Booklove: The lives of successful readers


(Published in the Business Standard, July 16, 2013)

The last time I saw back issues of the Indian Review of Books, they were being weighed on a rusted scale, part of a job lot of Illustrated Weeklies and Chandamamas that a Daryaganj pavement bookseller was discarding.

The Review was, from 1992 to August 2001, one of the better loved of Indian literary magazines. Its demise was mourned by many, including the author Shashi Tharoor: “India’s best literary journal had finally been defeated by the hard mathematics of the market.”

The IRB encouraged almost as much conversation between its sometimes formidable contributors as Twitter and Facebook combined, and some of its insouciance was reflected in the tagline that ran under the masthead: “Koi Hai? Bilaytee Pani Lao.” A young author and contributor from Shimla by the name of Pankaj Mishra offered enthusiastic suggestions, in a letter to the editors: “The cover doesn’t necessarily have to relate to any of the contents, does it? You could make it a forum for budding artists.”

KS Padmanabhan, the gentle, incisive, steadfastly courteous founder of the Indian Review of Books, died this weekend, at the age of 77. His passing made me think of what it means to have a life in books. By today’s frighteningly narrow, market-driven definitions, a successful author measures his or her success exclusively by book sales, reach and number of followers. But what of the life of the successful reader?

When I met KS Padmanabhan, I expected to meet a man who took himself very seriously. He had been a publisher for decades, aside from being one of the founders of the IRB and the Madras Book Club, along with S Muthiah.

He didn’t see himself as a legend. Instead, Mr Padmanabhan saw himself as a reader, and talked of books and authors and what they had meant to him, of the old bookshops of Chennai and people in the trade. Books ran in the family’s bloodstream; his wife, Chandra, is an acclaimed cookbook writer, and his son, Gautam, now runs Westland-Tranquebar.

His life, lived among books, and editors, and writers, was a rich and full one, and those who remember the IRB do not talk with nostalgia about its dead pages. They remember it and its other editors, including Subhashree Krishnan, as though those reviews, books and authors are very much alive.

In the absence of more than a scant handful of literary historians in India, it is these journals—Biblio, The Book Review, The Indian Review of Books, Seminar, Quest, the Modern Review or Mookerjee’s Magazine—that become our quiet, patient memory-keepers.

But the copies of the IRB on sale that day were pulped and water-stained beyond the possibility of salvage. I could not turn their pages, and with regret, I left without them.


The sudden and early death of the sociologist Sharmila Rege from cancer last week, came just after she had published a landmark collection of Ambedkar’s writings, Against The Madness of Manu (Navayana). The impression that the leaders of India’s national movement read, and wrote, their way into being has stayed with me for a long time. Their archives are thick with letters and journalism (Gandhi), poetry and speeches (Naidu), memoirs, broadsides and books (Nehru, Azad, Ambedkar).

Ambedkar was typical of those whose love of the word, spoken and written, helped to form the scaffolding of their nationalism. He came to reading at a very early age, borrowing books from teachers, reading voraciously, shaping himself into a writer of fierce clarity. His speeches and his books, his letters and his Parliament interjections have a remarkable freshness about them: his dislike for baroque flourishes or over-ornate language make his writings feel timeless, even contemporary. His biographer notes that on an early trip to New York, Dr Ambedkar ransacked that city’s secondhand bookstores, buying books in the hundreds; at the time of his death, his personal library ran to over 50,000 volumes.

Before he broke the barriers of caste, they shadowed him and shaped much of his life. In Baroda, he lived in discomfort, pretending to be a Parsi because untouchables were often denied shelter. Of that time, Dr Ambedkar wrote: “In the absence of the company of human beings I sought the company of books, and read and read. Absorbed in reading, I forgot my lonely condition. But the chirping and flying about of the bats, which had made the hall their home, often distracted my mind and sent cold shivers through me–reminding me of what I was endeavouring to forget, that I was in a strange place under strange conditions.”


Like Dr Ambedkar, and Sharmila Rege, and KS Padmanabhan, those who are shaped by books take it for granted that their reading will run parallel to their lives, just as non-readers rarely comment on the ways in which their neighbourhoods and their daily environment shapes them.

In his memoir of Patna–A Matter of Rats–the writer, critic and teacher Amitava Kumar, sets out to remember a city, not to write a memoir of a city of books. The journalist in Amitava sends him out in search of the rats who infest the city, creeping into his earliest memories, and in search of the Musahar families who catch and eat them. But as he writes, he recalls Phanishwar Nath Renu’s memoir about doing relief work during the flood of 1949. Like the great author, Amitava writes, “I would sometimes find joy amongst those I had expected only to be burdened by pathos.”

Kumar captures, in quick precise Kodak frames, Patna’s past, its quirkier legacies—Napoleon’s bed, the Patna Qalam school—Laloo Yadav stories. But then he comes home: “As I grew older and found my footing as a writer, I looked for Patna in literature.” His city rests in the keeping of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Baba Nagarjun, Siddharth Chowdhury, Ian Jack, Arun Prakash, Shiva Naipaul, and eventually, in his own books. Towards the end of this searching, colourful, honest city memoir, Amitava writes, “Patna for me will always be about parents and children.”

This is accurate, for A Matter of Rats is secretly a family memoir. Amitava has already evoked the family of writers that surrounds those who live interleaved lives—the ordinary world, and on the facing page, the world of books.


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