Suman K Sharma
Books can be our best friends, provided we cherish them. Old books have an advantage over human friends. They may become time-worn but they never age. Books remain with us for many many years. Some we want to keep and others we lose sight of. The oldest book in my house is 92 years old. It was published in 1929. This edition of Sukh Sagar – a translation of all the 12 cantos of Shrimad Bhagwat by Babu Makhanlal Punjabi Khatri – is a hefty 31x25x10 cubic cm tome. It should not be weighing less than five kilos. You must be seated properly and place the scripture on a book-stand before you in order to read it. Its 425 leaves have turned brown and stiff, tending to crack in your hands. Like any other nonagenarian, it demands respect and loving care.
On rare occasions that I open the venerable book, a peculiar smell wafts from it, like some piquant memory of the past. The large print (without spaces between words) is engrossing. The language is a cute mix of Punjabi-Bhojpuri-Hindi-Urdu with a smattering even of Persian – lovingly transcribed in Devanagari script. (Khatri, the translator, was a daroga at a police station of Kashi-Banaras.) And the content, of course, is elevating. King Prikshit has only seven days to live. Rather than rue his fate like any other man, the youthful heir to the throne of the mighty Pandavas prefers to spend his counted moments listening to the wisest sages of his domain. A more ingenious device to put together the gamut of knowledge and experience of the ancient world could hardly be imagined. Sukh Sagar is my prized possession.
There are other books in my collection which have long served their limited purpose for me. Legouis and Cazamian’s History of English Literature and A History of English Language by Albert C. Baugh, for instance. Dating back to my college days half a century ago, they are like old acquaintances who I can’t help to give a passing look once in a while. Yet, a couple of them are very dear to me. In 1975, my elder brother, then a young army captain, gifted me Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary. He passed away in 2004; yet the dictionary he gave me still occupies a prominent place in my book-shelf. It is the fattest of all the books that I own. Owing to its sentimental value and thanks also to the ready availability of on-line dictionaries, I don’t consult its fragile self any more. But the Twentieth Century Dictionary remains with me like the fond memories of my dear departed brother.
Falling in a somewhat similar category in my list of books is Stephan Garry’s translation of Mikhail Sholokhov’s four-volume Russian novel, And Quiet Flows the Don. It was also in 1975 that I got this master-piece. I still read it off and on when I feel a special kind of hunger. A highly rich literary diet, one has to have the stomach for this epic novel.
Another book that I procured during the early ’70s – and value highly – is The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. ‘The lives and opinions of the world’s greatest philosophers from Plato to John Dewey’ – so goes the catchphrase printed on this eminently readable work. Let’s leave philosophy to eggheads. Will Durant presents choice nuggets of information about 15 august men from the West whose ideas have brought the world to where it is today. To sample a few bits: Aristotle (384 BC- 322 BC), ‘the founder of science’ who mentored Alexander the Great, was not only among the first founders of the institution of library, but he also laid down the principles of library classification; Francis Bacon (1561 AD – 1626 AD), the famous author of Essays, Lord Chancellor of England and one of the most influential men of all time, was so fond of pomp and show that he was once arrested for debt; and Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 AD – 1778 AD), known to the wide world by his nom de plume, ‘Voltaire’, went on to become synonymous with the French Enlightenment in spite of being, in the words of Durant, ‘unprepossessing, ugly, vain, flippant, obscene, unscrupulous, even at times dishonest…’.
Good books – old and new – educate, elevate, entertain, instruct and inspire. Their company seldom fails to be rewarding. But there is a catch here. It is the reader first who has to take out a book from the shelf, open it and pay attention to it. Else, with its back turned to her, the book would remain where it was, along with many others of its kind. Poor things, these good old books, they don’t stand a chance when pitted against that little black vamp in your palm – the mobile.
Reading a book these days has become a matter of devotion and commitment.
Suman K Sharma