Tuesday, March 22, 2005

We are gathered here today ...

This one, with apologies to James for the slothfulness. But it is appropriate since it is this love that binds us ...

When we were very young, my grandfather would take my cousin and me to the British Council Library on Saturdays. It was then housed in an old colonial building on Theatre Road (now Shakespeare Sarani, a rare example of ideologues being witty) and we had to show our cards at the gate, stand in line at the counter to return our books and only then WALK FAST BUT DO NOT RUN to the staircase at the back, leading up to the Children's Section. Yes, there was a children's section then and for some years afterwards, before Margaret Thatcher, Lady Ironpants, Attila the Hen, a pox upon her, banished it to outer darkness on the pretext of cutting costs.

The keen thrill of anticipation I felt then surpasses every possible emotion - love ambition sex music food success, nothing can compare. Rushing sedately, if such an action is possible, up the two flights of the staircase to where the magic lay waiting in the shelves.

And then an hour of browsing, the pangs of having to CHOOSE just four books, if only I could take just one no three more, the patient short-listing for a final selection, inveigling my younger cousin into taking one for me on her card, yes I will give you my share of chocolate tomorrow (I must confess I usually welshed on that, I was a young glutton and no Pal you will NOT comment upon the choice of tense), the final selection and the sorrow of parting with the books I left behind on the table at the head of the stairs �

Refined torture on the journey (Such a long journey!) back, 'you will not read in the car, it's bad for your eyes' (edict writ in words of stone, he was a disciplinarian), the furtive peeks into the first few pages if I managed to get into the front seat before my cousin, further torture during tea-time (no reading at the table!) till AT LAST at last at last I could rush to our room and disappear into the words upon the page, the pictures in my mind, the feel of the paper the binding the smell the sheer bliss of BOOKS.

The saddest part of growing older is that I can no longer quite recapture that ecstasy, the exquisite thrill of worlds laid in store for me. "Fled is that music .. ?" Though even today, nothing quite compares to the feeling of walking down from the BCL with a bundle of books under my arm, knowing that the reading light in the car promises immediate consumnation of the truest deepest longest lasting most rewarding love affair.

Which brings us to the point of this reverie, if a reverie can have a point at all. The pleasure of finding kindred spirits who visit, inhabit, know the same constellations of magic worlds. And, if one is very fortunate, of visiting in the flesh the places I have inhabited myself in these waking dreams.

From a 4-week vacation across four countries, ten airports, six railway stations, fifteen reels of film, my fondest take-aways are five photographs. One of them shows a wall with "VR" upon it in pock-marks (a fit of patriotism in the Jubilee year, right, James?) and one is of me in an armchair, with a table in front upon which lie a bowler hat, a meerschaum pipe and a deer-stalker. A cigar for the one who can spot the one that doesn't belong there .. (think Basil Rathbone).

The tobacco was in a Persian slipper, the letters were pinned to the mantelpiece with a stiletto. The "VR" was a nice touch, but sadly enough there was no Bradshaw in the bookshelf and the Burke's Peerage was from 1902. An aberration, since he left those rooms in 1898 and retired to the Sussex Downs, where he penned his second recorded publication ("with some notes upon the Segregation of the Queen").

Or that perfect opening line, credited to a marginal scribble in a student's tutorial at Oxford, the door to a perfect make-believe long before J.K. Rowling. "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit". On my top ten any day.

"Is it the perfume from a dress / that makes me so digress?" No, it is the fragrance of "that other world whose margin fades / for ever and for ever as I move"

The self-assured, sometimes self-important roll of the Beetle's lines - "he trod the ling like a buck in spring / And he looked like a lance in rest". If I ever visit Pakistan, it will be to see the cannon in front of the Jadoo Ghar and look for that old horse trader who appears in more stories than young Kimball's alone.

A digression for the enthusiast of the Great Game - Frederick Bailey, traveller, adventurer and secret agent for Her Majesty, spent years on the North-West Frontier and in Central Asia under assumed identities and often in disguise. The culmination of his career came when he was recruited in Tashkent by the agents of the Czar. His mission? To find and kill 'a notorious British agent named Bailey'!!

And of course that most idyllic world whose pleasures can never stale, where young men in spats descend upon a castle that "has impostors the way other houses have mice", where no page passes without a smile broadening into a totally delighted laugh, where long after "the Rudyards cease from kipling / and the Haggards ride no more", the stentorian voices of "aunt calling to aunt like mastodons in a primeval swamp" can still cause a frisson of unease to dance down the spine and yet all cares can be wiped away and the loose ends tied up by a Presence who "appears upon the scene" with a respectful cough and a perfect solution.
My favourite in the oeuvre, however (couldn't resist that one!), is the long languid person modeled upon Rupert D'Oyly Carte who can "take your dog for a walk" or "assassinate your aunt, crime not objected to", as long as it has nothing to do with fish!

Worlds worlds worlds - "if we had world enough and time .." "Would we not shatter it to bits, and then / remold it nearer to the heart's desire?"

Which brings me to another craftsman of a different genre, who led me to the pleasures of Old Omar through by-roads trod by whistling tramps and melancholic cow-punchers, who made it magic for me to walk the streets west of Broadway between 23rd and 42nd (known as? Hint - a culinary connection, so named because at the turn of the previous century it promised the juiciest cuts of graft) and who perfected the twist in the tale long before Bollywood and Channel V chanced upon it.

Bollywood reminds me of that master of the formula", author of over a hundred stories with essentially the same characters, six feet two in (their) stockinged feet and most times, when they caught a-hold of something, it moved.

Enough for one evening - this road goes ever on!



And this does truly bind us! Did you manage to get the rest of Hopkirk?

Dan Husain said...

JAP you lost me midway. Maybe as those references were alien to me I couldn't enjoy your take on them. But I thoroughly enjoyed the initial portion and your love affair with books. Great writing.