The green beans were wrapped in Time. The magazine, not the passage. The lentils usually in a Newsweek. Any purchase of over a kilo of manioc was rewarded by indeterminable foreign newsprint on international affairs as its wrapping. Perhaps my love and insatiable consumption of manioc was linked to the possibility of a reward by way of more crushed, stained newsprint to read. I remember Seeya’s inexhaustible beedis – moist, pungent and I am convinced, which contributed significantly to climate change – came in bundles wrapped in Subasetha, a newspaper devoted to astrology. I suppose it’s not without some irony that chain-smoking would be wrapped in the dark arts of planetary shifts impacting health, wealth and well-being.
Many Ladybird books and all of Blyton I inherited in pristine condition from my sister. The editions of Folk of the Faraway Tree and Famous Five, as well as Just William published in the ’50s and ’60s, are bound and printed so well, they are, to date, in about the same condition as when they were bought around five decades ago. Through them, I wasn’t just repeatedly transported to a Kirrin Island I could feel and littoral England I could smell but yearn to this day to visit some of the lands that the Faraway Tree touched. My sister, I compared with Ethel in William’s fictional travails, but I would like to believe I was a kinder brother. Equally compelling was the entire Brer Rabbit series, by Joel Chandler Harris, of which I inherited again editions from the 1960s, with these amazing illustrations that captured dramatic moments from a singular rabbit’s life, which till you read the books, would never imagine was as compelling. From my grandmother’s immediate family, I inherited a carefully used 15 volume 1973 edition of the Childcraft children’s encyclopaedia. Along with Arkady Leokum’s ‘Tell Me Why’ series, these were my first windows into palaeontology, archaeology, astronomy, science, chemistry, biology and zoology, all of which fascinated me equally.
My grandfather had around 40-50 copies of the Reader’s Digest from the 1940s and 1950s. Their spines had long since given up a battle with humidity, but the pages were largely intact, and read with wonderment. Sputnik, which is best described as the USSR’s answer to Reader’s Digest, I picked up with my father from the People’s Publishing House located decades ago in front of Hotel Nippon. Because in those days a journey to Colombo was a special treat, and an expense my parents could ill-afford more regularly than once a month, we also went to Caves in Fort. Subject and form prizes at S. Thomas’ were given as gift certificates from Lake House. I was somewhat of an eager student, and distinctly remember my father paying much more than the combined value of the gift certificates to buy me the books I chose. He never complained about price or quantity, though even as a child, I was conscious that my purchases had be considered. A subscription in the early to mid-’90s to the British edition of PC Magazine was treasured because of the CD-ROM’s that accompanied every issue, at a time I assembled PCs and was more interested in how things worked instead of just being happy they worked. This meant that I often took apart things for no other reason than the fact they could be taken apart. The hardware was text, and I loved its deconstruction.
As an office-bearer of the Library Society at S. Thomas’ College, I had unrivalled access to the least frequented space in school by the students, next to the Warden’s office. The library in school was well-stocked and my first introduction to Forsyth, le Carré, Forbes, Asimov, Clarke, Pratchett’s Discworld and more current issues of magazines. Incidentally, many moons later, the first visit to the Parliament library reminded me of College, because of how it was entirely bereft of anyone perusing books and with a flustered librarian entirely unprepared for a major crisis involving a few individuals walking in suddenly.
New Delhi during my undergrad days was rich in at least two things. Lead in the air. And books, including second-hand book markets. The first quickly drove me to smoking. It didn’t make any sense being slowly poisoned by lead, instead of enjoying more the inhalation of nicotine, and the exhalation of which resulted in purer air than the city provided for. Of all the South Asian cities I’ve travelled to, Colombo is the worst for books and literature. Delhi in the late 90s sold books by the kilo, because the seller’s were illiterate and didn’t realise the value of first or rare editions. This resulted in at the end of three years a volume of purchases that had to be shipped back. It also started a tradition of frequenting iconic bookstores in cities I visit. Bahrisons in Khan Market, People Tree in Connaught Place (still relatively unknown), the Daryaganj Book Market on Sundays, Greenlight Bookstore in Brookyln, the Strand in New York but also the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, the iconic City Lights in San Francisco, Kinokuniya in Singapore which is so vast, I have never once found the cashier without guidance, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, the multitude of booksellers along the Seine, the Harvard Book Store in Boston, Orell Füssli in Zurich, or back at home, Maradana’s second hand booksellers, who are today a shadow of what they were growing up. The Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India at the time, Mangala Moonesinghe, gave me the High Commission’s old copies of the Economist, to read and returned. His advice? No student must go without reading it, in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world. I was decades away from being able to remotely afford a subscription, but Bagehot, Buttonwood, Banyan, Lexington and Charlemagne columns, with wit and a generosity of spirit even when scathingly critical provided insights into contemporary American and Asian affairs, politics and economics.
All this and more came to mind as I read, this week, an ad for a new Kindle device. I get all the reasons why people buy one, including avid readers who are also frequent travellers. I did too, only to gift it very soon thereafter. I just cannot read on an electronic device. My first encounters with Time magazine smelt of bonchi. I read the Economist in Delhi seated by side-street, eating chapati and egg curry, chatting with a trishaw-wallah in Hindi about the life he escaped from Bihar. There are Edna chocolate stains on my Blyton. Seeya’s Reader’s Digests smelt of his exhalations, long after he had passed away. All Sputniks had a spine so rigid it was as if the Soviets were scared of their propaganda being openly read. The pages of my oldest books are now beautifully discoloured, which brings to sharper relief the old typefaces. Those old books from Lake House still have my grandmother’s meticulously pasted prize certificate pasted on inner page or cover. I still read and love Blyton. Walking into, around and to any bookstore is its own meditation, adventure and experience. Getting lost in a library cannot be digitally recreated on Amazon. No algorithm can ever compare to a librarian’s recommendation engine anchored to a life spent reading, or for those of us fortunate enough to have known him before his passing three years ago, the inimitable Balraj Bahri Malhotra at Bahrisons – refugee, raconteur and living encyclopaedia. At least for me, reading is an olfactory, tactile love affair – with jacket and cover holding more than the sum of a book’s pages. Each book is an invitation to memory, recalled to varying degree, happy to wistful. Anything longer than two pages, I must print out in order to fully engage with. Though I’m perfectly fine with my 12-year-old son reading on tablet as much as in book form, stain, crease, fold, tear, smudge, smell, feel and the unique memories of purchase, first reading and re-reading will always colour my love of books, as books bought from brick and mortar bookshops. And from kadala gotu to bath-packet wrappers, there’s something about the printed word’s reincarnation that is its own story.
As a child, I used to wonder how those pages from magazines came to my corner store. A world without that wonder would surely be a poorer one.
First published in The Sunday Island, 4 August 2019.