Vineeth Abraham recollects how a chance encounter with the benevolent book thief of Irinjalakuda has boosted his book-collecting enterprise.
Since I can remember I have been a reader, preferring it above all other hobbies. While other children of my age would be enjoying themselves outdoors with games of hide and seek, ‘seven tiles’ , football or cricket , I would be inside in a corner reading. All printed matter was grist to my mill. Newspapers, magazines like Junior Statesman (JS) and the Illustrated Weekly of India, pamphlets and brochures and, of course, novels and comics. This contributed to my overactive imagination and to my becoming short sighted at a young age. I hated all outdoor activity or interaction with other kids ( unless they possessed comics) and preferred my own company and that of characters in my books. It was only in 1974 when my school introduced mandatory sports coaching that I discovered cricket and the joy of outdoor sport.
My collection had started in a small way with the comics my father used to get me, mostly Gold Key and Harvey comics. The only place where you could get comics in Mathura in the early seventies were the A.H. Wheeler and Higginbothams stands at the Railway Station. My collection started with a few Gold Key Tarzan, Walt Disney and Bugs Bunny comics plus the odd Sad Sack, Casper and Richie Rich. I also discovered Indrajal comics and persuaded my father to subscribe to it. This ensured a fortnightly fix of Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon. Our flat, allotted by the Military Engineering Service at Sivaji Park was on the first floor. It also had a servant’s quarter on the ground floor consisting of two rooms. This was empty at the time and was occupied by a few mysterious iron trunks, standard issue by the army to its officers who were frequently posted the length and breadth of the country. I had noticed these boxes when the rooms were infrequently opened for cleaning and assumed they contained old clothes or knick knacks.
The flat had a two tier bookshelf built into the wall in the drawing room. One day I heard my parents having a discussion about filling up this empty space after which my father asked me to accompany him downstairs. I was deep in a comic book and reluctantly put it aside to troop down after him. He opened up the servant’s quarter and proceeded to open up one of the locked boxes with a bunch of keys. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that the box was full of books. One of the boxes contained my father’s small but eclectic collection of books and the other my mother’s.
I immediately picked up an interesting looking book, sat down atop one of the boxes and started reading. My father used his parade ground tone to shock me out of my pleasant book induced stupor and told me to pick up as many books as I could and carry them upstairs. Nothing loath, I picked up a stack and carried them upstairs before rushing down to get the next lot. About ten trips and a lot of huffing and puffing later the two of us managed to empty the two boxes and the books were piled on every available surface in the drawing room.
For the first time in my life I experienced the pleasure of arranging books on a bookshelf. This is a feeling that can only be understood by a bibliophile. Each book was dusted off, the pages ruffled to slough off any accumulated dust and carefully arranged on the shelf, spine outward. I remember my father had about 20 Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and these were first arranged on the top shelf. The few other hardcover books followed including a copy of Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, There were a few paperbacks as well including James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and ‘Rascals in Paradise’, a copy of Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ a Pan edition of Rafael Sabatini’s ‘The Black Swan’ with a terrific cover featuring the piratical looking hero holding a rapier and the first western I ever read in my life, Al Cody’s ‘West of the Law’. My mother’s collection included about 15 Pocket Book editions of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, a couple of Denise Robins and Pearl S. Buck books and three books by Daphne Du Maurier. These are the titles I remember but there were a few others, enough to nicely fill up the shelves.
I spent the next few days arranging and rearranging the books by author , then by the colour of the spines and later by publisher. It was then I decided that I would be a librarian when I grew up. Only, I would keep the Library locked, deny entry to all others and spend my days in blissful solitude accompanied by a host of books. The poet Wordsworth would have approved.
This small collection went back into the black boxes and was carried to Trivandrum when my father was posted there. Here they came out again and I spent a few more blissful days arranging them. However Trivandrum was full of libraries and my mother decreed that we would not buy any more books but would instead borrow them from the library. I was crestfallen. Having appropriated my parent’s collection for my own I was like a man eater who has tasted blood, eager to pounce on more and increase the collection. Bibliophiles will know the feeling , the knowledge that you are yet to read most of the books in your hoard gives rise to a few guilt pangs but these are resolutely suppressed as you hunger for more.
My twelve years in Trivandrum did not lead to an increase in my collection except for a few books donated by a family friend ( another army officer) when he was transferred out of Trivandrum. These included three of my first ‘Sudden’ western novels and my first book by Louis L’Amour , ‘The Lonely Men’. Otherwise this period was filled with library books which were all fine but not the same as having them in your own collection to drool and gloat over.
Grandfather’s legacy collection
In 1983 we relocated to my current home town, Irinjalakuda. This was a small municipal town in Thrissur district, picturesque and almost quaint. There were a few libraries in the town, like in all towns in Kerala, and I joined two of them and had soon run through their catalogue. On a visit to Thrissur with my friend Sunil, one of the few persons in Irinjalakuda who was into English books, I discovered a second hand bookshop near Ramdas Theatre. This was called ‘Second Books’ as the owner obviously possessed a vibrant imagination and turn of phrase. After a long time I made some additions to my collection including several Sexton Blake Library titles from the fifties.
My grandfather had a huge collection of books on theology and rationalism and on his death these were donated to the local library. My aunt asked me to come over and take what I wanted from the collection before the rest were carted off to the library. To my delight I found some of the Dickens, Swift and Scott volumes I used to read in my childhood still there among the stacks and appropriated them as also a box set of the complete works of William Thackeray published in 1900. A box set from 1900. As you can imagine this is now one of my treasures.
Mr. X and his obsession
Now that my small stack had assumed proportions wherein it could be called a ‘collection’ I began to wonder where my next additions would come from. I used to be an avid club cricketer, spending most of my free time at the local Municipal Maidan playing matches for my team against other local clubs. One day my friend, Krishnakumar, introduced me to a thin , unhealthy looking individual leaning on his bicycle against the wall of the Municipal Building and watching the cricket with a jaundiced eye. His demeanour seemed to suggest he was not happy with what he saw. The agricultural heaves and cross batted shots seemed to offend the purist in him. Krishnakumar informed me that he was a cousin , we shall call him Mr.X for reasons that will soon become apparent.
Most of my friends in Irinjalakuda were amazed by the fact that I loved reading books, that too books in English. Their own attitude was that books were creations of the devil and even their college textbooks were barely tolerated and flung aside the moment the examinations concluded. Sure enough, Krishnakumar opened the introductions by explaining to his cousin, in an apologetic tone, that I was an avid reader of English books. He hastily added that I was from Trivandrum as if that explained my eccentricity.
Mr. X straightened up and looked at me with interest. ‘So you read English books do you?’, he asked. ‘Ever read any Perry Mason books ?’ he continued doubtfully, pretty sure the answer would be in the negative. ‘Sure’ I said carelessly, ‘I have about fifteen of them’. Actually the fifteen odd Perry Mason books were my mother’s but I did not let such trivial facts bother me. Mr.X jerked upright as if his weedy posterior had come in contact with a live electric wire. ‘I love Perry Mason. Do you have any?’ he asked, grabbing hold of my arm with alarming intensity. I was taken aback and looked around to see if there were enough people around to save me in case he started frothing at the mouth and screaming ‘Objection, Your Honour’. Krishnan smiled soothingly at him and said ‘Of course he has. He has millions of books’. Millions of books. In my wildest dreams. Mr. X was still holding on to my hand. ‘I want those books’ he said with a sibilant hiss, ‘I want them’. I took a step back . ‘Sure, sure’ I replied in a wavering voice. ‘Of course you can have them. Down boy, down’. Then Mr.X said something that almost stopped my heart. ‘You give me your books and I will give you sixty two in exchange’.
Sixty two for fifteen
I thought my ears were playing tricks on me. Sixty Two books for fifteen. The guy was bonkers for sure. I would have given him the fifteen books for free just to get home in one piece. This was a bolt from the blue, but a welcome one. ‘What sixty two books?’ I asked . I was loath to look a gift horse in the mouth but I had to know. No use getting your hopes up only to land up with a bunch of useless tomes on self help and spirituality. ‘ I don’t remember the titles’ he said impatiently ‘never read them. Only read Perry Mason’. Then he pulled his bicycle upright and said ‘You wait here, I’ll get the books’.
With a smart about turn he took off like he was Lance Armstrong on the last stretch at the Tour De France. Come to think of it, he even resembled Lance Armstrong with that thin body and emaciated features. In about fifteen minutes he was back with two bulging cloth bags hanging from each handlebar and a third precariously balanced on the carrier at the back. We adjourned to the adjacent Municipal Park and settled down on the park bench where I opened up the bags with trembling fingers.
I could scarcely restrain my delight. I wanted to shout ‘Eureka’ and run around in circles like some other guy had done. I think he was called Archie and was a Principal. The bags contained untold treasures. All sixty two were paperbacks, but such paperbacks. There were several Hammond Innes, Luke Short and Agatha Christie volumes published by Fontana, a few Peter Field westerns from Pocket Books, Leslie Charteris, Edgar Wallace, Peter Cheyney, John Creasey, Dorothy Sayers, Artur Hailey and even a couple of Wodehouses. All of them were in pretty decent condition too. I put on my nonchalant look. ‘ Yeah. These are ok.
Nothing great you understand, but I will exchange them for my Perry Masons’. He nodded tensely with a shifty look around the park. ‘Ok you take these and don’t let anyone see them’. I wondered what he was so tense about but nodded acquiescence and hopped onto my bicycle with the three bundles. I raced off promising I’d be back in five minutes. I dashed home, ran up to my room and deposited the bundles on the bed. I grabbed the Perry Masons off the shelf, put them into one of the bags and raced back, pretending I did not hear my mother’s enquiry as to where I was headed. Once back at the Park I handed over the bag like it was contraband, and he nodded and with a stealthy look around, jumped onto his bike and disappeared.
I asked Krishnan what all the cloak and dagger stuff was about. Krishnan explained that Mr.X had a part time job helping out the librarian at Irinjalakuda’s oldest library, situated near the town’s pride and its most famous building , the Koodalmanickam Temple. Mr. X and the Librarian did not see eye to eye , not surprising as the librarian would be on his feet and vertical most of the time while our friend used to prefer spending most of his time in a horizontal position snoozing in a quiet nook between the shelves.
The librarian, quite rightly, figured that Mr.X was not being paid for sleeping on the job, and accordingly deducted a hefty amount from his salary. Even a mouse will turn. The enraged Mr.X got back at the Librarian by siphoning off several English books while the Librarian’s back was turned. He preferred to pilfer English books as these were seldom borrowed and their loss would not be easily noticed. Finally his shenanigans were noticed by the Librarian and he was given the boot. I was the lucky recipient of the spoils of his life of crime. Why he had such a liking for Perry Mason I never discovered, unless he felt he should be well versed in legal defense of criminal matters as he was planning to move a step up from petty larceny and had greater ambitions. He later moved to a neighbouring town and I never saw him again. I will always remember him as he gave the impetus to my fledgling collection with the infusion of those sixty two books. Soon after I was posted to Delhi where I discovered Daryaganj Market. The rest is history.