Saturday, January 03, 2009
The David Sassoon Library at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai has a charm that doesn’t belong to the present times. It is a product of the past – a time when people had time.
In our times, it is part of the venue for the admirable Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and attracts a particular set of people who otherwise ignore the library.
I have often imagined my grandfather Harischandra Bhatt getting on to a BEST bus or a tram from Princess Street, where he lived and died, and getting off at the Kala Ghoda, climbing up the broad stone stairs of the David Sassoon Library, choosing that perfect spot on the vast verandah of the library that faces the Museum, stacking his books on one of those enormous chairs on which one can not only rest one’s arms but even legs, and spending the afternoon reading Rilke, Baudelaire and Lorca.
But that wouldn't have been him. He bought his books, most of the time. Besides, Harischandra was a member of the Petite Library (JN Petite Institute Library) on the Hornby Road (Dadabhai Naoroji Road). The Petite Library is also a heritage site today, but lacks that little something that David Sassoon has.
My father Meghnad was a member of the David Sassoon Library, but he rarely used the membership to borrow books. He hardly had any time left to borrow books from the library after working 18 hours a day (as an accountant and a teacher), freelancing as a columnist, running a trade union and writing poetry. Also, just as his father, he had his own library.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I made good use of the library card, if not the library. I found the library a bit intimidating.
One of the best books that I borrowed from the library was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Irving was an unknown author then. But this novel had become a major sensation. I read it in the late 1970s; probably a year or two after it was published.
It was breathtaking in its originality and innovative style. Garp is the main character of the book. He is conceived when his mother rapes a vegetating soldier at a hospital and names him TS Garp (the initials are the soldier’s rank – Technical Sergeant).
Garp’s (Irving’s) obsession with sex was something that one saw in almost all good American authors of that era (Post WW II), starting with John Updike and included everyone of any caliber. Those were the wonderful days when the excesses of the 1960s and the 70s had yet to reach a full circle and explode into the fearsome outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s.
Novels and novelists in the West remained preoccupied with sex. Perhaps the natural outcome of this was the flowering of writing in English language from other parts of the English-knowing world – most notably India. But we will deal with the phenomenon of Salman Rushdie some other time.
The most innovative aspect of The World According to Garp was the inclusion of a novella, a short story and (if I remember) a poem in the novel itself. I had never read a book such as this one ever before. It was at once bizarre, brilliant, scathing, sardonic and disturbing.
Many years later, on a particularly bleak monsoon evening at my Teli Gali home, when my world was seemingly closing in on me, I switched on the television and flipping the channels back and forth for a while I settled on Star Movies. A Robin Williams movie was on air that seemed familiar even though I had not seen it before. It took some time for me to realize that the movie was The World According to Garp.
Somehow, it didn’t hold my attention for long. I have said this earlier, and I will repeat it again. Except the Godfather and Gone with the Wind, I have not seen a movie that is better than the book. This one was no exception.
John Irving went on to attain international fame after this novel, and wrote many novels later. I haven’t read any of these, and I don’t think these surpass The World According to Garp in creativity and imagination.