First Books

August 13, 2011

I think Bhagwadgeeta was the first book I was introduced to, because Grandpa Anna would not settle for anything less. I just mugged it up with Anna as a teacher, and was sent for a competition of Geeta recitals. Aabajee Deshpande, the examiner, was a staunch Geeta lover and used to distribute copies free to many a muggers like me. Not many had participated in this first competition.

14th chapter was the subject matter. Aabajee let us recite the whole chapter, and as soon as I thought I had finished the exam, he started quizzing by reciting a stanza at random and I had to complete. Then he started reciting the second line of a random stanza and I had to recite the first. Then he started giving one word clue and let me complete the rest. It was interesting (for him), I completed everything well and Aabajee declared that I stood first.  Sudheer was second, who eventually became a good friend.

I came back home tired. Anna came after some time and inquired if I did well. I said I had secured the first rank. Pleased, he said there would be big function and I shall be felicitated that evening. The function was fine, but the prize was not. Because I was presented with a copy of Bhagwadgeeta, of which I already had two copies. I cribbed a lot about it. Anna simply said, “You do not need any prize than that”.

The next year, Sudheer stood first, and I was second, with first chapter as the subject. Aabajee however declared that this year there were Prizes galore, in addition to the Geeta copies. He fiddled with his dhotee, came up with one rupee coin and said,

“Go to the market, buy any books you like and bring those to me. These will be handed over to you in the evening function.”

Sudheer had also received the grant and we proceeded to the market. The book shop was by the street and the books were exhibited on military cots outside the shop. To this day, I did not have any books other than those in the curriculum. Looking at these, I was astounded. How can these be called ‘books’ when they have Kings and Queens and mythological figures on their cover pages? How can they be in a large, readable font than those we read in the class? How can a book have so many artworks when the books were supposed to have only one or two? How can they have attractive covers but unreadable titles?

I must have spent an hour or so in just awe. Sudheer, in between had selected his and had already disappeared.  I was really perplexed as to what to choose and how many to choose. The shop keeper came to the rescue.

“How much money you have?”

“One rupee.”

“Stole it from somewhere? Let me see it.”

I showed him the coin, but did not let it go. He inquired as to what was my name, who was my father, where did I live and a barrage of such questions. When he was satisfied that I had not stolen the Rupee, he selected some books of his choice and dumped them in front of me. Naturally, I was not satisfied. He amassed a second choice bunch, which was also not to my liking. Tired, he said “Choose whatever you want” and went behind his desk.

I had some solitude once more, and I started selecting the books, based on cover colours, that is, discarding.

The final list had Panch Tantra, Aesop’s stories and a book on astronomy.

“Why do you need that blue book with stars? You will not understand a thing there. I also do not.”

“But this is what I want.”

The shop keeper gave me a tired look, and said, “You can have a few more. One Rupee is not yet over.”

Back to square one. I then selected Sim Bonga and Bhilla Veer Kalinga.

“That is it.” The shopkeeper said, “You can have one volume of Kalinga, not all.”

“Fine, I will buy all of these with green and black cover, man with a dagger”

“One volume of Tarzan!”

“But you said a few more”

“You have exceeded one Rupee now”

I handed over my precious one Rupee to him, and he handed me the bundle. “Come again for Tarzan,” he said. I did not need this invitation. I was already hooked.

The transaction over, I remembered that I did not know the way back to home. Sudheer had brought me here and he had gone a long time ago. Crying at my ancestors, the shopkeeper closed the shop and escorted me first to Aabajee and then my house. He did not forget to ask if I indeed belonged to this house, and I was not a thief.

Back home and when the smell of the new books had withered, I understood that buying a book you had liked did not necessarily mean that you will read it immediately. Further, you may not be able to read a book which you have received as a present and that even if you did not understand a word, a picture tells a story better. You have your imagination running wild without the help of words.

I started really reading/ comprehending most of these books, including the blue book, in Standard five or Six. Aunts were enthusiastic earlier on, but got fed up of reading to me the books I had purchased, particularly when I started buying books with every paisa I received or saved and I had mugged up all the stories by listening and still wanted somebody to Read these to me. When the words finally came to me, they were better than pictures, sometimes worse.

I encroached upon Grandpa’s book cabinet and declared one of the shelves as ‘my library’. This included Garibaldi, Agarkar, Tilak, Kalidas, Gandhi, five or six different sized Geeta and even a book called Shrusht Shakti Shastra (Physics- in short). There was also a book on Physiology, with funny pictures, which was promptly removed by somebody and I did not find it afterwards. None the less, I had leafed through it all before it vanished.

The blue book was a revelation. That was when I started deciphering it bit by bit, simultaneously gazing at stars while alone and imagining beyond the drawings and the written word.