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Love among the bookshelves

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Love among the bookshelves. After I lost my father I continued my schooling in Simla, at Bishop Cotton’s, but for my winter holidays I would come to...

After I lost my father I continued my schooling in Simla, at Bishop Cotton’s, but for my winter holidays I would come to my mother’s and stepfather’s home in Dehradun.

‘Home’ was never in the same place. Problems with the rent and unrelenting landlords were constantly plaguing them, and every time I came down from the hills I would find them in a different house-one of those being a rather dilapidated old bungalow on the Eastern Canal Road.

Here, I was given a room of my own, a rather gloomy room with a roof that leaked badly; but at least it was my own room, and most of the time I was left to my own devices, my mother and stepfather having given up trying to turn me into a great shikari.

That year I had come down from school with two or three books given to me as prizes-for literature or history if I remember rightly. One was ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’, and I decided that-having little else to do-I would read right through the plays, every one of them, as well as the poems and sonnets. This task I accomplished within a month. I can’t say I enjoyed the exercise, the Elizabethan vocabulary and style being something of a deterrent, but two or three of the plays did take my fancy- ‘TheTempest’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘King Henry V’ I had just seen Laurence Olivier’s film ‘Henry V’, and this helped the written word come alive for me. Shakespeare needs to be performed-and performed well-to be appreciated. I even ploughed through the long narrative poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, but it failed to excite me; I suspect that it was written by someone else.

One stormy night, with thunder and lightning at play and the roof leaking in several places, I found it difficult to sleep. Mugs, pots and pans had been placed around the room to receive the dripping rainwater. Fortunately we did not have power cuts in those times, so I was able to keep the light on.

The book that came to hand was Emily Bronté’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, the perfect choice for a night of gusty winds and driving rain. And the story and the writing held me so compellingly that I stayed up to about three or four in the morning in order to finish the book. The intensity of the writing, the passion and conflict inherent in the story and its characters, captured the imagination of its thirteen-year-old reader as no other book (barring David Copperfield) had done till then.

Last month, some sixty-five years after first reading ‘Wuthering Heights’, I turned to it again, to see if it still gave out the same passion and power. And once again, I was up all night, unable to stop reading until the very end. There are not many books that can stand up to a second reading after a gap of many years. Some of Conrad’s stories have stood up to this test. ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ still hold me in their thrall.

Favourite passages from Dickens can be enjoyed again and again. So can humorous classics such as ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ or ‘Three Men in a Boat’ (To Say Nothing of the Dog) or Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississipii’. Or Kipling at his best, or a great biography such as Boswell’s ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’. But to return to that leaky little room on Dehra’s Eastern Canal Road.

We had a radio set, and sometimes I would listen to the BBC’s General Overseas Service to comedy programmes such as Tommy Handley’s ITMA (It’s That Man Again). In an interview Tommy Handley had said that ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ was his favourite book. So I went in search of it. I couldn’t find it in Dehra’s two small bookshops. But two years later I located it in a Simla bookshop, in an Everyman edition, and spent all my pocket money in obtaining it. Nor was I disappointed.

Whenever I read it, it has me in stitches. However, the humour is very English and not everyone finds it funny. Some years ago I lent my copy to a Polish musician, who couldn’t see the humour in it. We were poles apart, you might say.

There was a bookshop in town, long gone. The Ideal Book Depot, run by a portly gentleman who sat in a dark corner at the rear of the shop. He hated getting out of his chair. If you wanted to buy a book or magazine, you had to take it off the shelf and carry it over to him along with your money. And you had to present him with the correct amount, because he disliked having to count and hand over the change; any sort of physical effort was disagreeable.

He reminded me of that fine character actor Sydney Greenstreet, a very large person who looked upon the world with some distaste in the sort of villainous roles he was given in ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’.

I could seldom afford a book, but I had enough pocket money for magazines and comics. The ‘Strand Magazine’ was still being published and sometimes carried stories by H.E. Bates and A.E. Coppard, two very fine short-story writers. H.E. Bates’s long short story ‘Alexander’, about a boy’s discovery of the countryside, was to make a great impression on me.

Here I would buy the ‘Picturegoer’, a British film magazine which kept me up to date on the latest productions, some of which made it to Dehra’s two English cinema halls, the Odeon and the Orient. These were well patronized up to 1947, as Dehra had a sizeable Anglo-Indian population. Most of them left after Independence. The Orient cinema, now almost a hundred years old, is still showing pictures, sometimes soft porn emanating from clandestine studios in the south. Gone are the innocent days of Madhubala, Kishore Kumar, and Abbott and Costello.

My love of the cinema was cut short by the nine months of boarding school that found me in Simla every year, for a stretch of eight years. True, we were allowed into town and could go to the pictures during our mid-term breaks, and the school had a 16 mm projector, on which selected films were shown to us once a month. But the sound system was poor, and you couldn’t make out what the actors were saying to each other, unless you were good at lip-reading.

For light entertainment, comics took the place of films. No television, no Internet in those days! But for those who did not care for books (the vast majority), there were comic-book heroes in abundance-Captain Marvel, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Batman and many others-all-American superheroes who had invaded India in comic-book form. Personally, I preferred the English comics, which were funny-The Dandy, Beano, Elm Fan and Champion (which carried stories)-but I went along with the craze for superheroes.

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