Lost, looked for, found again . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Some kind of electric excitement goes through you when you stumble upon books you thought you had lost. A few days ago, having spent months asking my friends and family if they had borrowed from me a book I could not locate on my shelves, I discovered the tome staring at me from among a pile of books my brother had carefully arranged in my room in the few months I was away from home. Had I been younger, I would burst into a whoop of delight. In my fifties, though, all I could do was to stare back at the book, my jaw jutting forth and the beat in my heart feeling like that of one who has newly fallen in love. And there was a reason. This book that I had lost and then found, in so many words, was one that I had been interested in since it appeared in 1984. Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam promised, I told myself, a healthy journey through some of the more convoluted, treacherous paths of history. But the work was nowhere to be spotted, not even in London where I spent three years on government assignment.
And then, sometime in the summer of 2002, a miracle occurred. I went off to Britain for a few months to see my wife Zakia. She and I decided to spend a few days in Yorkshire. On a browse through a shop dealing in second hand books, I finally spotted this copy of Tuchman's book. Thrilled, I told the shop owner of the years I had spent searching for it. His face broke into a beatific smile. Moments later, happy beyond measure, I walked out of the shop with the book. Now that I have found it again, I do not think I will let my eyes stray from it, just as I will not have my attention move away from another book I lost a couple of years ago and then found again last week. It is called Intimate Letters; Correspondence of the Heart. Do I need to tell you of the theme it covers? Anyone who has been in love, and wishes to be again,
will know. Speaking of romance, there can hardly be anything more warming for the heart than a readiness and a willingness to fall in love with books.
Take Oriana Fallaci's Interview With History. I keep going back to my copy of the work, for Fallaci brings out the follies and foibles of some of the most pretentious individuals in our times and indeed hangs out their dirty linen in public for all of us to see. It might sound strange, but the fact is that I came by the book on a visit to Quetta in December 1995. Having spent the first seventeen years of my life, till July 1971, in that wonderfully cold garrison town nestled between the mountains, I was excited beyond measure to be going back there in search of a past that has shaped my present. It was while I went through the collection at New Quetta Bookstall, where from my nursery class to Senior Cambridge my father had annually bought me (he did the same for my siblings) new books for a new class, that I found Fallaci. Today the book is a treasure, for two reasons: its elevated political quality and the fact that I bought it in a little town I shall always associate with home. Quetta is the place where I met Nighat Farzana in 1968. It is that spot of earth where, on a snowy, blustery January day in 1996, I stood before her old, abandoned home, Ghulam Ali's 'hum tere sheher mein aaye hain musafir ki tarah/sirf ik baar mulaqaat ka mouqa de de' beating wildly in my heart.
Back in 1972, Kuldip Nayar produced a riveting account of his meetings with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the earlier part of the year. He called it Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent. I searched for the book all over Dhaka, in vain. Almost a decade later, I met and fell in love with the woman who would end up being my wife. She was going back home to Calcutta on holiday when I mentioned the Nayar book at the airport, where I had gone to bid her goodbye. She gave me a wonderful hug and left. When she came back, with the book which she had located on College Street, I gave her a hug I thought she would remember for the rest of her life. And then, one day, one of my friends (I am not sure which one) borrowed the book and never returned it. I have moved heaven and earth, pleaded with my friends for the return of the book from whoever had taken it from me. Nothing happened. I simply do not have the book, a precious gift from my inamorata, any more. But she who made a gift of it to me has stayed on.
Some weeks ago, my friend Geraldine Clayton gave me a charming gift, Alan Greenspan's memoirs. I have promised to keep it in a safe corner of my room. Do I need to tell you why?
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