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Wednesday, Aug 04, 2004

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A bonding beyond the books

P. Devarajan

One doubts whether anyone, young or old, protested over the bookstalls cluttering the pavements, as it was always thought a decent way of doing business.

FROM Kishor Rithe in Amravati to Dinesh Kothari in Indore, every one has spent some time to buy old books encasing the frayed aroma of times gone at Flora Fountain in Mumbai. That is to change with the Mumbai Municipal Corporation serving the booksellers quit notices to preserve the area as a no-hawking zone.

Since 1969, one has walked past the area, stared hard at the row of books affixed to the walls of the old buildings in the area, hiding sometimes rare editions, to strike precious bargains and make friends with the vendors.

The first book one picked up was in 1969 and that was Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon for four annas, which one subsequently sold at Rs 4 to have a good lunch at Anand Bhavan.

Reading the news item in the Times of India on Tuesday, one scanned the bookshelves at home for some of the titles bought at Fort. One felt proud owning The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, the Life of Tenzing and some books by Gerald Durrell, though Fort is not strong on Indian wildlife. Recently, one picked a hardbound copy of the Hymns of the Gurus by Khushwant Singh, Garden Flowers by Vishnu Swarup and a rare book on Cacti.

Fort helped those with thin pockets to build libraries as the regular bookshops such as Strand are costly despite discounts. Till at least the '90s, one could pick up an English classic to note inside the inscription of a school principal to his ward, "May God be with you"; the kid, grown old, might have sold it as raddi without his principal ever knowing it.

After the '90s, computer and management books swamped the place and the rest gave in without protest. The vendors may not have read a single book while they knew their monetary value.

My daughter, Vidya, has a set of Agatha Christie thrillers entirely picked up from Fort and when she read the news she felt sore. One is sure that a few employed in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation will be unhappy turning the book vendors out as they might have spent a few minutes buying books at the spot.

One doubts whether anyone, young or old, protested over the bookstalls cluttering the pavements, as it was always thought a decent way of doing business. Take time out from office, go for a stroll, pick up a book, read a bit, haggle with the vendor, return the book in a huff only to come back and clinch the deal. There was nothing planned, it was just a whim.

The footpaths and walls have a skin of history though poet Dilip Chitre may be right when he says: "The skin has no memory and the memory no skin."

Sometime in 1980, one sold two volumes of poetry given by Ruskin Bond for Rs 10 a piece and carried a guilt till the next day when one reversed the transaction at Rs 20 per piece. Forever, one is thankful to the fellow at Fort for holding on to the two volumes. It is hard to get them today and one has not come across any anthology which includes Bond, as he is probably not "sufficiently intellectual," in writing about Dehra, mountains and flowers. The inside pages of the two books bear Bond's blessings and signature in green ink, "To Dev, With best wishes."

Three of us - Dilip Raote, Allwyn Fernandes and I - dropped in on Bond at Mussoorie on the afternoon of October 21, 1975, and when we left, the poet handed me two books of his poetry: It Isn't Time That's Passing (poems 1970-71) and Lone Fox Dancing. This morning one read Bond's poetry. The two volumes bound by Julamiah Mohiuddeen with cotton handloom sari, cloth woven, have been published by Writers Workshop of P. Lal in Kolkata. Does this workshop exist?

Like his prose, the poems are easily laid out and make the reader happy. In Lone Fox Dancing, Bond writes: "As I walked home last night/I saw a lone fox dancing/In the cold moonlight; I stood and watched/Then took the low road, knowing/the night was his by right; Sometimes, when words ring true/ I'm like a lone fox dancing/In the morning dew." Or in the poem The Trees, he says: "They know me for a dreamer of dreams/a world-loser, one of them."

The lines which make one bubble with good cheer are those on his grandmother: Grandmother's tree-climbing (for women's rights). The poet says his grandmother was a genius "because she could climb trees." One day she climbed a tree and couldn't come down. The poet ends: "She called for my father and told him undaunted/that a house in a tree-top was what she now wanted."

Ruskin has spent a life staring and rhyming or has he because at one place the poet asks, "When will I learn the value of stillness?"

For this writer, Bond's blessings have been with him for long. Thank you, Sir.

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