Why I like buying second hand books? During my student days,it was the only way I could afford to read and also possess books. The second hand books and magazines , which I bought at the Sunday Book Market in Daryaganj, Old Delhi came ridiculously cheap. It used to be with a very queenly feeling that I would return to JNU , loaded with books in my rucksack and having paid not more than Rupees 50 or 75. I never did seem to have enough money to buy books from the stores in Connaught Place ( the circular bookshop on Janpath) or Khan market ( Bahrisons). I would of course hang around in them just for the sheer pleasure of being surrounded by so many books and surreptitiously try to read comics, magazines . The store owner or his assistants gradually became used to me loitering and would just let me be. Perhaps, they pitied the wistful hunger in my eyes?
Switch to today.Years later and having been able to eke out a reasonably decent living.Most of my money is spent on books, music and my beloved dogs. I can comfortably afford to buy books from the stores,but I still return to the Sunday Book Market at least twice a month. Wait, I know.Anyone reading this will immediately think ‘Oh , she is going to talk about the fragrance of old books. Or the feel of fragile yellow paper”. But no I won’t .Although, I quite understand these sensory enhancers of book fetish-ness. Many a times I have been caught sniffing a book too 🙂
But I tend to echo Virginia Woolf. She says “Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world”.
That’s the key.”Random complete stranger”. Many second hand books sometimes have things written in/on them by their previous owners. I read them too along with the book.In fact, I feel these lines written maybe hastily, maybe with great thought in so many different writing styles,ink,instruments, little pictographic emotions are stories in their own right. The random stranger in the book speaks to me about himself/herself.The experiences, the joy, the sorrow, the love, the despair,finding oneself, losing one self, So many emotions.I start making up stories about these strangely ”non-strangers’ inside my head.
In the December of 2001,I returned to Delhi after a hiatus of four years.On a delicious winter Sunday mid-morning, I landed up in the second hand book market of Old Delhi.Browsing happily, and chatting with the vendors, I had almost spent a good three hours in the market( actually books are stacked on the pavements and road). A little urchin, selling tea from a huge aluminium kettle, had also made good business with me buying an endless amount of the milky, sugary masala tea in small plastic ups. Amongst the unlikely rubbing against each other Ludlums, Agatha Christies, Mills & Boons, James Joyce,Deepak Chopras etc I spotted a slim, hardbound book covered in decaying green velvet cloth with a gold border.I picked it up to find that it was Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets.I realized that it was actually a paperback edition which had been hardbound and then had,had the green velvet cloth sewn on as a cover.One could see from the craftsmanship that a lot of time , labour and love had been spent on customizing it.Right from the alternate neat little stitches in green and gold thread to the beautiful beige handmade paper pasted on the front and back inside covers. The choice of the color green perhaps was also in honor of the green ink that Pablo Neruda used to write his poetry, his personal symbol of desire. The color green for Neruda had a very powerful symbolism that nurtured creativity. The name on the first page read ”Alexandra Smith”, written in bold, beautiful strokes of black fountain pen ink.Dated July 19th, 1997. The book of poems had many passages underlined. Some had little hearts on the margin.Others had dates , times, places mentioned.Mainly of places in the UK and Scotland.
I flipped through to find a single fake peacock feather on the Sonnet XVII page. That is perhaps my favorite, because it captures the essence and magic of love in all its nuances-melancholy, secretive, exuberant, sensual and pulsing with life blood.It depicts the scared connectedness between two living beings.On the page margin, again scribbled in that bold handwriting were the lyrics of the Moody Blues number “Nights In White Satin”. The music seemed to flow at me from the pages, adding a haunting sweetness to Neruda’s words from his soul.
Enthralled at this imagery and the pull of a strange woman’s emotions, I impatiently thumbed through to reach the last page which is normally a blank white one. That characteristic bold handwriting which I had come to recognize so well in that last half hour wrote “Love is so short, forgetting is so long…Paul, we did not and never will see the Taj Mahal together”. I felt strangely bereft at this stranger’s loss. I could not comprehend whether this Paul had left her or had died.And why had she left this book of poems behind? So coldly ? So impersonally?
It was beginning to get dark and the vendors had started packing the books into huge gunny bags.Time for me to go , I realized.The vendor gave the book to me for Rupees 10. On the drive back home, I tried to imagine what Alexandra Smith looked like.Whether she had a lilting laugh. Whether she liked strawberries, Whether she hated crowds.Whether she still keened for Paul.
As I type this, I can’t help but wish that somehow , some sort of magic or the power of the Internet and social media perhaps can carry my words to Alexandra Smith.Make her read this. Make her real to me . For I want to tell her that “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming”. And return the book to her.
Here is Sonnet XVII:
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
And here is the Moody Blues song