Wednesday, December 25, 2013
On unpacking a carton of books - I
by Ashoak Upadhyay
About three years ago, my wife and I moved to Pune from Mumbai, a shift that involved throwing out a lot of knick-knacks collected over the years and for me bringing home the collection of books that we had kept stored in cartons in a small flat in the northern most suburb of the city.
I decided to set up my library in the Pune apartment and so had the sealed cartons sent over by a bronchial tempo on that may well have been its last journey spewing smoke all along the expressway till it sputtered to a halt below our house.
Many boxes hadn’t been opened in all these years; their contents hadn’t seen the light of day for more than a decade. I had forgotten their existence, the bland, marker-pen inscription scrawled across a side, “AU-Books” offering few clues about their individual identities.
To the assonant sounds of my new neighborhood’s frenetic modernization--vehicular horns blasting, bleating mindlessly, drills screeching through iron rebars at construction sites that spring up like warts overnight on a green landscape and the fetid stink from open garbage dumps overtopped like ice-cream cones that lingers like bad memories, I began wrenching open those boxes. Huffing and puffing.
I tore apart the top-end folds, lifted the files sheltering the piles below from God knows what, began excavating. My breathing slowed, a tinnitus hiss drove off all sounds as I gazed down upon the pile I had pulled out, setting aside one book at a time onto the floor beside my stool. I felt like Alice falling into Wonderland Titles and cover illustrations flitted before my eyes like ethereal images from a forgotten life.
To say that these images awakened an elegiac mood of an age when I had read so many of these works of great literature would be half the story. They altered time from a chronological sequencing, day to night, minutes to hours into time moving elliptically, from one temporal plane to another, fusing, separating but always vivid.
They seemed to have a smell of their own too. A handful of paperbacks, Penguins, let off a musty smell of mothballs and newsprint, pages crinkling as I flipped them. Miss Havisham and her wedding cake! I was young Pip! Then Joseph Conrad floated before my eyes. Conrad! I hadn’t read him in a decade! I pulled one novel out after another: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, his magisterial Nostromo, paperbacks. And then, as if holding them all up, An Outcast of the Islands---a tattered hardback 1929 edition, his scrawl on the last page, “…Cordially Yours…”
All senses, sight, smell tactile immured me into this elliptical time zone. I shut my eyes and saw this callow young man, a promiscuous reader scouring the pavement stalls near Cross Maidan for bargain paperbacks to help him define his place in this world.
Why did he buy Antonio Lobo Antunes’ South of Nowhere? I flipped through it amidst the gathering pile around me. Was it the blurb that described it as a first person narrative of Portuguese colonialism in Angola, its depravity?
I picked up Under Western Eyes, paperback. The bronze horseman on the cover, his forelegs reared up as if to crush a puny figure fleeing before that terrifying prospect took me to pre-revolution Russia just as The Secret Agent brought me to an England that Conrad savaged in that great work.
Continued in the post below: