When a book finds you

Sundays at Daryaganj’s book market: “My father likes to say that beer is best drunk in quantity. He feels similarly about the consumption of books”   -  KAMAL NARANG

For a lover of second-hand books, buying a book pales in comparison to the sheer delight of chancing upon one

I was dying to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’d discovered him through my mother and a cover-less paperback that contained her favourite Bradbury short story The Veldt, about two kids so addicted to their virtual reality (VR) nursery that they feed their parents to VR lions. But even at his most gruesome (and prescient?), Bradbury has a sheer open-mouthed enjoyment of the strange and unexpected — from him, I learned to love dystopia. I even tried to write it. “He chocked. He was chocking. He would be chocking until death,” I wrote, aged 11, before taking things to a grim conclusion: “Then suddenly his head burst”.

A world in which books were crimes? It was a dystopian vision that held a particular thrill — in such a world, I might be a criminal.

So I was burning to read it, Bradbury’s novel about a book-less future, but it did not occur to me to look for it in a bookshop. I was sure I would find it on the book-strewn pavements of Daryaganj in Delhi.

My father likes to say that beer is best drunk in quantity. He feels similarly about the consumption of books. I remember Sunday after Sunday spent trawling through Daryaganj, buying books by the armful (literally; why did we never take a bag?).

It was here that I found my Champaks and Mad Magazines, my joke books, record books, anthologies. My favourites were a couple of anthologies called Spectrum and Kaleidoscope, collections of odds and ends: Exchange rates, letters, the Beatles and the Bible, some as prescient as Bradbury. A newspaper report from the 1970s that declares global telecom the world’s “most complex machine” (it reports 350 million telephones then; in 2014, the number of mobile connections outstripped the world’s population). A song by Tom Paxton, ‘What did you learn in school today/ Dear little boy of mine?... I learned our government must be strong/ It’s always right and never wrong’. Their editor, Michael Swan, dedicated one of the volumes to his mother, “who loves anthologies”. Reading this, I realised so did I.

It was in Daryaganj, or in the curated version of it that comprised my father’s library, that I found Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, Jane Austen and Tom Sharpe, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words and the entertainments of grammar (“If you wish, you may remain blindly intolerant of the split infinitive, but...”). There was a collection of Gothic thrillers by Louisa May Alcott, which I didn’t enjoy, having no interest in Alcott’s writings, apparently, unless they featured Jo. And, of course, everything PG Wodehouse ever wrote.

Not everything I found made sense. I read JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye when I was 11 and it gave me a headache. Once, I found a lavishly illustrated volume with a succinct title, Sex. The next day, I invited three friends home from school so we might gawk at it. Age-appropriateness aside, none of it was necessary. Did my father really need a dictionary of the Hausa language? But he had one; and it sat there for years, suggesting possibilities.

We were not a religious family; perhaps I missed a sense of mystery. If not divinity, then books, at least, gave me a sense of providence.

My sister and I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman through its first volume via a friend, but we did not buy all the others all at once. First, because they were impossible to find.

One year we would find the third volume, another, the eighth. We knew what happened in the end before we knew why, and somehow that was better...to have the books come to us as fate allowed.

Authors were mysteries too, and their subjects. I knew as little about F Scott Fitzgerald as I did about the Jazz Age and there was nothing beyond the blurb — no photo, no internet, no barrage of gossip and opinion — to guide me.

(The first author I truly ‘knew’ in this way was Arundhati Roy, whose reviews and interviews I devoured, whose references to Khan Market gave me a thrill — and whose The God of Small Things I read brand new.)

Or I’m overthinking it. My father likes to buy books in quantity, and there was no way to do this 30 years ago unless you bought them second-hand. Books are more accessible now, but the idea has stuck, in some mutated form: A book that I plan to buy is rarely as exciting as one I chance upon.

When I found Fahrenheit 451 in Daryaganj, my heart leaped. I had believed it would happen, and it had. I went home so dizzy and eager that the story has never been more than a blur in my head. But maybe that doesn’t matter.

It turns out, dystopia doesn’t so much ban reading as bury thought — often, ironically, in shrill simulation of ‘argument’ — and it’s comforting to remember that anticipation once had its thrills, that knowledge accrued in accidental waves, that books were long breaths between one reader and the next.

(Anecdotal and Unverified is a new monthly column on books and writing)

 

Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on March 15, 2019

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