Sunday, January 13, 2013

The bookstore that changed my life

One morning in the seventies, I lay raging with fever, and dad, apparently in a mood to alleviate my distressed spirits, enquired what would cheer me up. I have no books to read I answered. That evening, ten or twelve books were set at my bedside, much to my unconcealed joy.
They comprised a wide variety of genres: history, war, crime, boy’s stories, animal stories, westerns, biographies, and sport! Two days later he asked me whether I had selected the ones I wanted to keep. Yes, I responded unhesitatingly, all. Now I realize what made me want to keep all the books. I felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to own them for their intrinsic worth, for the mesh of words they held, and the pictures that illustrated the stories they narrated, an urge to pour over these for extended lengths of time or simply to hold and handle them; flip through the gracefully fanned pages; inhale the aromatic letterpress ink, the spine’s glue. I was mesmerized by the geometric patterns books created when handled, or merely resting, horizontal, diagonal, or vertical. Since then books have been my constant companions.
Mom understood, thank goodness for mothers’ perceptiveness, that my thirst for words had become unquenchable, and started giving us, for my sister too had been bitten by the reading bug, and mothers are impartial in their largesse, Rs 30/- as monthly pocket money for, and here was her caveat, nothing but books. 
The only bookstore of repute in those days was A. A. Husain & Co., in the shopping area called Abids, and it belonged to dad’s close friend, Riyazat Husain Arastu, who ran it along with his twinkle-eyed son, Showkath. To us they were Husain sahib and Showkath bhai.
I met Husain sahib for the first time rather timorously, for even dad addressed him with the ‘sahib’ honorific, and I realized he respected him not simply as an elder, but because there was more to him than being a vendor of books. I learnt this however, over time, during subsequent visits to his bookstore. The gleam of interest in his eyes, when he spotted us climbing the two-three steps into his store, was because we were children, not because he knew father. I warmed up to him from day one, for in the inimitable way of the Hyderabadi, he responded fluidly to my hesitant, self-conscious aadaab, and held out both his warm hands for a handshake!
He quizzed our interests, peering at us with sharp, intelligent, bespectacled eyes. Upon hearing a title or author or even a genre, he nodded or raised an eyebrow towards a bookshelf, and an attendant scampered to gently ease out a book, and offer it to us reverently. This gesture, a common denominator between master and assistants, endeared me to the store. I had seen books being treated worse. The reverence was neither towards us, nor was it because books were their bread-and-butter. It was because they dealt with the intellectual sum of civilization; with the one inert item that when opened and perused had the power to transform the reader into the shapes of it desires. And they respected that strength of the inanimate letterpress in the way they handled books, presented them to customers, spoke about them.
Husain sahib was dissatisfied merely selling us books, and eventually enslaving us to the printed word. He was a natural hobbyist, a born collector, and a meticulous cataloguer, of stamps, coins, postcards, matchbox labels, and other ephemera of modern civilization. And he pressed these pastimes upon us as a natural corollary of reading. He fervently wished we transformed our bookish knowledge, our insatiable inquisitiveness beyond the world of books, into another realm that imbibed human ingenuity, endeavor, enterprise, engineering, and entrepreneurship — all through the simple tactile method of collecting stuff. We must husband our resources to understand the why fore and the whereof of say, a postal stamp, or a coin. His aim was to light a spark that unleashed a raging, flaming thirst for knowledge, circumscribed human intellect and quenched itself in the stream of infinite satisfaction that an absorbing hobby could become.
Did Husain sahib succeed? I do not really know the answer to that. But this I know: I’ve been an avid bibliophile, a crazy bibliomaniac, and an intensive birdwatcher for the past three decades, and I read constantly.
The reason for reading as though my life depended upon it, was Showkath bhai’s charming influence. He was an intuitive tuning fork to a reader’s vibrations. He never pushed an author at you, but suggested one with wonderfully restrained subtlety, as though introducing a friend. Invariably he succeeded, for he followed closely the meanderings of my growing reading preferences, keenly listening when I responded to his probing queries. He encouraged me to read Leon Uris, urging me to ignore the thickness of the paperbacks. I was enthralled by the history of the people of Israel, by Ari’s saga, by the human emotions, frailties, ideals, and values that had to be beaded like jewelry on a single golden thread of storyline. All stories comprise the interplay of these recurring subjects and themes, and I read, dumbstruck at the kaleidoscopic handling, the unique word play of different men and women of letters, as they struggled in their own smithies to forge these phenomena into captivating stories.
When I asked for the novels of Wilbur Smith, a fleeting hesitation shadowed his eyes, but he quickly pulled out the entire shelf and bade me select. I began with the panoramic saga of the Courteneys, and spent days in a stupor, drugged by the power of the tale, by the gift and art of this magnificent storyteller.
Through the various sub-genres of fiction, Showkath bhai whetted my quest with an amazing lineup of authors whose works I took to like a fish takes to water. He then added two genres from the non-fiction shelf: philosophy, and history. He must have pulled out Will Durant’s The story of philosophy at least on three–four of my visits, till he finally convinced me to take a copy home and return it if I did not like it. I read it only a couple of years later, and have been fascinated ever since, by the subject itself, and by Durant’s incomparable style. Like Husain sahib, Showkath bhai too was keen to promote the reading habit, rather than sell books. He would withdraw, after preliminaries, and allow me the run of his store. Time was never of the essence and I recall one or two evenings when I was the last customer to leave. I was so engrossed in the books, I’d forgotten myself.
Over the years I read Hemingway, Steinbeck, Maugham, Greene, Conrad, Conan Doyle, Updike, Wallace Stegner, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Agatha Christie, Peter Mathiessen, Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, Ayn Rand, and many more. To be fair to him, Showkath bhai accepted with grace when I declined any of his suggestions, and I particularly recall James Hadley Chase, Perry Mason, and Hammond Innes among those I turned from. I would try and read all the books of an author, and almost all were bought off Showkath bhai’s shelves. 
A. A. Husain & Co., was a veritable fairyland for an ogling teenage bibliophile, but it had restricted display space, only two large glass windows on either side of its entrance. All one could see of books, once inside the store, were their spines. For some reason I never asked Showkath bhai why all his books were shelved horizontally. I studied them and was so familiar with their layout that I was able to say if a book had been moved. Patterns fascinated me, and a theme on the covers of books by one author, published by a single publisher often stuck in my mind. The solid shelf of black spines, of Penguin Classics’ iconic paperbacks always snagged my eye. It was such a pleasure browsing titles and their legendary authors. I was blessed in having this father and son duo as mentor and guide when I began to read passionately. A. A. Husain & Co., held the charm of the proprietary bookstore run by a knowledgeable, approachable, conversational, owner who effused an endearing personal touch, which is almost unheard of in the glittering corporatized world book business has become. The transformation of the trade, from friendly neighborhood bookstore, to glitzy, multi-cloned pan-continental chain stores has shriveled the passionate bond that existed between the reader and the bookseller. Now dog-eared stackers and speed-reading cashiers people these temples of learning, and browsers are often labeled loiterers.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

An open letter to my children

1st January 2013

Dear ________,

On New Year’s Eve I realized suddenly that you are at a crossroads, where momentous decisions have to be made: career choices, journeys with new life partners, etc. I am confident about your ability to deal with life, for I’ve marveled at your growth from childhood, through youth, into adulthood. Yet, both of us know that the future is an unpredictable void. I asked myself what I could give you to help you deal with the turbulence life splashes in your face, and have below listed some of the things that have steadied my own ship on its storm-tossed journey through the sea of life.

The digital world that is taking over our lives at the speed of light has implicit within its core the ability to draw you away from the real, three-dimensional tactile world we live in. You could keep in touch with every single person you know in this world via the magic of digital social media, but can you physically touch them? Can you hear their belly laugh; wipe away a tear; give a hug and receive one in return; hold hands; share a meal; play a game … yes, there is this reality we miss out on in cyber land, and believe me, the list can be as long as one wishes to make it.
     So in this New Year try and make time to anchor yourself to the real world, peopled by friends and family in flesh and blood, pulsating and palpating with life and emotions. Meet people, empathize, converse, laugh, argue, share meals, walks, books, movies, theatre … but be present with them physically, not digitally.

The pace of humanity’s life on earth is much faster today than it was in my youth, or that of my parents’. While you hurtle through your multi-tasked life, I urge you to make time for quietude, for reflection, a moment for yourself. Take time out to simply sit, to just be, and think. Spool backwards through the day’s episodes before sleeping, stopping to ponder a colleague’s off-the-cuff remark that made you laugh; the reason for a sticky situation; the antecedents of an unnecessary altercation with a loved one. Make such moments work for you daily. You will see how your thought process deepens into the ability to analyse behavior, actions, reactions, ideas and situations; how the cogs of your mind that lead to cognition begin to rotate. The difference between thinking on the fly and pondering at leisure is that of seeing a single frame and absorbing an entire movie. The ability to synthesize thought cogently is not a genetic gift, but the result of training yourself to sit quietly and think, so that you just don’t skim an issue superficially but delve into its multiple-angled intricacies to understand it in totality.

Get physical, and indulge in sport. Too many youngsters follow sport on digital, and print media. Believe me it is nowhere near the real thing. Whether you chase a ball around a squash court or swing it gracefully into the mantling blue from a green square; whether you cleave water in the local club’s pool, or sweat buckets of it in the gym; whether you walk, run, do calisthenics, push weights, climb, bicycle, or whatever, make time to workout. As a descendant of hunter-gatherers, your body is tuned by evolution to thrive in these vigorous physical activities, that are nothing but replacements of those antediluvian straining which is no longer required. Nothing gives your body that vital boost of adrenalin than a sporting indulgence. It is the garnish, the high octane that will fuel your appetite for a fuller life.

I know you read and I celebrate that indulgence of yours. Words define life for us humans, and their innumerable and myriad repositories are books of every conceivable genre. I have nothing against digital books. If they work for you, so be it. The act of reading is of primacy. But books do furnish a room with their symmetrical physicality. They stand in dignified silence upon your bookshelves until you take one down and open it. Only then does it speak to you. It is nearly impossible to get such a human companion in real life, for the sense of power unleashed by an unsolicited opinion far exceeds the self-control required to stop one from blurting it out. The battery of a physical book does not run down, nor does its software expire, neither does the hardware require frequent replacement. A book does not die when accidentally dropped.

Reading is the bedrock of good conversation, the grist for your cerebrations. There is no other medium yet invented by human ingenuity that conveys so much through so little to so many [with apologies to Churchill]. Written descriptions and thought has not yet been successfully transmuted adequately into any other visual or aural medium. Such is the power of the written word. Embrace it, and you hold the world in the palm of your hand. Shun it and you embrace ignorance.

Get passionate about something in life. Allow that passion to energize you with its own purpose. Find a niche and chip away at the block of stone till whatever you’ve envisaged emerges into the shining light of our world. Always remember it is the journey, and not the destination that matters: for the fun is along the way, as is the satisfaction of research, discovery, and implementation.

Take every opportunity to travel and see the world; experience the bouquet of civilization’s cultures and achievements; immerse yourself into the solace of open spaces; occasionally move your horizons from cityscapes to wild landscapes.

The completely changed perspective of a wilderness area is the only panacea for a mind benumbed by the endless friction that our lives have become—for the simple reason that not a line, not a curve, not a gloss, not a hue, not a sound, not a silence, not a stillness, nor even a motion, not a light, nor so the shade, not the perspective, not the haze bears the mark we run from — that of fellow human. In such surroundings you renew yourself by either discarding all your baggage, or you will internalize thought and brush away the cobwebs from your mind. An epiphany will then resonate through your being, that sentience is not the prerogative of humanity, but a means to better comprehend the world we live in, and our place in it. Such an understanding is the beginning of every journey.

I wish you Godspeed, joy, and luck on your wanderings.