When did I start reading books in life, apart from course books? In my childhood, I used to go to a public library and another open newspaper reading place in my hometown, Rampura Phul, Bathinda district of Punjab. I used to read Hindi and Punjabi children’s magazines like ‘Chandamama’‘Bal Sandesh’ or Hindi/Punjabi newspapers and children’s sections. After graduating, I was unable to enroll in any university and went to live with my elder sister in Abohar in Ferozepur district.
Abohar, by the way, was a much better known town before 1947. Prominent Hindi writers and national leaders during the freedom struggle used to visit Sahitya Sadan there. My brother-in-law arranged for me to work as a trainee in the Bhiwani cotton mills. I tried for about a month but couldn’t adapt to factory work. But during my stay in Abohar around 1962, I got into the habit of reading spy books or jasoosi novels in hindi. There was a store in Abohar, which stocked hundreds of these novels and charged one anna (6 paise today) per day for reading. Sometimes I read more than one novel a day. Many of them were monthly publications like ‘Jassosi Duniya’ etc
After my return to Rampura Phul, I started helping my father in his shop. I started going to the library again and occasionally leafed through English newspapers, mainly “The Tribune”, including movie advertisements or sports pages, as I listened to cricket commentary on the radio. The names of Salim Durrani, Chandu Borde, Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni from India and Gary Sobers, Gibbs, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai etc. of the West Indies, were etched in my mind.
When Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, the shop was closed for two days, one on the day of his death and another when his ashes were submerged. I think around this time I became a member of the public library and the first book I published out of the two published at the time was Premchand’s novel Godaan. Possibly Premchand’s autobiographical story ‘Mera Jivan’ in school curricula had a profound impact on my teenage mind. I read the novel in a single day or maybe two days, but it set my standards for literary reading. I tried to read Punjabi novels by Nanak Singh and Jaswant Kanwal but couldn’t continue because Hindi novels by Premchand and other writers gave me more aesthetic pleasure than the novels in punjabi.
Rampura Phul Public Library was established during the freedom struggle and has a rich collection in Hindi, Urdu, English and Punjabi. I tried to read the Urdu copy of ‘Godan’ with my father, who was middle-class at the time and whom my grandfather had not authorized to accept a teaching position in 1933 at Rs 18 per month. My father was not introduced to literature, but he continued to read his favorite daily newspaper in Urdu, perhaps ‘Hind Samachar’. Since that day, my reading has never stopped and it has helped me become who I am today.
I started buying books other than textbooks in the late 1960s when I became a teacher in 1967. I became a member of Hind Pocket Books. Those days, in Re 1, we had good paperbacks. I translated one of these books into Punjabi from Hindi when I first started writing – it was by Manmathnath Gupt. ‘Bharat Ke Krantikari’, sketches of 16 or 18 revolutionaries. It was serialized by Ghadarite Baba Gurmukh Singh who edited ‘Desh Bhagat Yaadan’ by Desh Bhagat Yaadgar Hall Jalandhar. Some pieces were published in ‘Preetlari’, Arsee‘ reviews too.
Unfortunately, during the police raids in the 1970s to suppress the Naxalite movement, even the Ghadar party memorial could not preserve its archives and these questions of Desh Bhagat Yadan, edited by such a legendary Ghadarite Gurmukh Singh Lalton, have been lost. Perhaps out of fear I have not kept these numbers, and only five or so sketches are with me which have been published in literary or government journals.
During my MA studies in Hindi and Punjabi, I bought a lot of books. While incarcerated in Bathinda prison for seven months during the emergency of 1975-77, the best part was reading huge novels like Sarat Chandra’s. My weekly supply of books came from the Rampura Phul Public Library.
Bulk buying of books started when I became a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1977 and started getting a scholarship. Every hostel room in JNU has a shelf and not having books on the shelf meant being an inferior being in that culture. I have always spent more than what I received as a contingency grant for the purchase of books. It was a great pleasure to own a book that was considered important, whether in literature or any other discipline. JNU faculty members and students would hang out at the Geeta Bookstore in the Kamal Complex Market every night to search for new titles and join the race to buy first.
I had so many books in my collection that when I left for Bombay in 1982 to become a Hindi officer, I left a large collection in my room with my friend Shashi Bhushan Upadhyaya (now a history teacher at IGNOU, New Delhi ) and one of the painful chapters in my life is that many of these books were lost when JNU was closed down indefinitely in 1983 and Shashi was one of the arrested and later rustic. The students could not keep their precious books, because the hostels were liberated in a very brutal way.
I continued to buy books after joining the post. It has become a habit, a continuation of the Geeta Book Shop culture. But conditions changed after 1985 when I joined as a Hindi Lecturer at Punjabi University, Patiala. The purchase of books has increased, adding Punjabi books to my collection apart from Hindi and English. But, after a few years, there was a gap between my buying books and reading them. I never depended on the library for my personal or professional need for books, I preferred to buy. Yet with family life and professional commitments and socializing with colleagues, participation in the teachers’ movement, and the entry of television into life, reading has been affected. The gap between buying and reading books kept widening, and with the appearance of many Hindi, Punjabi and English magazines, the demand/urge to write affected my reading even more. So much so that even after joining JNU, the situation did not improve. On the contrary, the situation has worsened with the arrival of computers equipped with an Internet connection. Now the situation is that even though my book buying never stopped or slowed down, even after retiring without a pension, my reading still went down.
I have over 5000 books in my personal collection of Hindi, Punjabi, English and lately Urdu but I may not have read more than 2000, maybe less . This is not to say that the average reading has completely stopped, which may not be less than 60 books per year. But because the Internet/magazines consume too much time, the average reading has dropped considerably. If these factors had not entered into life, my average reading would not have been less than 200 books per year.
When I joined the University of the West Indies (UWI), Trinidad and Tobago in 2010-11, my only temptation was to read many books that I felt I should read and also see movies. So I brought more than 500 books and about 100 movie DVDs there, knowing that it would not be easy to fulfill my desire, because I had a task to accomplish: to finish at least one major manuscript and to travel to many country. nearby.
So my book reading restarted after reaching Port of Spain. It all started with a stack of Hindi, Punjabi and English magazines, which I mostly scanned, including two important issues of Journal of Literature and Aesthetics focused on Indian Dalit literature in Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujrati, Hindi, Kannada and Malayalam. Edited by Dr. D.Sreenivasan from Kollam in Kerala, it was a good literary review. In digitized issues of Summer Hill Review, Animated World of Law, Main stream, First lineand Fborder In English; filhal, Virsa, Sirjana and chirag in Punjabi and Tadbhav,Shesh, Parikata,Naya Gyanoudey, Vasudha, Samkallen Janmat, Alochna and apeksha in Hindi.
Classic novel by Leo Tolstoy ‘Anna Karenina’ is my favorite too, after reading his Hindi summary in ‘Naya Gyanoudey’. As my books were due to arrive by courier a few days later, I received books from the Indian High Commission library there. Before that, the famous Hindi writer and Hindi teacher, Susham Bedi (she died at the onset of COVID-19), offered her books-Chidiya Aur Cheel’ (stories) and ‘Shabdon ki Khidkiyan’ (poems) for me in New York. I also have his novel ‘Havana‘ from the library of the High Commission to supplement the reading of his writings in poetry and fiction.
Among the few other books borrowed from the library were those by Asha Rani Vohra –Swatantarta Senani Lekhikayen’(Women Writers Freedom Fighters), this also included the sketch of Bhagat Singh groups activist Susheela Mohan. Also Dr. Bharat Mishra ‘1857 ki Kranti aur uske pramukh krantikari’by Dr Kailash Kumari Sahay ‘Pravasi Bhartiyon ki hindi seva’ and Vimlesh Kanti and Dheera Verma “Fiji mein hindi. The last two books I read were aimed at refreshing my exposure to the Hindi language in Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana – five countries of domination by people of Indian origin where the power policy also remains with or shared by people of Indian origin. I also read Bahadurshah Zafar’s Urdu poetry transliterated into Hindi.
(To be continued )
The writer is retired professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. He wrote on some important books for Newsclick. [email protected]