By Devraj Singh Kalsi
Book thieves are essentially good people who restore a modicum of respect to the business of stealing. When there are so many valuable items to filch, from cows to jewellery to cash, this is a minuscule coterie of genteel, sophisticated thieves who have realised that the most valuable item worth pilfering in the world is books.
While knowledge acquired from stolen books carries the same value, it shows the passion and obsession for seeking knowledge ranks high in book thieves. They are enterprising and adventurous to risk everything including their dignity, without harbouring any fear of getting caught or facing any discomfiting situation for the sake of acquiring knowledge by hook or by crook. Perhaps a stolen book holds special charm and becomes more gripping as the ‘borrower’ would not like to lose it after putting in such hard work to acquire it. Desperate readers who steal and read make it a habit to read stolen books alone.
There are smart operators who politely seek books from your collection even though they have ample opportunity to pick up the titles and drop the stuff in their shopping bags. These people have no compunction, no intention of returning the borrowed titles despite a litany of reminders. Although these books cannot be dubbed stolen as prior permission is sought, the promise of returning them within a week or a month is never honoured. These books become a permanent member of their prized collection. Such collectors have built large bookshelves with borrowed books and stolen titles.
During school days, my English tutor borrowed the complete works of Shakespeare from my father’s collection, promising to return it soon. But the tome did not stage a comeback. Three years later, when we went to his house, we saw the book displayed prominently in a glass showcase. I was thrilled to find it there but before I could utter a word, his wife thanked my mother for gifting them the big, fat book on their silver jubilee wedding anniversary.
His clever spouse handled it smartly and we did not contest it. My mother perhaps hoped he would read the text thoroughly and explain Shakespeare properly to me. When he started teaching me Shakespeare, I found him fumbling and referring to a paraphrase guide to explain the content.
There were several other instances of borrowing from the collection on the pretext of reading. Another English tutor took novels from my collection for his wife who was fond of reading. He took many books at the same time and returned most of them on time. But one title always went missing — perhaps the one book his wife desperately wanted to have in her collection.
Some friends in college and university also wanted to read the books that I was reading. They borrowed the titles just before the vacation started. After the holidays they said they had lost it on the train or left it behind in the lodge they stayed in. But the sad truth was waiting to be discovered if you went to their apartment.
When guests with the habit of reading arrive at your place, you need to exercise caution and stay alert. They will not gaze at the aquarium with colourful fish but swim deeper with malicious intent: gape at the spine of books, checking out the new arrivals. They pose innocent questions about your choices and recommendations. It is always better to say a bland no. Your confirmation would mean the sudden departure of some books from the collection as the guest would definitely seek those tomes. Once they are gone, the guest does not come back to return it ever. Maybe he shifts to another city and takes it with him, forgetting it was his duty to return it to you. Ever since the habit of gifting books has lost appeal, the art of stealing and usurping books has gathered momentum.
These guests are not hardcore book thieves you encounter in book fairs or bookstores, but they have a similar mindset of reading books acquired through dubious means. When they do not return what is not theirs, they are indulging in an unfair practice but there is no sign of regret or remorse. Since they get original titles at zero cost, they do not need to visit second-hand books market for a big haul of books or seek low-priced pirated editions.
The same tricks are played by so many people over the years and half their collection comprises books acquired through shady means – that is, books they have not paid for. The true believers in the saying that knowledge is free for all!
In case you ask them to return the books, you will be shown the book with the flamboyant signature of another person as the page with your initials has probably already been ripped off, leaving no scope of return to the original owner. Like wealth acquired through shady means is never discriminated, books acquired through dubious means are also most welcome in the bookshelves.
visited the book fair to buy everything except books.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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