Monday, October 16, 2006

My grandpa's library

The world of books is a strange, exciting place to get lost in. At home, books were never is short supply. I think there are two kinds of homes: one in where parents want their kids to read books, where mom's ecstasy is in watching her kid read. She bores the neighbours and relatives about the kind of books her child prodigy reads. Mine was such a home, though as you can probably make out, I was never a prodigy.
The other kind of home is where bookworms are losers. Parents want their kids to be street smart and worldly wise, and there is no manual, no tome, for that yet, is there?
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. Books offer you an experience and open up a world that may not accessible for you otherwise. Like say, Robinson Crusoe. Even if you are lucky enough to get stranded in an island, you are unlikely to find a servant as amiable as Friday. But the things that friends, relatives and neighbours can teach you are sometimes so profound that they make books look like a thing made of paper and ink (which is what it doesn’t look like most other times).
I didn’t have a library of my own. I lost most of my books once I was through with them. I gave some to my nephew. But quite a lot didn’t make it with me to adulthood.
But I don’t regret that much. Books are such a pain to keep. What I truly like is being in a library – like a public library or BCL. There you have the books wonderfully kept by other people for you. All you got to do is go there and borrow them.

Now let me get to the story I want to tell. This is the story of a library filled mostly with books that I have not read. Sundara Ramaswamy, a Tamil writer, had probably the biggest library in my hometown. He is also my grandfather. And yet for years – all through adolescence in fact – I did not read one book from his collection.
My dose of Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock presents, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins came from elsewhere – cousins, dad, a lending library, everywhere except from grandpa.
There is a good reason for this. His collection had the classics in it. Like say, War and Peace. I plodded through some 250 pages before giving up. It was a killing bore. He had Carlos Castaneda. Even my dad loved this guy's books. But as a 12-year-old when I tried reading them, I had the most bizarre feeling. I could understand every word but no sentences.
After a while, I understood that there was another world – that of literary books. The differences between the two kinds still escape me, but there are literary books for children too. Like The Prince or even good old Crusoe.
And oddly enough I wasn’t introduced to the literary world by any English book. When I read English I kept moving on to Chase, Crichton and the like. It was a Tamil book – one my grandpa's own - J.J. Sila Kurippugal that introduced me to that world. That opened up a few shelves from the library that had remained elusive for so long.
One day I asked Grandpa about the books he had in the library. He asked me what my favourite book was? I named a book by Sheldon, The Other Side of Midnight, which I had read some 20 times with feverish excitement. To my surprise, he wasn't dimissive of the Sheldon book at all. He said that even Sheldon would have shaped my reading and language in some way.

"But experiences that such books offer stop at some point. But many books I have try to go further and explore new territory," he said. I wasn't so much impressed by the way he defined books in his library as much as the way he spoke about the writers I was reading, who wrote pulp or detective fiction.
That's because SuRa wasn't that kind of a writer at all. None of the devices Sheldon or any of the other writers I named use can be seen in any of SuRa's work. Many of the stories are not even plot driven. Neither are they laced with sex. And many of SuRa's stories do explore new territory.
I later found that he shared my opinion of the classics. Or perhaps a widespread snobbish opinon of the classics. After seeing me read Catcher in the Rye, he asked me how I liked it. I said it not like a classic and it wasn't boring at all. He had just that year completed Kuzhanthaigal Pengal Aangal. "Perhaps, I should write a boring novel. Then everyone would say I have written a classic," he said with a smile.

The library that I so admired wasn't made in a day. From his trips around the world, grandpa brought back books, often choosing them above other things he needed to carry.
Just a year before he died, grandpa was able to move the libary - scattered among various rooms in the house - to one large hall on the first floor in his house in Nagercoil. On many days, he would stand in the library flipping through the books. Like many of the books he has written, the books he owned are also a part of his legacy. At least they are now. Last Saturday, the library was thrown open to the public. The address is here: 669, K.P.Road, Nagercoil - 629001.