I believe but book selling, in my opinion, is a greater art and science and cultivated good manners!
My book reading and book buying habits had grown over the years and changed radically too. Now, I am time conscious and therefore make quick glancing through the new books I see in the bookshops and make up my mind whether to take the new ones seriously or reject them.
Since so many new books are turned out by the book industry one has to be careful not to be misled by the many sales promotion tricks indulged by the charmed circle of book reviewers, glossy magazines and also the passing fashions in books.
Thus, I leave out the new fiction that is becoming an unmanageable industry with every housewife and every girl who has fancies turn out a novel or two. There is Delhi this charmed circle where Kushwant Singh presides over the tribe of writers, reviewers and obliging magazines.
Just now I browsed through Singh’s much-hyped autobiography which in my view is a recycled gossip, sold and resold by him in numerous columns over the years. There was time when was I held the view that English can’t be written by Punjabis, the language was the exclusive preserve of the Bengalis and the Tamils. I don’t know what is the position today. But still I hold the view some orthodoxy born out of reading English books by some of the best minds of the country.
A Nirad Choudhry or a Radhakrishnan might be rare but they set the standards for some serious and scholarly prose in the English language. I rate the latest English style followed by some of the British journals of repute like the Financial Times, The Spectator and The Economist, in that order.
I now eagerly read the book reviews in these journals and always look for current affairs increasingly. Though my serious interests continue to be philosophy (Oxford philosophy), classical world (books on Greek and Roman empire) besides a variety of books on a number of subjects.
A book on Magnum, the French photographic co-operative, the latest one, Europeans, containing Henri Cartier Brasson’ photographs fascinated me. The select bookshop off Brigade Road in Bangalore run by my friend Mr. K.K.Murthy is perhaps the best source for rare and priceless books. The bookshop was established by his father and it was from his father’s days I had the privilege of buying books from that outlet. Everytime when I go to a new city I take time to ask for book shops that sell rare books, old books. Thus, recently when I started travelling to Hyderabad I got to know two such shops and some of the best books in my possession are bought from them.
In Mumbai I make it a point to visit the Strand Books run by another friend, the inimitable Mr. Shenbag.
In this definition of book selling there are three or four people in India.
I have narrated elsewhere how Shenbag one day put into my hands Nira Nirad Chaudhry’s second volume of autobiography that was released in London the day before and one of the first copies bought in India was by me and that was because of shenbag’s skills in “selling”. Murthy once put an entire set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in my car dicky without discussing the bill!
Any book seller who comes and pesters would lose me as a customer! I want to be left alone and in this there are not many book sellers in India! Some of the successful book ventures are run by boors I would contend! Yes, you would realise what is book buying and book selling only if you visit London and Oxford and see how this art is practised in England.
In Oxford’s Blackwells, you could order the books from anywhere in the world and you could run an account. Though I very much like to indulge in some book buying spree, I haven’t yet got the time or the resources.
I hope sooner, rather than later, I would give myself to this civilised experience. In the homes of my British hosts, I had always been fascinated by the sorts of books these aristocratic homes have accumulated over the years and generations.
Travel books are another of my diversion but the best travel books are not sold in India. You have to look for them only when you visit abroad, may be in England or France or Italy. Writing travel books is a painstaking work, you have to read Jan Morris books on Oxford, Venice, Trieste and other places to understand.
They are all classics.
Biographies are another of my favourite reading. But then here again you don’t have good biographies, critical and yet bringing out the flavour of the subject. Some of the best biographies I have read are on men like Tolstoy, Benjamin Disraeli, Curzon and on British and Russian writers like James Joyce, Victor Hugo, Rousseau and others. I recently bought a biography of Victor Hugo by Andre Maurios. What a piece of literature, the biography itself! It was pure joy!
Poetry is another of my passion. I started writing poetry in my young age and this then led to reading and appreciating poetry in English, later to translations from Russian and other European languages. Some of the best of these books are in my library. Whenever there is some leisure I turn to poetry. Pasternak became my favourite poet through the translations and introduction by C.M.Bowra, the great Greek scholar whom I got to know in Oxford when he was the “Warden” of Wadham College. His scholarly writings on Greece, Athens raised my understanding of the ancient wisdom of man and how it still influences our thinking.
Now, the current affairs hold my attention as I am devoting more time to write and explain to my countrymen what India is like and what it could be, if we only care to ponder deeply after the issues before the country. Gandhi and Nehru wrote at a time to win freedom. Today, after 50 odd years, the issues seem to be how to make India a strong country. I mean intellectually, culturally and in terms of ideas and new thoughts.
Like religion (how we should reform Hinduism) politics (how to strengthen Constitutional governance and secularism) security and economic development. Hard questions are avoided, politically correct stand is taken by some of the otherwise qualified minds, all owing to Indian habit of siding with whoever in power!
This is a sort of national cowardice. We should have more critics among our intellectual community and we should stand upto State-sponsored suppressions of the many freedoms.
All these call for intellectuals standing up to authority. In the USA, they call them “public intellectuals”, in UK there are in media and academia, in France intellectuals make front page news. In India, it is the illiterate politicians, fanatical religious elements make front page news.
A liberal and mature civil society needs responsible critics.
Books and newspapers and magazines must serve that national objective.