How a pre-teener found a treasure in the private book collection of India’s first Foreign Secretary, KPS Menon.

During my schooldays in the beautiful city of Thiruvananthapuram in the 1970s, one of my favourite haunts was the Trivandrum Public Library which is also the State Central Library. Housed in a massive gothic-style building built in 1900, the library is home to a staggering collection of books. I used to visit the library every day during the holidays, and every Saturday when school was in session. When I had exhausted all that the Children’s Section had to offer, I moved on to the massive stack rooms where the English fiction books were kept.

During one of my visits in the summer holidays, I also browsed through the reference section in the main hall. That was when I noticed a few old wooden cupboards literally jammed with, and groaning under, the weight of hundreds of books. The cupboards were locked and on peering through the glass doors I noticed a number of books by some of my favourite authors such as PG Wodehouse, Leslie Charteris and Agatha Christie.

My interest piqued; I inquired from the librarian as to why the cupboards were locked and whether I could borrow books kept therein. The librarian informed me that the books were the private collection of KPS Menon and had been gifted to the library. He added that the books were not available for borrowing, but members of the library could be specially issued books from the collection which could be read in the reading room and had to be returned before leaving the library.

Open sesame

As a 12-year-old schoolboy, I did not know KPS Menon from Adam. On enquiry, I was informed that he was a diplomat who was India’s first Foreign Secretary and also Ambassador to China and the (then) Soviet Union. He was one of several Malayalis in the top echelons of the bureaucracy at the time when it used to be said, tongue in cheek, that the Indian Civil Services suffered from ‘Menongitis’.

KPS Menon

I immediately requested that I may be allowed to have a look-see into these wonderful cupboards so that I could select a book to be read in the library. The librarian opened up a cupboard for me and I was soon delving through the treasures within, at a loss as to what I should read first. Finally, I settled on a thin paperback with a cartoon cover called ‘ It All Started With Eve’ by the American satirist and humorist Richard Armour.

The book was a hilarious take on the Female of the Species and my frequent snorts of laughter elicited glares from the other readers who were probably wondering what the snotty little bespectacled kid was doing there instead of in the Children’s Section where brats like him rightfully belonged. Anyway, I finished the book in a couple of hours and returned it. I remember I cycled home for lunch and then returned in the afternoon to read the only other book by Richard Armour in the collection, ‘ Twisted Tales From Shakespeare’, which, as the title suggests, is a side-splitting take on the tales of the venerable Bard of Avon. Thereafter, I used to visit the library every morning and afternoon and get a new book issued from the collection, which I would devour and then like, Dickens’ character Oliver Twist, begging for more.

By the time the summer holidays ended I had blazed through most of the books in the cupboards, except for certain biographies and autobiographies and books on politics, which did not interest me at the time. The collection introduced me to a whole armada of wonderful authors who went on to become favourites and whose works I have since added to my collection wherever possible. There was Richard Gordon, a surgeon turned writer, writer of hilarious books based on the medical profession, starting with ‘Doctor in the House’. There was Damon Runyon the American humorist and short story writer with his tales of the gangsters, molls, hustlers and down and out actors of Broadway. There was W W Jacobs, chiefly known nowadays for his much-anthologized horror short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, who was also a writer of several books of wonderful short stories about the sailors, roustabouts and shady characters frequenting the London docklands, all narrated by his unique creation ‘The Nightwatchman’.

Meeting Guareschi

Thorne Smith, another American writer of humorous fantasy fiction was my next discovery when I read his bestselling novel ‘Topper’ and thereafter ‘ Skin and Bones’. His mixture of fantasy, almost Wodehousian situations and slightly risqué humour ( considering the period in which these books were written ), was absolutely entrancing. Paul Gallico was another author new to me. Primarily known to modern readers as the author of the disaster epic ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, Gallico is an author who does not fit into any particular genre.

His books included crime capers, ghost stories, espionage tales, modern fairy tale classics like ‘The Snow Goose ‘ and ‘The Small Miracle’, tales based on animal characters and a few books based on one of my favourite characters in fiction, the cockney London charlady with the heart of gold known as Mrs. ‘Arris. One of the brightest gems I discovered in the treasures hidden in the cupboards was the first book in the Don Camillo series by Italian author Giovanni Guareschi, ‘The Little World of Don Camillo’. The tales set in a little village set in the Po valley feature those implacable adversaries, the hulking Peppone, the mayor of the village and the leader of its Communist Party and the Catholic village priest, the equally massive, iron-fisted, quick-tempered Don Camillo who is more likely to settle an argument with a swift kick in the pants rather than by spreading the word of the Lord. The humour and humanity that fill these tales are in stark contrast to the kind of vile political rhetoric being spewed in the present day.

There were many other treasures in the cupboards, that were revealed over the period of that golden summer. Northcote Parkinson’s ‘Parkinsons Law’, Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men In a Boat’, George and Weedon Grosssmith’s ‘ Diary of a Nobody’, Thomas Costain’s epic historical novel ‘ The Silver Chalice’, Ogden Nash’s wonderful books of nonsense rhymes plus many other books by authors I was already familiar with. KPS Menon will be remembered by History for his services to the nation but to one young boy (now only at heart, alas ) he will always be remembered as the Genie who revealed untold treasures and was a major signpost on the Highway of Dreams. If you have managed to get through this meandering post, I hope you will also try out the authors mentioned herein.

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Vineeth Abraham

Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

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