On entering my 20th year, I started jotting down in a notebook, words, phrases, even paragraphs from books I was reading.
I have been a bibliophile since my student days. As a young man, I read a great deal of fiction. Tolstoy, Pasternak, Gogoi, Chekov, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Albert Camus, The Good Soldier Schweik by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka, Bernard Shaw, Thackeray, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells, Tagore, Prem Chand, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayanan, Raja Rao, Ahmed Ali, Han Suyin, Thomas Mann, Arthur Koestler.
I have over two-hundred paperbacks. Have I read them all? No, probably fifty of them.
Autobiography, biographies, memoirs fill many shelves. Fifty books on Gandhi, thirty on Jawaharlal Nehru, twenty on Churchill, thirteen on Sardar Patel, ten on Subhas Chandra Bose, one each on Dadabhai Naoroji, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar. Three on Amartya Sen, two copies of Arthashastra, several copies of the Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharat.
The three-volume autobiography of Bertrand Russell is among the greatest books in the English language. He dedicates Volume 1 to Edith, one of the several ladies he married. Russell wrote: “Through the long years, I sought peace, I found ecstasy, I found anguish, I found madness, I found loneliness. I found the solitary pain that gnaws the heart. But peace I did not find.
“Now old and near my end, I have known you and knowing you I have found both ecstasy and peace. I know rest after so many lonely years, I know what life and love may be. Now, if I sleep, I shall sleep fulfilled.” Russell died in 1970 at the age of 98.
On entering my 20th year, I started jotting down in a notebook, words, phrases, even paragraphs from books I was reading. I got the idea from Jawaharlal Nehru, who, while in jail (he spent nine and a half years in British prisons) kept notebooks, in which he wrote down what caught his imagination. The number of such notebooks runs into many dozens.
When I read a book, I keep a pencil near me for underlining what activates my mind and stirs the intellect. The first entry is from an essay E.M. Forster wrote in 1939, for a volume called “What I believe”:
“…I certainly can claim that I believe in personal relationships.”
“Starting from them, I get a little order into the contemporary chaos. One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life, and it is, therefore, essential they should not let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must, myself, be as reliable as possible, and this I try to be… Personal relationships are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeoise luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray in my country…”
I never subscribed to this creed. I told Forster that I would never betray my country. I have often asked myself what I would do if I had lived in Hitler’s Germany. The answer is: I would betray Hitler’s Germany and pay the price. I do of course realise that I am playing with words and obvious improbability.
I have two libraries. 3,000 books in Jor Bagh, where we live and 3,000 plus books in our farm library.
In the Jor Bagh library, my wife has a section which is home to books on spirituality, mediums, psychic literature. All this is Greek to me. We avoid arguing. I respect her literary preferences as she does mine.
Next week I intend writing about my farm library. In neither chaos is missing. I have not arranged them in alphabetical order or subject-wise. Nevertheless, I don’t take much time to locate the book I wish to consult or read. Many books I have read more than once. Pasternak’s “Dr Zhivago” I have read at least four times. Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” three times. Most of Premchand, several times. Ghalib in Hindustan I read often.
I may be wrong (I hope I am), but very few of my friends and erstwhile colleagues have worthwhile personal libraries. A library ensures accumulated wisdom. I observe one rule. I don’t lend books, neither do I borrow, except from libraries.
In his speech in the Lok Sabha, on Thursday, Shri Rahul Gandhi declared that his great grandfather had spent 15 years in jail. Actually, it was nine and a half years. This was more than other Congress leader during the freedom movement, including Gandhiji.