Treasuring dried flowers in a book

Nostalgia.  Celebrated writer and two-time Giller Prize winner MG Vassanji’s latest offering is an interesting exposition of a future where a human’s memories can be selectively enhanced or replaced with fictional ones to generate a new persona.  Until we can get there, I have only my rapidly fading recollection of days gone by.  An element of wistfulness usually serves to embellish such retrospection.  Still, it is fun to “go back in time” to recall and try to relive favoured memories.

I studied at Delhi College of Engineering in the early 1970s, living in the hostel (a quaint “old world” expression for residence on campus) in Kashmiri Gate.  Every Sunday, roadside “bazaars” (another lovely word that does not quite convey the feel of the open-air marketplace) would crop up on pavements outside Jama Masjid, Janpath and near the Lal Qilla (Red Fort) etc.  Eclectic products at knocked-down prices included new and second-hand books, surplus US army-issue apparel and clothing (collected as rags) overseas, plastic cutlery and empty/small sample liquor bottles auctioned off by international airlines, “imported” (smuggled) goods like cigarettes and perfumes etc., and sometimes, stolen goods like watches and other trinkets.  In an economy that was not consumer friendly and glorified austerity, “phoren” (foreign) goods were in great demand and displayed with an exaggerated nonchalance as status symbols in middle class living rooms across the city.  These bazaars provided a convenient and inexpensive resource for such faux-grandeur.

My friends and I would spend hours sifting through these cheap “treasures,” seeking bargains that our meagre monthly allowance could absorb.  It was books that I would hanker after, as it cost next to nothing to acquire a discarded volume by Sartre, Camus, Russel, Brecht, “Che”, Neruda or other legends.  But first, a confession.  The books were acquired not so much for reading, but with the intent to impress the bourgeoisie – especially members of the opposite sex – who met regularly at the university cafeteria.  While pretentious, care was taken to announce with a self-denigrating air, that one was not completely familiar with an author’s work and would welcome comments from others more familiar with the book under discussion.  If carefully managed, this usually led to a “date” and subsequent equally inane sessions with the pseudo-intelligentsia.

However, more serious reading was also involved.  There were a number of bookstores spread across the city that I would frequent.  Galgotia’s, Cambridge, Oxford, Bhartiya Sahitya Sadan and Famous Book Store in Connaught Place; Bahrisons, Faqir Chand & Sons and Teksons in Khan Market were some of my favourite haunts.

Earlier this month I was in Delhi and on a crisp, winter evening found time to enjoy a walk through Khan Market’s meandering lanes.  It was as if time had stood still and nothing had changed over the past four decades.  No doubt the market was more crowded, but the lanes and shops had preserved their charm just as I had always pictured them.  I walked into a store that had been a long-time favourite.  As in the past books were still stacked in floor-to-ceiling shelves on both sides of a narrow aisle that was itself overflowing with volumes piled haphazardly.  I asked for books by different authors.  The patriarch and his son knew precisely where to reach and retrieve the books sought by me, handing over other titles by these authors with a brief synopsis of each for my consideration.  This was no Amazon.com or Google, but far more pleasurable.  It allowed interaction and encouraged conversation between persons sharing a passion.  It is heartening that e-commerce has not succeeded, yet, to wipe out simple things that provide immense joy.

“Maazi mein jo mazaa merii sham-o-sahar mein thaa

ab vo faqat tassavur-e-shaam-o-sahar mein hai”

[In the past, the pleasures that I revelled in night and day

Now exist only in my conception of (that) night and day] – Faiz Ahmad Faiz

And finally, nothing can better exemplify the yearning for times gone by than this ghazal by Ahmad Faraz that has been immortalized by Mehdi Hassan:

“Now when we part, perhaps we might come together in dreams

just like dried flowers are discovered, pressed in (between the pages of) a book.”

4 Replies to “Treasuring dried flowers in a book”

  1. I have enjoyed Vassanji’s books, but I found it hard to grasp the premise of Nostalgia. We are the sum of all our memories. If my memories are enhanced, or worse, replaced, then I am no longer me. What, then, is the point of a rejuvenated body? Might as well shuffle off into the sunset and make room for real new bodies.

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    1. Well said. This blog opens with Nostalgia, but is not intended to review the book. It is fascinating however, how we often selectively embellish or blur past experiences choosing instead to reflect on how we “think” things happened rather than what did actually transpire. Today “1984” does not read like fiction. Strange thing, this nostalgia; it’s time will come!

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  2. Whenever the topic of books comes up, I say I like the smell of old books and old book stores like Bangalore’s Premier Book Shop. Small, cramped, crammed with books on all topics, and all ‘catalogued’ in the owner’s head. Well, Premier died a few years ago and its owner, Mr Shanbag, who greeted you like a long-lost friend, I am told, migrated to Australia to be with his daughter.

    A young man with the latest Android looked up and announced, “Online stores are never space-challenged, they never smell of old books”.

    The old Harley Davidson slogan hung unsaid in the air: “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”

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