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The Book

P wonders how books carrying fond memories of friends and relatives find place in grimy sidewalks and narrow alleys

Parthapratim Mandal
Sat, Aug 9 2014

About Parthapratim

As a teacher and freelance journalist, I write articles on socio-cultural and literary issues. Recently my book “কথার ফোটোগ্রাফি” (An introduction to Jacques Prévert and translation of his poems from French to Bengali) was published.

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On the top right hand corner of the title page are written the words:

To ‘Tapu’

The book, MAN-EATERS OF KUMAON, the enthralling account of Colonel Jim Corbett of his tiger-hunting in Kumaon, is now there, kept prominently at the most discernable section of the bookcase. Still unscathed by its intricately long and perilous journey – the tiger in the cover as living as when it was photographed – the book is surely a prized collection gathered from the dust of the city footpath.

Looking distractedly at the wooden shelves P wonders how books carrying fond memories of friends and relatives find place in grimy sidewalks and narrow, dimly lit alleys.

Ignorance? The inability to judge the preciousness of a priceless treasure? Or simple indifference, apathy to the feelings of those who care for them so much, or is it poverty that compels them to sell their possession for pittance?

P once read the story of a French book critic who lamented how these invaders into his small two-room flat were slowly eating up the whole space ousting the owner from his rightful place. Or should we call it a philosophical kind of non-attachment to all earthly things that make them lie so pitifully on rain-washed and sun-scorched streets among yellowish old periodicals and crinkly secondhand school books?

The entire stretch of College Street from M G Road to Medical College is littered with them. As for poverty, it suddenly struck P what he had read long ago in Gorky’s Childhood. When the poor little hero of the story passed the examinations for the third class, he was presented as a reward for good work a Certificate of Honour, a Bible, a volume of Krylov’s fables, and another book bearing the enigmatic title of ‘Fata Morgana’.

His grandfather was deeply touched and announced that they must carefully preserve the books and put them away in his strongbox. Then one day he heard the poverty-stricken grandfather groaning and wailing to his grandmother who had now been ill for several days: “You’ll be the ruin of me – you’re eating me out of house and home…..”

The orphan boy who loved his grandmother too much took the books to a bookstall and sold them for fifty-five kopeks and gave the money to her.

Not only the entire stretch of College Street, these books occupy large parts of many city streets of our ‘cultural citadel’. And if luck favours, it is not difficult to find precious pearls from among the dumped pebbles. P remembers how a kid once sold him a complete Arden Shakespeare just for Rs 30. How much for this?--- P had asked picking up the almost new volume from a heap of semi-porn second-hands. Give 50 rupees Sir.

The boy weighed the book, turned the pages, saw they contained no pictures. The deal was concluded at rupees thirty. And when P told the story to one of his bibliomaniac friends he showed him at least a dozen invaluable titles with signatures of celebrities and noted scholars in them.

So here we are. A fond mother pouring out her deepest affection for her dear son or daughter who might now be far away or she herself in another world. P’s imagination, ever obliging, conjures up the scene. As for the particular book, what a remarkable coincidence that it was gifted from Nainital! And now to think of the smoke and dust it accumulates – the smoke and dust that Kolkata everyday fills the lungs of its children with -- down from the sublimity and immensity of the foothills of Himalaya!

P had seen in his childhood the most humiliating death of a dog that from this serenity, by the strange ways of destiny, was condemned to this hell. The cute woolly puppy brought from the hills by the old man who lived next door all alone during one of his yearly trips to the Northeast met a most pathetic end when its master passed away.

P still remembers how the pampered animal lived the last few years fighting with the street dogs for every scrap of food, how it slowly pined away and its stinking body was found one day half immersed in the big open drain at the back of the house.

Another picture suddenly passed P’s mind. It was a letter they read at school, not exactly a letter, rather a prose piece on letter writing. The author quotes a letter written by Carlyle to his brother Alec. It begins with a touching description of his mother. “Good old Mother”, Carlyle writes, “she is even now sitting at my back, trying at another table to write you a small word with her own hand; the first time she has tried such a thing for a year past……” And it goes on. P hasn’t forgotten the remark the author of the piece makes in the end. ‘Can’t you see Alec reading it in his far-off home and eyes moistening at the picture of his old mother sitting and writing her last message to him on earth?’

Such haunting thoughts can only be solaced by the philosophical introspection that nothing in this universe is forever lost. P’s newly found interest in spirituality makes him feel that nothing and nobody really dies in this universe, nor is there anything called ‘birth’.

Yet all this may sound very foolish – these far-fetched stories, these weak sentimentalities! A feeling of discomfort crosses P’s mind – he feels very much embarrassed -- still he cannot do away with the question : Why then the very presence of the book, its mere existence there in the room appear so haunting, why does it send a chill down his spine? The answer P cannot find. The book displayed prominently in the bookcase gives him only one assurance. It’s that at least for a few more years it has been given a new lease of life. Ten, twenty or even thirty, considering the average span of life? And if by then the already yellowish pages do not die a natural death, they may find themselves again in the safe custody of someone else. But that’s not going to be very soon, at least not before the present custodian takes leave. Or can it be tomorrow? P doesn’t know.

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bullet Comments:

Kajari Guha (Thursday, Aug 14 2014):
The wonderful post makes me nostalgic.The advent of e-books,however,is a challenge to preserve the precious possessions,yet the yellowish pages offer a strange feeling that can be detected only by heart , not mind.Kudos to the author and Probashi post for sharing!


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