Searching for books we have always wanted to read is something of a painful pleasure we go through at some point or the other. About a decade ago, I happened to step into a second-hand bookstore somewhere in a small town in Yorkshire. The second-hand books looked rather new to me. That was testimony to the care with which the shop owner had been looking after his goods, if you can call them goods. He was there, obviously convinced that I was a serious enough buyer. He pointed to the various shelves in the store, which in itself was for me a rather agonising affair. After all, you cannot get your hands on all the books in a store, can you? And because you cannot, there is that faint crack somewhere in the heart to let you know of the spasms of regret you are about to go through.
But in that Yorkshire bookstore on that cold afternoon something of a miracle happened. On one of the shelves stood Barbara Tuchman’s much acclaimed The March of Folly, a tome I had been looking for over the preceding quarter of a century. I must have begun grinning from ear to ear, for the shop owner, a tall Englishman, stretched his hand out to the shelf, let the book slip between his fingers and then handed it to me. I walked out a truly happy soul. Finding a book you have consistently wanted is something akin to reunion with the one you loved before she went missing. Or put it another way. It is something close to communion with the stars after years of trying to break through the nocturnal monsoon clouds.
Tuchman is now with me. She will be with me until the end, after which someone in my clan will hopefully decide to thumb through it as a way of remembering the ages of man and politics the writer focused on in her reflections in a very distant era. In a similar way, Helene Hanff will be part of my life from here on. Her seminal work, 84 Charing Cross Road, which by now has taken the shape of a movie, is a book I have wanted to read for ages. Somehow the opportunity did not present itself, for the book proved pretty elusive for me despite all the bookstores I have walked into in South Asia and elsewhere. But in the final days of quite a long-ago December, on a trip to Kolkata and in a browse through the bookstore Crossword on Elgin Road, I ran into the Hanff book. It is a slim work, a masterpiece which speaks of the twenty-year epistolary correspondence between an American reader and a British bookstore owner on the availability and supply of books desired by the former. No conversation can be higher in quality than one on books. Hanff and the owner of Marks & Co on 84 Charing Cross Road inform you, by taking you on a journey through times when letter writing was an enlightening experience, just what it means to share thoughts on books.
So I have Helene Hanff’s book, now resting proudly on the little table beside my bed. It shares space with Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (with that famous image of Kate Winslet on the cover). I have read it with gusto and with alacrity. No, I did not see the movie made of the work, though watching Winslet is always a riveting affair. Truth be told, movies that emerge from famous books do not always do justice to the written narrative. Years ago, I read Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and then spent days dreaming of the seductive Bathsheba Everdene as she was in my youthful imagination. And then I saw the movie. The book beat the celluloid version of it by miles.
I have often been in the company of Jawaharlal Nehru, indeed many times over. Shashi Tharoor is to be thanked for it, for it is through Nehru: The Invention of India --- among so many other works on the statesman --- that I have been in a process of rediscovering India’s iconic political leader. There was a huge dose of idealism in Nehru. And yet there was turbulence in the man. He was perhaps that rare instance of a politician who would tackle hecklers head on, by jumping off the stage and physically running them out of the compound. And, of course, there was the lover in him. All men endowed with great intellect are fantastic lovers drawn to the sizzling beauty of women. Nehru falls into that category. Tharoor’s work whets your appetite about Nehru. The energetic writing he brings into relating the story of his protagonist’s life makes this book a new treasure in that old trove you have had for years.
Which reminds me. My journey through Richard Sorabji’s account of the life and times of Cornelia Sorabji has been an experience in discovery. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is a work I have already gone through. Jairam Ramesh’s Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi and Rasheed Kidwai’s Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics are new acquisitions that I must rush through.