lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Affair, anybody?

There are affairs and affairs.

There are the torrid impetuous variety which happen because your common sense was on vacation and forgot to inform you. And then there are life-long affairs you have with a hobby.

My own affair is with reading. I don't know when I started to read, or if I was taught formally in the 'a aa, e ee, u oo' fashion, but most memories of my childhood involve scrabbling for a book or a magazine. "I first!" was the triumphant, if ungrammatical cry we siblings warbled as we grabbed new reading material.

Chandamama, Balamitra and whatever weeklies that were in their heyday were the staples. There were a lot of Telugu magazines to read in those days. My father received complimentary copies whenever he published; and my mother because she combined being an agony aunt and being proto-yellow pages in a question-answer column: there were always magazines to read.

And always, there was my father's library.

Reading was as essential as breathing in my family, then. I used to read the new text-books at the beginning of each year, never bothering to open them again during the year.

Enid Blyton was discovered, hand in hand with the virtues of waiting and self-denial.

All my pocket-money went into buying Enid Blyton novels. I never had money to buy chips or chocolates, hence I avoided all the adolescent acne angst. Delayed gratification wasn't a phrase coined then, but I knew all about it when I saved all my money and went weekly to the City Book Shop in Pondy Bazaar to buy whichever title I had my eye on.

Though I continued to read Telugu literature, Denise Robbins, Barbara Cartland, Lucy Walker and Georgette Heyer were soon part of my must read authors list.

I remember reading a Lucy Walker novel in school, when my teacher confiscated the book. I raged mutely at the injustice of it, as I had finished whatever assignment we were set before dipping into the book. Two days later, the book was sent home to my mother; it turned out my teacher hadn't read that one, so she pulled rank and grabbed it. :D

These novels were all part of my mother's reading material, but I was exhausting the readable books in my father's library. He had hundreds, yes, but I wasn't desperate to read linguistics theories and archaeological survey reports. And you can't read classics continuously.

Buying books is an expensive hobby, and occasional presents of books were rare events. The blatant plagiarism by cinema producers came in useful here, as my father was regularly given such books to see if the plot could be adapted for a film.

Then I discovered lending libraries. Madras had a profusion of them, each famous in its locality. I became a member of Pastime, which was small and friendly. Gyan, who ran it, used to repair watches and clocks as a hobby and soon became a dear friend as well as book-lender. We'd chat for hours, sipping tea and watching the world go by; and he'd recommend books, fish out the new ones that he kept stashed in one of the drawers of his desk for favoured customers. But Gyan's collection wasn't enough to satisfy my hunger for the genre I discovered there. Horror.

I started patronising Raviraj lending library, two storeys crammed with somewhat tattered books of so many genres. Westerns, mysteries, romances... Raviraj had them all. My one criterion in choosing the libraries was their proximity. They had to be within walking distance, so I needn't waste some of my precious allowance on bus fares.

Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Modesty Blaise books, Nick Carter books, Bond books, Lois L'amour, J T Edson, horror novels, science fiction... That library was my slice of paradise. My sisters read Mills & Boon romances, but I steadily moved away from romances toward science fiction and other stuff.

When I moved to Delhi, I suffered withdrawal symptoms. There were no lending libraries! How do I get my weekly dose of popular fiction? It seemed a rare habit to read in Delhi.

There was a small book-shop in Hauz Khas where we lived, and I discovered that they lent books. But it wasn't the same as the cramped and crammed-full of shelves ambience that Raviraj had and the shelves weren't exactly stuffed to overflowing either.

I took to buying books from Janpath kiosks, where you could buy any book for 10 Rupees. Most of my science fiction collection was bought from Janpath.

When we moved to Calcutta, my inner reader was prepared and primed. As soon as we settled in, I went on a hunt for bookshops and lending libraries. Calcutta was a revelation, though. The second-hand books sold on Golpark pavements were cheap. Then I joined Orchid, a lending library in the area. I had my steady diet of fiction and was set, somewhat.

Orchid's owner knew books, but couldn't afford to cater to superior tastes. If I wanted to read romances and bonk-busters and chick-lit, his library was a good source. Ditto for bestsellers and thrillers. But other than a cursory nod at classics, which I mostly had read already, his offerings were not eclectic enough for me.

But still, beggars can't be choosers. We had a routine of a monthly visit to Oxford Bookstore, and I did used to borrow from their library in my early years in Calcutta. But the distance factor figured largely.

And then came Eloor to Calcutta. Only a few ads in print, no fanfare. But, oh wow!

My neighbour's boy brought it to my attention. In '98, I was reeling with the twin pangs of losing my father and losing my child to boarding school. And Eloor when I visited it, provided the best solace: books; as many as I could borrow.

It had strange principles and rules, this library did. 10% of the book price was the reading fee. But hey, that works out cheap in the long run. And did it have variety. Hoo boy!

Whether I felt philosophical or in the mood for comics, whether I wanted to read religion or romance, whether I wanted self-help manuals or Indian writers in English, whether I felt like going back to Enid Blyton and William books or young-adult literature, this library had them all!

Housed in four rooms and a corridor of shelves, Eloor seemed to have it all. I found my slice of paradise again.

But for me, the best thing that happened in my reading life was having to get an e-mail address so that the man who owned the business could write to me and request me to come aboard as a buying advisor. :D

I am a certified reader now.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

No Comments Matilda?? On one of your best written piece?? This is, am sure before your fans had discovered you!!!

Nostalgia, Nostalgia. You always manage to take me back to those days of yore!

Have gone through all those channels...the best time I have had personally was during my Pre-University when I used to rush over during my lunch break to the school where Mum worked as the librarian. Gobble lunch and sit down and have a good read for a couple of hours....Its another matter that I invariably missed a couple of lectures after the lunch break....

3:52 pm  

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