The scent of books
Last Sunday while rummaging through the attic in my ancestral house, I chanced to lay my dusty hands on a still dustier old diary. Bound in soft leather with a smooth silk thread running across as a book mark, it was a diary for 1921.
The proud owner of the diary was a great-grand-cousin of mine, who I learnt was a lawyer’s clerk. I quickly went through the volume looking forward to be treated to little nuggets of life in the 1920’s.
The lawyer’s clerk was meticulous in recording the details of happenings around him on a regular basis, mostly those pertaining to his work life. I glanced through pages and pages of entries about the civil cases coming up for hearing on various dates at the local subordinate judge’s court and quite a few, in the appellant court in a nearby town. The lawyer for whom this grand cousin of mine worked appeared to have lived comfortably in an environment of acute civil turmoil that necessitated his intervention as the council for either the plaintiff or the defendant in numerous cases throughout the year.
The court proceedings recorded would often be the summaries of the discussions at the court hall, garnished with animated observations of the boss-lawyer, like ‘the plaintiff’s arguments were shred to pieces, leaving them with tattered loin cloth’, ‘uttered to the thunderous claps at the court hall by all lawyers with no work whatsoever’ or ‘the defence fell apart decimated like they faced an Emden attack’ or the still more interesting and less frequent, ‘the judge ejaculated as if he was answering a mating call by his Madurai based paramour, the one with buck teeth’. Now, this is an archaic usage of ‘ejaculate’ to mean, to come quick – oh, not, again.
The non-court of law entries in the diary were pertaining to the diary-keeper attending the marriage of the court sheriff’s third son, of the mother of the court Head Clerk who went to sleep in Jesus at the ripe old age of eighty five and seven more months, the accident the honourable judge’s twelve year old son met with while cycling down the muddy embankment road (he luckily had a few scratches, as the bicycle plunged into the ever dry pond west to the back entrance to the subordinate court) .. it goes on in that stride till the page is exhausted. That indeed shows how he valued his life as a law man’s clerk over anything else. He constrained his universe to be populated with beings and inanimate objects that in some way or other remained connected to the courts of law, through an invisible umbilical chord. I also read an entry about the renovation of a temple of Lord Ganesa, the first son of Siva of the celestial triumvirate, and the ensuing celebrations in all gaiety. That tiny temple was situated inside the court premises, facing the East and was under a large peepal tree.
The diary surprisingly had a few advertisements too in the opening pages and towards the end. The first one was a full page insert for an ‘all vitamin’ tonic imported from Leeds, United Kingdom, the regular partaking of which would ensure the children would have a glowing fair complexion, would be strong, tall, intelligent and would ever stay healthy. Anyone ordering the elixir through post was entitled to a free gift of two bars of original British chocolate laxatives.
At least three perfume vendors in quarter-page advertisements proclaimed somewhat identically that they used a secret, centuries old process to distil the perfumes of roses and other exotic flowers. These were available at ‘attractive’ prices as indicated in the long catalogue, the gist of which made the body of the rest of the advertisement. Any buyer purchasing a minimum of three bottles of this ‘scent’ was entitled to a free gift of a vial of original French perfume.
Along with the invisible fragrance of French and other perfumes, a captivating flavour most satisfying to the olfactory sense arose from the old diary. That was the pleasant scent of age old paper bound as a volume. It was the incense of books and fragrance of the words, printed or hand written.
One can outgrow one’s craving for perfumes of the East and West but can never extricate from the addiction to the captivating scent emanating from old books. I have a friend of mine who is also the sub editor of a vernacular daily newspaper. He is one of the die-hard bibliophiles, more so of the category of lover of old paper beauties. There are no detox routines or time tested treatment methodology available for curing this malady, sadly.
My sub-editor friend would wait impatiently as the work days of the week slowly wear out and the calendar declares with suppressed glee that the happy weekend indeed has arrived. This is the day my friendly paper tiger would be on his prowl, looking up and down, and far and wide, for old books.
With a large cotton bag sufficient to hold him in if he doubles up, slipped nonchalantly on his left shoulder and holding a long and viciously thin bamboo cane authoritatively in his hand, he would set out on his diurnal hunt.
‘You know mate, in Elephant’s Gate, someone has purchased at a fortune a palatial house more than a hundred and fifty years old. They have commenced bringing down the doors and teak wooden columns en bloc before demolishing the building’, he told me cheerfully when he once bumped into me, while on his ambitious mission.
‘But, my friend, you are a news man and are supposed to be more focussed on the columns in print than those falling apart when a dilapidated house is pulled down’.
‘Oh, no, you are always your ever-lazy-to-listen self. What I meant was the house has a reasonably good inventory of books that occupy a whole room, in neatly placed wooden cabinets. The sellers being those of the Generation Next and based out of France are not keen to airlift the entire collection de livres to Paris. The buyers of the property who too seem to maintain a safe distance from books want someone to clear the ‘garbage’ at next to nothing prices or render a free service. And so, I am on my way to strike gold. You know, there are about a hundred books in French apart from the rest in English and Tamil, over there’.
‘Do you know French’? I looked at him puzzled.
‘I don’t. Yet, a book is a book is a book’.
The impatient sub editor started walking towards the bus stop taking hasty strides. I could not stop wondering how he, a resident of Chromepet, the south most area of the metro, came to know about the bargain offer in an up north city locality, at least 30 kilometres away from there. Yet, the primary doubt to be cleared was not on staying well informed but about the cane he was carrying. What has a bamboo stick got to do with a weekend vintage-book-crawl?
I ran after him and tucking at the jumbo size cotton bag hanging off his shoulder, shot the question lingering in my mind for long, gasping for breath.
‘Why don’t you get a little more informed on all matters related to plain simple existence, like this one’?
He chided me and pulled up, obviously to enlighten me.
‘The sweet incense of age old books hypnotises and lures not only lesser mortals like us but even the scurrying centipedes, roaches, lizards, scorpions et al. They glide through the pages stealthily and live happily with family and friends ever after their entry. Don’t spare the cane. Wield it firm. Wield it with love towards the book and with zero tolerance towards the miserable insects. When a you strike the cane and land a couple of sharp lashes on the dust jacket of the book, these unwanted immigrants exit in a flurry, without any need for even the slightest violence to evict them. It is thereafter an endless tryst with the printed word, you see’, he elaborated.
It is quite another story as to how this salt pepper bearded member of the fourth estate smuggles into his house tons of old books he procures, with trepidation and without attracting the slightest attention of his wife. He had told me how that elaborate operation using a few temporary hide outs and taking several hours, again, over a weekend, would see the acquired treasure reach its new abode without any hitch.
‘It is worth all the trouble, to inhale the intoxicating scent of those books’, he confided to me then, sounding as if in a trance, oblivious to the surroundings.
I was hooked on to this bewitching fragrance of old books somewhat early in life, that is, while at school, some four years before appearing for the secondary school leaving certificate examinations.
The small town I hail from has at least four large tanks and that many small ponds, all with reddish soil-soaked water looking and almost tasting like thick orange squash. One such pond to the west of the town is on a slightly elevated plane with a narrow meandering path gently gliding down, circumventing it. The path reaches down to an avenue of banyan, neem, mango and tamarind trees and a couple of coral jasmine shrubs which flower at dusk emitting a heavenly fragrance that permeates the atmosphere through the whole night.
To ride a bicycle without pushing the pedals down and not using the breaks on this gradient path to heaven is something I would love to do even now. The palace on two wheels would more often come to a stop at the gates of a majestic Victorian building with numerous windows, huge imposing pillars and large wooden double doors. This building houses the town library and is named after a national leader who strode the national scene like a Colossus, two generations before mine. His huge photograph with a munificent look behind thick framed glasses is kept mounted on the wall at the entrance with all reverence and garlanded weekly. We had seen his passport size photograph regularly appearing in our history text books and as such he appeared quite familiar to us unlike most elders of his time bygone.
Straight beneath the portrait, a wooden table with an overturned bottle of resin based adhesive and a torn register with a thick vertical line drawn in the middle of each page, strictly dividing it into two columns would be found. The teeny-weeny pencil with a near blunt lead could easily be traced next. A piece of thick jute thread would tie the dwarfed pencil securely to one of the hind legs of the table.
The task would be to write one’s name in the first column of the register and sign in full in column two. That way the details of all who enter the library any day would be monitored, God knows for what purpose. It would be quite a challenge to enter the information on the pages kept open, as the length of the thread would never be adequate to use the pencil tethered to it freely without restraining its movement. Somehow we would manage to accomplish this too, sometimes nearly turning the table upside down, and would enter the library looking triumphant.
And we would step into a large hall with rows of chairs and tables and rows and rows of wooden cabinets with glass windows, all kept towards the walls. There would be books all around with most of them stacked optimally in the cabinets. Piles of books would be on the floor also, near the bureau, ready to be confined to the warm innards of the cabinets. All the books reaching the library from the publishers would be bound afresh after removing the original wrappers and would sport the same floral design for cover, very much akin to children in the school assembly, in their uniforms. And there would be at least fifty library users at any given time, filling up almost every inch of available space, perched on steel chairs and on long teak wooden benches laid at right angles to the entrance.
At the tail end of a wooden bench, trying hard to garner more space to sit comfortably and holding a tattered copy of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ would be a small boy of ten, who happens to be the writer of this article. I would read a page, raise the book and hold it close to my nostrils and take a deep breath in, imbibing a whiff of the magical scent of books.
All the cabinets in their lower panes and up to those rungs easily available for a boy of ten to stand gingerly on toes and reach out, would have scores and scores of books cleared ‘safe for reading by an youngster’ beckoning me towards them. There would be volumes of Asterix comics with a massively built Obelix jutting out of the newly bound books, carrying a huge menhir upon his shoulders and inviting me to share a wild-boar dinner with him. There also would be books with the loquacious ghost Vedhala piggybacking on King Vikramathithya, reeling out interesting stories in riddles and shooting questions with aplomb. The king, who is supposed to be silent, would correctly answer each question coming his way, as he cannot keep quiet knowing the right answer, for his head would shatter into a thousand pieces, had he done so, as the cunning ghost reminds him gleefully. Obelix, Getaphix, the Vedhala, Vikramathithya, detective Shankar Lal, his sidekick The Brinjal, Dorathy, Wizard of Oz, the Iron Man.. it was a friendly atmosphere with the heady scent of books over there, along with the pungent odour of moth balls randomly strewn inside the cabinets.
The books on the upper rungs of the cabinets were not reachable for school boys, also in the sense they were intentionally kept perched there up as some elderly person with a self assumed social responsibility had decided they have to remain out of reach for the children. We used to stare with envy at those who would have come off age much ahead of us, take these books out and occupying a corner chair in utmost comfort written large on their faces, would get swiftly absorbed in their world. They would leave the books at a book pile and walk out, so that the books could be restored safely to their own slots inside the cabinets, away from the sight of boys aspiring to grow fast, gulping table spoons of imported vitamin tonic.
Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays in English translation, a thousand and seven hundred years old Tamil verses on love and love alone, on pregnancy, child rearing, books with funny titles like Lady Chatterjee’s Lover (that is what I read it first) .. the choices available to the grown-up would be really endless. I once located a well maintained copy of ‘The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’, which was inadvertently left on the cane chair itself. As I grabbed it and was busy turning the pages to find out what genre the book is of, the middle aged librarian approached from the sidelines and in a swift operation snatched the book away from me before I could react in shock and disbelief. He placed it again on the top most rack of the cabinet, muttering, ‘You are most welcome to take this book out and read as long as you wish, when you are as tall as me or a few inches more’.
The librarian was enjoying a hot masala dosa his peon had brought for him from the hotel nearby, as a high tea delicacy for the afternoon, when his sixth sense warned him there is a boy in the vicinity about to go astray now in the book land that is his domain. He intervened appropriately and with a satisfaction he has performed his duty, resumed eating his dosa. I have since then read and reread the Arabian Nights more than three score times having met remarkably the criteria of height prescribed by the librarian. Every time I open the book, I detect the scent of old books juxtaposed with the aroma of delicious masala dosa, engulfing me.
If that was about how the library smelt, it was quite different for the weekly market at the town square. It emanated as a combo-flavour of mangoes, jack fruit being cut, dry fish, egg plant, fresh curry leaves and of neem oil sold as a panacea for all illness. A few regulars at market would smear a teaspoon of neem oil on their tresses, munch a slice or two of jack fruit and mango freshly cut and would carry under their arm, a palm casket containing sun dried fish. They always define the smell of the market for me, to a certain extent.
The market place had another strong contender for olfactory attention. It was the aroma of native sweets being fried in groundnut oil, at a corner of the market place. Holding leaf cups half filled with hot palm sugar sweets and munching to content, a sizable crowd of old and young would stand in rapt attention to two elderly brothers, both sporting flowing white beards. They would hold a copy of a book each and in a sing-song voice would narrate excerpts from the book. These books were large-font editions enabling easy readability for those adults who were initiated late into the world of print through adult education. The contents of these books were mostly folk tales on the exploits of heroes from epics and those belonging to subaltern history. Along with the gripping narrative, It would be interesting for the onlookers to observe the beards of these minstrels go up and come down in unison as they would be engrossed in their narration of the taming of a wild horse by the chieftain Raja Desingh and his riding it thereafter.
My repeated appeals to the elders in my family to empower me to procure a leaf plate full of native sweets, to have a copy of the large font book, to allow me to grow a beard ahead of my age and join the singers at the market place were all turned down mercilessly. Had I been given the green signal to go ahead on these counts, I would have furnished a more authentic olfactory definition of this variety of the scent of books.
Every year in April, when the mercury shoots up, it would be time for conducting the annual chariot festival in the temple of Lord Muruga, celebrating His wedding to his tribal consort Valli. Somehow, the book publishers in the far off Moscow would get informed of this festival well in advance and would in a jiffy erect a cloth tent near the temple, sharing space with the sweetmeat vendor, the toy seller, soda water dispenser, plastic and glass bangles seller, the girl without arms lighting a stove with her legs and preparing coffee for her and those exhibiting her for a small entrance fee and our all time favourite, the lady turning into a python down the shoulders and vice versa, again on payment. The Soviet stall would not have a display of magic and mystery like the snake woman but would endearingly sport all works of literature penned by Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Taras Shevchenko and Chekov printed on premium paper and with an invigorating scent of high quality print ink. These literary gems with their arcane Soviet smell are always held in my mind with the olfactory attribute gently embedded in them.
It was one such Soviet book expo time at the roadside in our small town reeking of horse droppings, jasmine flower garlands, fish, freshly plucked cucumber and the red soil smelling sweet drenched in brief summer showers. A friendly young man, tall and slender and with a red towel wrapped around his shoulder, picked out from display a book with a jet black jacket with only the book name and the name of the author printed on it. He was chewing tender betel leaves with cardamom and aracanut shavings, raising an agreeable flavour all around.
‘Do buy this book and read, thampi. You will ever remember it’, he told me with a contended smile.
It was a Tamil translation of Yakov Perelman’s all time great classic, ‘Physics for Entertainment’. I still consider the book as a fabulous curtain raiser to the vistas of physics, transforming basic science into an ever interesting subject. The book was made available by its publishers in Moscow at a most economical price of rupees two (roughly two British pence) and came along with another wonderful novella, ‘Seryozha’, authored by Vera Panova, as a free gift. I learnt rather late, that Y.Perelman died of starvation in the nine hundred days long siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II. Vera Panova passed away in 1973 much ahead of the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and thus was saved from enduring the harsh reality of surviving in a totally alien political environment for her, where red would be a taboo. I have long ago misplaced my copies of both the books and rely on their digital versions for any occasional reference now. Yet, I remain ever grateful to the elder-brotherly looking young man with a red towel wrapped around his shoulder and nudging me to read what I was supposed to read at that age. He smelt of betel leaves amidst the books with the Soviet scent, then and as I write this now.
Red Salute to you, comrade Big Brother.