As the eldest child, I had the run of the house. One great pleasure was rummaging through the collection of old books and magazines. Some of them belonged to my grandfather, a lawyer and a great lover of reading. My mother told me once that he would collect pieces of old newspapers from shopping packages, smoothen them and read. Some books even went back to my great grandfather. Textbooks on astronomy and mathematics were probably from my father’s college days in Calcutta.
There were books in Latin and English. I remember trying to read Latin. It would sound very grand, though I did not understand the meaning. Though I could read only haltingly, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and the Black Company were favourites from the English collection.
I started serious reading when I became a member of the nearby Bharathivilasam library. The place had only Malayalam books, and I quickly ran through the perennial favourites like Vaikom Mohammed Bashir, Muttathu Varkey, Thakazhi and others. Poetry was also a favourite. Within a short time, I read most of the fiction in this library. I also nagged my father into subscribing to Mathrubhoomi, the Malayalam weekly, which opened to me a world of modern writing in Malayalam. One of the stories I still remember is M. T. Vasudevan Nair’s prize-winning story, Valarthumrigangal, about life in a travelling circus.
I had a school friend John Isaac, whose father edited the Deepika newspaper. They had a collection of translations from Homer, each book a small story. John Isaac would allow me to borrow one book a day, and within a short while, I finished all the books. I also read a Malayalam translation of Edgar Burroughs ‘Tarzan’ from their collection.
When I went to Trivandrum to study at the University Intermediate College for the Pre-University course, I became a member of the University Hostel. Stay here was fortuitous since the famous University Library was next to the hostel. Through the good offices of my cousin, I became a member, which opened up the grand world of English books. The library also had a vast collection of magazines and journals, and the luxury of spreading oneself on a plush sofa and reading Punch was unsurpassable. Moreover, the librarian had a soft corner for me, perhaps because I was one of the youngest members.
Another hostel mate, Pyarelal, an Indian student from East Africa, was also a book lover. Hearing that I had a membership in the Public Library, he would ask me to lend him books. Our common interest was the adventures of Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy’s stories about the French Revolution.
I joined St. Berchman’s College at Changanacherry for my B.Sc. degree. I was delighted that Prof. C. A. Shepard taught modern drama, and the choice was Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. I decided to read all the Shavian literature, carried away by Shaw’s introduction, critiquing Bergson’s philosophy. I had by this time become a member of the Kottayam Public Library. I was a day student at SB and travelled to and from Changanacherry by bus. On the way back, I used to stop at the library and pick up books. In a month, I read all the Shavian drama.
I found that the SB college library had a collection of old Scientific American stacked in an inaccessible part of the library. I persuaded the librarian to allow me to read them. This rich fare of articles further activated my fascination with science. I was equally enamoured by the job advertisements, which was a signpost to future possibilities in a career in science.
My two-year sojourn at the Union Christian College at Alwaye was not remarkable regarding my reading interests. The college library frowned upon anyone demanding books to read. Except for an occasional visit to the Pai & Co bookshop in Ernakulam, coupled with a movie trip, I do not remember much reading done those days. But a high point of the Alwaye days was the start of publication of the magazine Imprint, which, like the Readers Digest Condensed books, used to publish abridged versions of new books. I started buying it from the beginning.
By this time, my family had shifted to Trivandrum because of my father’s work, and I joined the American Centre Library near the University where we stayed. On holidays from Kothamangalam,where I had become a lecturer in Physics in the Mar Athanasius College, I could renew my acquaintance with books, though now confined to American authors. I became acquainted with Steinbeck, Hemingway and John Dos Passos
Then I went to Aligarh for doing my Ph. D. The University had a vast library, a seven-floor giant, with an extensive collection of English books. Many friends were fond of books, and I could read and discuss books. There was also a bookshop near the Sulaiman Hall, my hostel, where I could browse. Occasional Delhi visits took me to the Panchkuian road with its roadside bookshops.
I came to Ahmedabad in 1972, when I joined the Physical Research Laboratory. In those days, book shops were a rarity. But true to the Gujarati entrepreneurship tradition, lending libraries were popular. A flourishing one, GyanPrapa was near the Commerce College Junction in Navrangpura, close to Kuldip society where we stayed. Later on, good book shops opened in Ahmedabad, notably Cross Words and later Landmark conveniently close to my home in Bopal. The University area has roadside bookkeepers and I go there regularly to browse the dust covered old favourites. I found that buying old books was more enjoyable than buying new ones because one occasionally came across books that one had read long time back.
The one-year interlude in Vienna in 2001, with the International Atomic Energy Agency was also a good period for reading. The UN Ladies’ Association used to have weekly sale of secondhand books in all languages and I was an enthusiastic browser.
One of the advantages of my job as a scientist is the frequent travel abroad and the chance to look into book shops at airports and other strange places. A good part of my Dick Francis collection was acquired in London Book shops. While visiting the Max Planck Institute in Garching, near Munich, found an English Book stall, where I found the Thurber carnival. In the narrow lanes of Aix en Provence, which I visit quite often in connection with the ITER work, my friend Abhĳit Sen showed me Book-in-Bar selling English books and I became acquainted with Provencal life depicted by Peter Mayle. This little book shop, situated in a lane connecting Cours Mirabeau, offers a large choice of books in very friendly surroundings. The ambience is enhanced by the coffee shop. I later collected all of the books by Peter Mayle, including A Good Year, which was made into a movie starring Russell Crowe.
I came across a blog by Shekhar Bhatia, former editor of Hindustan Times in LiveMint, where he mentioned LibraryThing.com., a virtual library where one can list and organize books. It’s an online data- base that allows you to create and organize an inventory of all your books. All you need to do is enter in the book’s unique ISBN (International Standard Book Number…that 10 or 13-digit number over the bar code on the back of the book) and… Voila! it’s part of your online library with a photo of the book cover, pre- assigned categories, publisher, publication date and a whole bunch of assorted goodies. I got a $ 25 lifetime subscription, which allows me to catalogue all the books in my collection. The greatest pleasure from this amazing website is this: I can sit at my mac and look up the virtual library, call up a book and read the plot and be reminded of the characters and even make the book nibble at my memory to recall where and when I had purchased it.
And finally to Kottayam, after 40 years. Kottayam has become known as the Aksharanagari, the city of alphabets, for becoming a place with 100 % literacy. It is the home of the CMS press, the earliest printing press established by Benjamin Bailey, a Christian Missionary in 1821. A unique Travancore institution that started in Kottayam in 1945 is the ‘Sahithya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham’, Writer’s Cooperative, which published books and gave financial security and social status to writers. There are many bookshops and, more importantly, second-hand booksellers in small cabins overflowing with books. Despite their scruffy looks, the shop owners know what the bestsellers are.
Through the long years of reading, especially fiction, I have realised how they change your perspective and outlook on life. Fiction allows you to assume various identities of varied circumstances, which is a great luxury denied to you in your paltry existence. Fiction is a great simplifier. It discards the non-essentials and highlights what matters. Events that take years, in reality, are distilled into a few chapters. Changes that take place over the years — the evolution of a relationship, the emergence of a crisis, the dissolution of a character — can be seen in a matter of hours. Reading gives you a broader perspective makes you and makes you understand the insanity of the world. Imagined lives are more colourful than real ones because imagination transcends knowledge and embrace the world as a whole.
To quote Ernest Hemingway(1): “All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people, and the weather.”
1. Papa Hemingway  by A. E. Hotchner