Books, coffee tables and she . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Something stirs in the heart when you come across new books. And then something cracks in it when you remember you simply cannot afford to buy all those books because of the prohibitive prices that come with them. With all this twenty two per cent tax imposed on the import of books, you cannot argue with the bookseller and ask him why he cannot give you the tomes you need at prices you can afford. He too has a life and a career to plod through. Now, the queer bit here is that he is in no position to give you the book the way you want it; and you are not quite ready to spend all that money you happen to have at a given moment on that book you have been eyeing for a while.
Which takes you to the matter of all the pirated editions of new books you often see at some traffic intersections in this hugely unwieldy and maddening city. Those books --- Obama's two works, Hillary Clinton's memoirs and now Jaswant Singh's work on Jinnah --- tempt you hugely. You know you can go into negotiations with the young man proffering them to you as your vehicle stops at the lights. He begins by asking for as much as five hundred taka for a copy. You know that you can pin him down, at some point, to a figure you and he can be quite comfortable with. There is, after all, all that experience you have accumulated at the fish market. The fishmonger began by demanding a thousand. You, the successful diplomat that you are in such domestic affairs, emerge triumphant when eventually you give him four hundred and march home gaily with that gleaming fish in your tremulous masculine hand. Who knows? You could try a similar approach with this young mobile bookseller. And so you talk. And as you do, you realise with something of delight that this young man has grown to be pretty knowledgeable about books in your time.
At the end of it all, as the red on the signal gives way to green, you have the newest of Shobhaa De's work in hand. You are happy, for there is that absence of subtlety in De that you have always admired. For that matter, you could even be thinking of Taslima Nasreen's loud professions of sexuality or Erica Jong's declarations of sensual love. Beyond and above that, though, is that certain thrill which tells you you are the owner of yet another book, one that will add to the beautiful chaos that is your bedroom. That is the place you love, for that is where you love the woman you would die for, where you love to read. Books do tempt, even those that you read ages ago as a child. Think of the fairy tales, think of a collection of these stories published in 1906 and now reprinted in 2009. The format, the cover, the sketches, the print all belong to that long lost year. You grab it from the magazine seller who visits you every week, give him the price he wants and go home. It has been quite a buy, and you are reminded of all the new-looking books you sometimes stumble into at the charity shops in London. Or think of Gaithersburg in distant Maryland, of the second hand bookstores that yield up works as good as new. That is what you know as paradise. What more could you ask for?
There are then the books that saw the light of day years ago but you did not know were there. Does Galbraith's Name Dropping ring any bells? It came out a decade ago and you being a huge admirer of the late economist-diplomat-scholar somehow did not know about it. That is when you feel small, diminished in some way. But there is a way to make amends. You get in touch with your siblings in that faraway land, tell them about it and they do the rest. You wait for that copy of the book to come to you all the way from Washington. And then reflect on some books you have wanted to read since they first made it to the market. Romeo Dallaire's account of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 (he calls it Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda) is a gripping work. You have read more than one review of the work in some journal or the other, but six years go by before you see, as if my a miracle, the actual book before you.
Ah, but why are we complaining? Inhabiting as we do a truly disadvantaged part of the third world, we do not expect to be privy to the good things that happen in Europe or America. That is reality for us. And yet there used to be that other reality, a long time ago, when books came our way, when we thought nothing of spending money on them.
But let us not brood. There is that little work of Rumi's, a translation as it were, to go back to. It lies on your coffee table. You turn the pages. And you think of a woman with a pretty face and a profound mind. Rumi and she stir your sensibilities.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009