Every page is a portal

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on April 10, 2020

Keepsakes: The ideal bookshelf is sturdy, airy, accessible and handsome   -  ISTOCK.COM

As the Covid-19 lockdown wears on, the task of cleaning and cataloguing a bookshelf becomes a chance to relive old memories and lives lived

I have come to realise, in my middle age, that I have strong opinions about bookshelves. They should be sturdy, airy, accessible and handsome. This realisation, as it happens, has come rather late in life. My book cupboard, bought at the time we first set up home, is sturdy — and, at a stretch, handsome — but it is certainly not accessible. It is too deep, and the books tend to pile up at the back. Once placed there, they have little chance of ever seeing the light of day.

And so the books stayed, till along came a pandemic. While scrounging for entertainment, and to get away from the relentless barrage of news and views on social media, I turned to my not-accessible, almost-handsome bookshelf for succour.

I launched ‘Project Clean and Catalogue’ with a teenager for company. Rows of books were pulled out. First, a pile of Penguin Modern Classics. Their green spines seemed to brighten in the light they were seeing after so long. They came from a phase in my life when I was capable of reading anything. I could gallop through ‘classics’, reading well into the night, forgetting to switch on the light, my mother’s grumbles a faint background music. Some came from my University days. Some from my early working days, when many of these books were picked up for as little as ₹10 from the warehouse clearance sales of the publishing firm I worked at.

Slowly, even older books appeared — such as Pigs Have Wings, the first PG Wodehouse I ever read. I remember crawling around in front of another, more ancient bookshelf, bored, looking for some book to pop out at me. I opened this one and read the first few lines, and there was no going back from there. I read Wodehouse obsessively for years after that. I talked like a Wodehouse character, I wrote like Wodehouse, till, thankfully, the bug left me, leaving only a faint trail of laughter in the air.

Some books opened out to mysterious inscriptions. DH Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy, a slim volume of travel essays, whose back cover assures us that here we will see “the sense of fun he showed more in life than in his novels”. An unknown hand had written on its first page, “Me and a friend, Shantiniketan 1978”. Who were these friends? Did the two friends ever go to Italy? Or did they read the book together and marvel at the descriptions? I may never know. But Lawrence is now on my bedside and every night, after I have saturated myself with news of the virus, I dip into a world of clear blue skies, remote countrysides, and fields of olives.

In the next shelf, right at the back again, nestled a bunch of books from ancient days of childhood, many of these handed to us as prizes. The one that made me smile was The ABC Book,a beautifully illustrated Russian publication. I took a photo and posted it on my Instagram page. An American friend wrote a puzzled comment, “An English-language Russian book?” How could I explain, in the space of a comment, the phenomenon of Russian-produced children’s books that were a ubiquitous feature of Indian childhoods in the ’70s? There were fairy tales, Russian folk tales and picture books filled with illustrations of rosy-cheeked, red-lipped children and winter landscapes filled with wolves and bears. Those books belonged to a time when we lay idly on a mat on long afternoons, turning the pages, looking at the pictures, narrating the stories to a next-door neighbour or a younger sibling.

A book wrapped in a yellowing newspaper. When my son tried to quickly turn a page, I reached for it at the same time, and the newspaper tore a fraction before coming apart in our hands. We stared at it in dismay. It was The Times of India from 1984. The news was spectacularly boring that day. My eyes moved to the advertisements. One started with a line in bold: “From the frying pan...” It was an advertisement by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Board. Come to Kashmir, it said. Rippling lakes, gardens in full bloom, crisp and clean mountain air. Get invigorated. I smiled at the “invigorated”. The year 2019 was a particularly tumultuous one for Kashmir. It has been a time of heated arguments about nationhood. And, yet, in my hand was the remnant of another Kashmir. I placed the newspaper back in the book as well as I could.

The book wrapped by the Times page was Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar. That is a time piece, too. When it is pulled out next, who will hold it? Who will read the lines about alluring Kashmir? Will we even remember that such a time existed once?

My Project Clean and Catalogue is progressing rather slowly. We are not just clearing the dust, but opening the books, telling each other the stories behind them, wondering about the names inscribed in them. Truth be told, I am not sure I want this work to finish soon. Meanwhile my sturdy, not-so-accessible, maybe-handsome book cupboard stands there, solid, capacious, a storehouse of pages and words and thoughts and ideas. Of memories, of lives, of people loved, and of people lost.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on April 10, 2020

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