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Musings

The Bookshelf And The Lockdown

By K. R. Guruprasad

I have always wondered, when I am not at home, do the inhabitants of my bookshelf come alive like those children’s playthings in Toy Story? Apart from what their titles bind them to narrate, do my books have other stories to tell? Is my bookshelf some sort of a universe in itself with each compartment and the contents – an entity of its own? Are there dimensions to a bookshelf that we, humans, are not aware of – something that is beyond our realm?

For a while now (for me, a year since my last job as a journalist), Monday mornings do not come with blues attached. Moreover, since the lockdown, it hardly registers. However, this time I woke up to a message from a friend. She sent me a picture of her bookshelf. Pristine. Clean. I kept looking at the picture and zoomed in to see if I could read the titles of the books. The low-resolution nature of the photograph offered me a little chance to do so. Some I could read, some covers I was familiar with, and a lot many I could not figure out. 

However, the shelf stood proud. The big brown square with sixteen shelves held its own against a lighter coloured background. The books despite not being arranged in perfect rows -‑ some standing, some lying flat — presented a scenic contrast and appeared orderly on the whole. 

I shifted my gaze to my bookshelf and a quote, I had read a long time ago, came to my mind — “If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves”.

My bookshelf is chaotic. It’s like the city I live in — Mumbai. Each book jostling for space and complaining and, yet, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But I like it the way it is. I have heard that people who keep pets end up looking like each other after a while,  and behave similarly too. Many dog owners have told me this. I don’t know much about it but I have seen it happen with one of my friends. But that is not the point. Drawing an analogy, there is a thought germinating and it asks, after a while, does a bookshelf reflect the mind of its owner? I look at my bookshelf and I seem to know the answer. I am just not sure if I should put it out here.

Going back to that quote — do the books really want to “… unsort themselves?”  I’m thinking of a counter narrative here.

What if my books want to be sorted. Will they secretly, when I am not home, rearrange themselves in an order that would make a librarian proud? Or, will they rise in rebellion against me to drive home the point? 

Will a book ‘accidentally’ fall on my head and ensure that it drills some sense into me and goad me to impart some sanity to my bookshelf as well. I am relieved that I have kept all the heavy hard cover books on the lowest shelves. Of course, back then I had no inkling of any rebellion by the books. I had done that just to add solidity to the shelf. It is supposed to be a strong foundation.

If the books were to sort themselves, then they must be interacting. I hope they are. For all the disorder that my shelf displays, it aptly houses James Gleick’s Chaos. Does this book try to make sense and explain to others the lack of planning and logic in the way I have maintained the bookshelf? 

Does Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace talk to others about why I am oblivious of their realm? Does Milan Kundera’s Joker still sit sulking in a corner because I have only read about seventy to eighty pages and have kept it back with a bookmark sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb? And does Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations complain, “Why on earth have I been placed next to Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures Of The Damned and what on earth am I supposed to do here?”

I’m quite sure my PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves treats its neighbour Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence like its own butler and comments on its sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. Despite the crowding, there is, however, one hollow space that makes me well up. The emptiness of the space where I had kept my copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I gave away Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece to a friend —  a young writer and a book lover himself. I hope to buy another copy soon. I will.

There is no thought behind the way the books are arranged on my bookshelf. Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling is shoulder-to shoulder with Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang. My Kannada books are strewn all over with a couple of them holding their own against Howard Jacobson and John Steinbeck on either side. 

There is Rushdie with Hemmingway, Coetzee and Murakami are neighbours filled with warmth. There is my collection of National Geographic Magazine somewhere deep down there and on top of this stack is a potpourri of books including my sketch book.

That’s not all. There are layers I cannot reach. And I don’t know when I will unravel them. Behind the proud frontline are rows of books I bought but never read. It makes me shudder to even guess what they must be thinking. Would they consult J Krishnamurthy’s The Awakening Of Intelligence to understand and counsel themselves as to why they are the neglected children?

And then there is a book Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. It knows it doesn’t belong here but has somehow been at home among my books for more than a decade. I had borrowed it from a colleague in 2008 and have not returned it so far. I promised him that I would, and I intend to keep that promise. So, this copy knows it is not permanent here. Must be a miserable feeling to be somewhere for that long and yet not belong. 

I have often felt like that in between shifting residences in Mumbai. Most of my contracts have ended in eleven months and sometimes maybe twenty two months. But the current place has been my residence for six years now. Do I feel like this copy of Douglas Adams’s work here? Sometimes, I do. 

It is a studio apartment. And it doesn’t offer me space for another bookshelf. In fact the top left square of my bookshelf is where I have kept all the photos of Gods and holy books, including Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In the lower squares I have made space for my watches and bottles of cologne. And now in the lockdown, there are bottles of hand sanitisers too. The shelves are so stacked that there is no place for The Shadow Of The Wind, which interestingly (ironically?) is the part one of The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, and it finds itself on top of the bookshelf gupshupping with a straw hat. 

It appears that my jostling for space in the apartment is a concurrent and a similar theme to the way my books are stacked. Whenever I am vexed with all this struggle, a walk by the sea rejuvenates me. But what about my books?

It maybe fantastical to think that whenever I step outside, they crib about me. But being privy to the way I live, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to believe that they do. There is an unread copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place Of Greater Safety and a partially read The Second World War by Antony BeevorAnd I wonder if these books would put the idea of a revolution and war in the minds of the other books. Maybe I should keep these books in good humour. A transparent polythene cover and proper dusting should do the trick. 

I do not want to return to my flat one day and find my books in regimental rows and columns with their guns trained on me. It would break my heart to see my favourite A Farewell To Arms pick up a gun again. 

Perhaps before the lockdown ends, I will dust all the books, the bookshelf and rearrange them in a way they might prefer. Perhaps Hemingway wants to be with Alistair McLean. Maybe all my Kannada books want to be together and even share some space with a few Hindi books. I should also make it a point to read all those books sulking behind the front rows. 

All this was in my top five things-to-do-in-the-lockdown list and I haven’t come around to doing any of them so far. Despite my counter narrative to the quote, I believe in what Georges Perec wrote in his Thoughts Of Sorts.

Deep down at a subconscious level, I’m happy with the way my bookshelf is. I’m beginning to understand as I write this piece that the state of the bookshelf does indeed reflect my state of mind.

My bookshelf, along with its inhabitants, is a thriving ecosystem. A being of its own with its blood lines and nerve centres. Despite its constant state of ‘unsort’, I gravitate to it whenever I’m in need of a friend or solace. Sometimes I wonder if it owns me instead of the other way round. Perhaps in some dimension, of which I’m unaware, my bookshelf and I are a single entity. I sure do hope so.

.

K.R. Guruprasad has been associated with the sports pages of several newspapers over the last 16 years, as Sports Editor of DNA and previously the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Guru has developed a finesse at zooming out of the myopic view of any sport, instead looking at sports as a coming together of the players’ lives and struggles, skills and technique and much more. His book ‘Going Places. India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes’ by Penguin is a great testament to this approach. While his professional career has been focused on writing about sports, he is an avid reader and writer of varied subjects.  An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, was born in Bellary, Karnataka and later pursued his education in Mumbai.

Categories
Essay Musings Slices from Life

Stray Musings – ‘Love at the time of corona’, as it were!

By Debraj Mookerjee

Those familiar with the cult author Ayn Rand (she of The Fountainhead fame) will possibly remember her somewhat sobering thoughts on love: “After a point, YOUR LOVE for a person becomes more important than the object of love” (Capitalisation mine). What is love, or the easier poser: What do we make of the idea of love? That love is a compelling emotion, which is perfectly democratic and non-discriminating in affecting the bright and the otherwise, the poor and the rich, the old and the young and so on is an incontrovertible fact. Its universality does, ipso facto, predicate on some common streak that runs through humanity. Is it the innate desire, an almost mammalian need, to copulate and propagate that stirs us into “loving” another, as a prelude as it were to pairing, and therefore mating and procreating and so on? Or is it some deep insecurity within, of a feeling of incompleteness till we have loved or are loved? Or is it just a reflection of the great human propensity to possess; more precisely to call things our own, to be comfortable only when what we desire, that is what we consider of worth, is ours for keeps, like the valuables we stash in our bank lockers?

To begin with, we ought to take a look at the popular rhetoric encountered in our representational sphere of reference to understand how love, though imagined as something special, is as much a commodity as anything else. Why do we say, for example, things like “he (or she) belongs to me”, “I wish to belong to her”, “I could not belong to anyone”, “I want her bad”, “Gosh, I can’t live if I can’t have her”, and so on and so forth? If love were so noble, or even selfless as it is often made out to be, why should it make us want to own the object of love unless it be to serve as a perpetual reminder of the great feeling of love that we have experienced for that object? It is as though our love would crumble to dust should the one we love not be ours forever. And we thought love was an abstract idea!

So let’s test the proposition with a hypothetical (though perfectly credible) situation. You say you love somebody. Now that somebody loves you well, after a manner, you know; loves you but is not in love with you, whatever. Here the balance is delicate. You can’t stop loving that person because you know her (or his) love could grow with time. Unless you keep professing your love, how can you fuel whatever spark she (or he) has for you, right?

Over a period in time, she may not progress beyond her incipient leanings. At some critical juncture, you have to take the decision on whether to let go of your love for her (or him) or push just that little bit more. What is this game, ask yourself? If this is love, fine, so it is, but let’s not pretend and suggest it is some elevated concept that can only be experienced at a heightened level of consciousness. The processes that it goes through is no different from the ones you adopt before deciding to buy a pair of pyjamas – is it good, is it worth the price, how much can I beat the price down to, and of course, how long will it last?

Love therefore, is not an abstract idea. QED. It is an idea though because we don’t know what it is. Probably it is nothing really, at least nothing tangible. But that does not make it abstract. The only way to know it is to register all the things we build around it and what we do with it. It is somewhat like the honour pupils earn in a boy’s school for pissing highest against a wall. The honour means little. It does not guarantee against urinary problems in later life, no does it confirm sexual prowess, but the effort to earn that honour is tangible.

To return to Ayn Rand, and the big question: Is most of what has to do with love merely a role? An assertion of what we can or must or should do to express our love. And what do you think would remain imprinted on the mind – our efforts or the object of love? Come on be honest; of course, we’d value our love more than the loved one.

But all these theories pertain to love that has to do with the desire to own. Love that does not demand, love that is not fixated on one person, love that is not possessive or centred on one’s singular desires comprise another kettle of fish. This is the sort of love that you can shower on so many people at the same time. Where you remain a free agent, and so does the person you love. And each of these loves can have sanctity. Because there is no sense of possession tied to such love it seldom unwinds, unlike the other type that tends to come apart when the tangible grounds for its existence seem to come unstuck.

The Czechoslovak writer Milan Kundera once spoke of two types of love – lyrical and epical – with reference to men. In the former, you see all women in one woman, and in the latter, you see one woman in all women. One liked the concept when one was young (that’s why the quote is remembered). Not anymore. Real love is ‘topical’ love, as it were, where you see all women (or men really) in every woman (or man). Anyway, the more you love, the more love there is that goes around. Philosophically, that sounds better than ‘winning’ somebody in love, as though the person were some prize catch!

And no, this piece has nothing to do with the virus. Of course, it’s possible that thoughts of mortality urge the mind to come clean on vexed conundrums, none more twisted than the subject of love. It circles the context of the writer’s consciousness because everybody is thinking corona, but it does not (in his opinion) contaminate his thoughts. Except to the extent that he could not help adding it to the title, unapologetically, and admittedly gratuitously!

Debraj Mookerjee has taught in Ramjas College at the University of Delhi for close to three decades, with specialised interests in Literary Theory, cultural studies, and popular fiction, especially SF. He is also a columnist, writing on culture politics and society, apart from food history. Mookerjee likes to travel and curate life and its myriad complexities. He is deeply interested in  exploring alternative pedagogies, because he feels higher education should unleash academic creativity and not constrain scholarship through enforced regimentation.