Second hand books, first hand stories

Getting to know my late grandfather, through his book collection

Last weekend, I decided to wander in my neighbourhood, with only one agenda. Find myself a corner to read along with some breakfast. As I climbed up the hill in Sai Ying Pun, I came across a small cafe, which had just opened and was empty. I quickly grabbed a comfortable spot and pulled out my copy of — ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’, written by Asne Seirstad.

The story of an Afghani man, surviving multiple tyrannical regimes in his country, protecting the books and literature, is in simplest terms, inspiring. The book follows Sultan Khan and his family’s journey, traversing between Kabul and Peshawar, to keep his business alive and with it, the history and future of Afghanistan.

The author knits the social, cultural, religious and historical backgrounds shared in that region. Each word carefully chosen to fit in with the characters. Souls laid bare, the men, women, children all come with their desires and aspirations. Some find a way, some make attempts and fail, while others simply accept life as fate. From the oldest matriarch to the youngest toddler, every character is incomplete without the other.

This is a story, Asne wrote for her readers. And then there’s a story, which the copy in my hand read out to me. This book was a second hand purchase, one of the reasons why I bought it. I picked the book, because its yellowing pages narrated a different tale.

Books are like wine. The older they get, the richer they become.

As every book passes through homes and shelves, cities and countries, it builds a new layer of features. Some get dated, some get bookmarked. As you flip through pages, you come across dull scribbled notes in illegible handwriting. Exquisite, isn’t it? The botched ink stains of library stamps, the folded pages’ crease, all define the person and the time that book belongs to.

For me that has always added to their charm. I hunt for their stories, spinning a new one.

Who bought it first? Why did they pass it on? Imagining the person and characterising him/her by the books which once belonged to him. Building a relationship with the book and its former owner.

It has been books, that I developed an understanding of my maternal grandfather who passed away before I was born. An advocate by profession, he was amongst the few scholars of his time, with whom one could learn about philosophy, science and religion all together. An Aligarh Muslim University graduate, he was an intellect much ahead of his time.

Every childhood visit to mother’s maiden home, involved gazing at grandfather’s dilapidated book shelves, filled with titles in English, Urdu and Persian. Some were hardbound while others were paperback, each with a Roman number marking its place on the shelves. Curiosity would get the better of me, as I would climb on the dining table to figure out which one I could pick up to read. A book on human evolution was always my favourite, with images of apes transforming into humans, holding my attention for hours.

I imagined grandfather reading Darwin’s theory to my mother when she was a kid, and how that knowledge changed her thought process. His long hand scribbled in the corners of pages made me picture him seated past midnight, in his room, deep into his thoughts. There were black and white pictures of him, one in which he looked like young Raj Kapoor.

Gradually, as years went by; the visits shortened and the books went unnoticed, engulfed by time. Handwritings and pages disappeared as colonies of termites made the book shelves their home. Grandfather’s memory, present yet forgotten.

It was on one such visits, that I began rummaging through the racks to carry some books home. Deciding to have a piece of my grandfather’s personality forever in my books’ collection, I found: Mother by Maxim Gorky, the biography of Priscilla Presley, English translations of Persian poetry by Allama Iqbal, a book on American diplomacy before World War II, and others.

As I read those books, grandfather’s image became clearer in my mind. He was no longer a memory crafted through pictures and discussions, rather a character, defined by the choice of his literature.

He was a poet at heart, inspired by Iqbal’s writings, which he translated into Urdu. He was a theologian who researched Islam’s genesis, its components, and distilled them from the traditions attached with it. He was a political commentator, who studied Lenin and Churchill, Nehru and Jinnah, all at the same time. But perhaps, above all, he was a philosopher. Trying to understand human behaviour, searching for answers, looking for new layers of human thought process, with each book he read.

As he spent hours in his study with all his books, he became a sum of them. An ocean of knowledge, where you will always find pearls of wisdom, every time you dive in.

As my mother and her siblings recall grandfather’s daily routines and lifestyle, I now recall a personality, a mind. I feel closer to him, to his thinking and gather immense hope to continue on my path of gathering wisdom.

It has been grandfather’s original writings in Urdu, that have inspired me to learn the language. As I try to practise every day, his copy of Urdu prose, awaits at home, to be read.

A task, which will take a long time. Nonetheless, a task, I am inspired to accomplish.

Books are the mirrors to a personality. Books define character. Books showcase a lifestyle. They are the biggest giveaways of a person in their home. You can know who they really are, by simply scrolling through their collection. Or the lack of it. You can search the soul of a home, through the titles of the books it houses. A home which then indulges you into discussions around history, science, religion, geography; warming evening teas and cementing relationships.

And second hand books, they present first hand stories. Which no one else can perhaps tell.

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