hour, I put six books on his counter and asked him to process them. I asked him to give me good neighbourly discount and even informed him the price of these books on Flipkart, to give him a benchmark of expectations. He asked, “Are you going to return these?”

I looked at him with surprise.

“If you return these books after reading them, I’ll buy them back at half price, else I’ll discount them, almost to the Flipkart price.”

This is a great survival tactic for small bookshop owners, I thought, notwithstanding my proclivity to keep books in my bookshelf. I have many books that I have bought, read, and not liked, but I have never returned them. They are in the lower shelf, stacked up, not sideways. Perhaps this was a good way to make shelf-space and avoid being admonished by my mother.

“Give me the discount, I won’t be returning them,” I said.

Of Two Storytellers

Harish Krishnan, recently posted The Story of ‘He’ and ‘She’. It’s a story composed of tweets on a Saturday evening. It is new-art, this form of story-telling; I enjoyed it! However, while he says that the story was written, “when the world around me was sleeping,” it’s not entirely true. I was reading this story while it was being told: live.

When you read his post, you will know what the story-teller was saying. Do you wonder, what was going on in the head of the listener? Here it is, the restless mind of one of the listener who thought of himself as a storyteller too:

It is fortuitous, that just after I read this most wondrous book about storytelling, this saga of storytelling happens to me.