A bookshelf, a lifetime

Updated: Jul 06, 2020, 07:56 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

How many of us can relate to our life's journeys by the books on our shelves? A simple (but meticulous) task of engaging in some spring or now, monsoon-cleaning, managed to do just that as I found out

Fiona FernandezIt was a home chore that was staring me in the face for a while now. A film of dust had been sitting pretty, especially on the big daddies; the heavyweights, hardbound reference titles that are respectfully brought down from the highest section as they happen to be my go-tos while working on research-backed news stories. Face-masked and adequately equipped with dusters, I began revisiting my old, middle-aged and new-age friends on the bookshelf.

The reference gurus got first priority due to their size, far-reaching position and age. Many, if I might correctly estimate, have been around for nearly three decades, purchased from those wonderfully tempting offers by Reader's Digest that most bibliophiles of a certain vintage would rarely miss or from Fort's sidewalk secondhand sellers. A few lighthearted years of college came racing back, too; thrillers like Papillon and Leon Uris's wartime reads used to be consumed with a lot of intent. I had also treasured priceless classics from English literature lectures, from Brontë and Tolstoy to Poe. I was happy to reacquaint myself with two of my all-time literary heroes Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights), and Anne Frank.

I recall another phase when the world of books was bursting with every known face keen to tell their life stories. It was the liberalisation era and India was opening up. And so, autobiographies became my calling, thanks to heavily discounted rates offered by Strand Book Stall. God bless Mr. T Shanbagh for being the unofficial biblio ambassador of Bombay; he enabled so many young broke collegians like yours truly to nourish the reading habit in those days.

By the early 2000s, the Bombay bug had bitten me, largely because of the research required for the books that I had been commissioned to write. Unlike now, where sections on Bombay literature and history are easy to source, finding information then meant heading into the dusty, overwhelming corridors of the lending section of the Asiatic Society Library. Once again, Strand would come to the rescue, if a purchase had to be made. Else, those annual Sunderbai Hall mega sales would be my last bet.

Graphic novels and visual books had made a splash by then, and so the new cool nook at the time, Oxford Bookstore had become my adda. The bliss of sipping chai on a rainy day at Cha Bar with the latest find, overlooking the Oval Maidan, had resulted in many buys until it sadly shuttered. Speaking of bookstores, visits to Higginbothams in Chennai, Gangaram's in Bengaluru and Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata, would also lead to 'loots', especially for regional translations and urban history and architecture.

Of course, the autographed gems collected over the years, bring maximum joy. I recall this one meeting with Ruskin Bond at an author's conclave in Bombay nearly 15 years ago that was organised by his publisher [we shared the same publisher for a while]. I happened to be seated beside him by the time dessert was served. "I'm not supposed to eat too much chocolate, but could you please get me a second helping of that delightful mousse?" he requested, with childlike glee. I obliged, and the autograph happened in a jiffy.

While on an assignment in December 2012, I had to interview Ustad Amjad Ali Khan for his book My Father, My Fraternity. It was a few days after the passing of Pandit Ravi Shankar. The praise and respect for the sitar maestro seamlessly flowed along with the book's contents and a moving note of thanks for the conversation. That it was an interview was forgotten.

The warm note by Daman Singh, Dr Manmohan Singh's unassuming daughter, in Kitty's War, her fictional tribute to the Anglo-Indian community is another special memory. She walked in minus any security, addressed a group of AIs at a reunion in Loyola College, Chennai, and patiently entertained queries from folks like us after her session.

Each of these books, and hundred others made the road back to my bookshelf carrying with them stories and anecdotes. And as the last title was dusted, I felt I'd lived a mini lifetime as I cleaned every spine and jacket. To borrow my state of mind from American author Anna Quindlen after those three hours of therapy – 'Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.'

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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