Many years ago, on a warm and sticky day, I was roaming on the streets of Kolkata. Not just any street though. This one exudes a kind of divinity that I had known from my childhood days.
It smelled of books, old and new, and wherever you would look you would see book stalls, lanes and lanes filled with them, brimming over with books of all sorts. This, my friends, was college street. It’s famous enough to deserve walking tours ranging upwards of Rs. 3000, where you are probably taken through the narrow lanes to visit some of the famous stores here. Anyway, I digress.
So this morning, we were here with a purpose. A couple of years ago, I had bought a book at the Agartala Book Fair. It was a mash-up between an atlas and an encyclopedia, and held in it’s gleaming pages information about countries around the world, and amazing photos from there. And I had lost it at school within a month. My parents were keen to get me a copy of it, as I was terribly upset. And hence, the trip to this land of books. College street had a reputation for getting you any book you wanted, and my father believed this to be true.
Anyway, after we reached and inquired at a couple of shops (well, I didn’t know the publisher, and also remembered the name incorrectly), one of them asked us to wait and sent out a runner to check in another store across the way (I guess). The runner came back in some time and told us that the book was out of print. The book store guy was nice enough to call up the office of the publishing house and they said they might have a copy or two at the office, and we should come and check. The office was at Salt Lake, an upcoming suburb.
Now while all this was ongoing, my mother could be seen quietly making enquiries of her own. I wondered. At our house, she wasn’t usually the candidate for reading. Yes she could be seen reading a magazine or two once in a while, but that usually was it. So I wondered what she was looking for at this place.
Anyway, so after we reached salt lake and returned empty handed from the publishers office, mom said we need to go back to College Street. Dad obliged. We waited at the very same book stall for maybe an hour, maybe more.
At the end of it, a runner ran in with a thick hard bound book, with a card board book jacket ( like the ones used for video cassettes, only sturdier ) and the whole thing wrapped in a brown paper, folded neatly on the corners.
I had never seen a book presented with so much care to a customer, and I had never imagined my mother to be such a bookwork.
This epic book, titled “Dekhi Nai Fire” is an incomplete biography of a celebrated sculptor and painter of Bengal. It’s incomplete because the author passed away before he could finish the book, published originally as a monthly column in one of the Bengali magazines. The artist in question was reclusive, and no other author wanted to complete the chapters based on the notes of the author, out of respect for his work.
It is a haunting piece of work, and I only realised after this how distantly I knew my own mother for so long in life. Her love for literature and reading had taken a backseat over her duties and responsibilities as a wife, a mother and a working woman. And for this, I owe her an apology.