“Each time you happen to me all over again.”— "The Age of Innocence", Edith Wharton
That was the beginning of my great love affair with the Macmillan, and my journey through the tangled, knotty forest of literature, with Shekhar, that most kindly and yet intimidating of guides. I would go to the Macmillan at least once a week, badgering my mother to take me, and returning with a huge stash of books. As I got older, I would take a bus and go more often.
Shekhar loved nothing so much as literary games, and in me he finally found a rapt audience. Every time I met him, he would toss me a different quote. It was my job to place it. When we first started, I was at a disadvantage. Most of the time, I couldn’t recognise the quote. “No matter,” said Shekhar, and if he wasn’t too busy, he would show me the quote. It was through him that I discovered Louisa May Alcott, CS Lewis, and RK Narayan, and then later, in my teens, Dickens, O Henry, Salinger and Hemingway. But he wasn’t a book snob. His tastes roamed widely from science-fiction to comic books, taking in chick-lit, fantasy, classics, short stories and everything in between. He would read Daphne Du Maurier and Jackie Collins – fantastic storyteller, he would tell my disbelieving face – as readily as he would read Manto.
One day I walked in, soaked to the skin by a sudden thunderstorm. “A towel is the most massively useful thing a hitchhiker can have,” he said, mysteriously, and handed me one. I had no idea what he was talking about, but that was my introduction to the glorious fun of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And he wasn’t above reading comic books and the enjoyable fluff of Asterix and Tintin either. As I got older, I’d ferret deep into corners of the library, trying to find obscure quotes from William Goldsmith or James Joyce, and he’d always toss them back, book and author.
“Have you read every book here?” I burst out once, frustrated beyond measure. “Pretty much,” he grinned. “Well, I began working here when I was 22. That’s twenty years of reading. Not really that surprising.”
You are the luckiest man in the world, I thought enviously.
Shekhar loved books in the pure, passionate way that parents reserve for their children, sailors for the sea, mountaineers for Everest. I never saw him without a book in his hand. Like me, he read all the time; while eating, talking on the phone, standing in line. Once, I passed him at the traffic lights in his rickety, old Maruti 800. The light had gone green, and there was a line of honking cars behind him. Shekhar, as usual, was absorbed in a book. I glimpsed the title. It was one of his favourites, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. I could tell he was back in ancient Rome, mired in incest and murder and orgies, not at Flora Fountain, with all the clamour of Bombay traffic around him.
Then one enraged bus driver got out of his bus and knocked loudly on Shekhar’s window. His eyes bulged when he realised Shekhar was reading, not talking on the phone or texting or scratching his nether regions. “Kaiku aisa karta hain!,” he said, in furious Bambaiya, and raised his ham-like hand. I thought Shekhar would be mortified, or terrified, at least. But cool as a cucumber, he put down the book, changed gears and drove off.
I could tell you that he was a good talker, an impressive storyteller, but that would be an understatement. Oh, how he talked. He could talk about everything from Chola history to women’s hemlines, from US foreign policy to Phantom comics. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he said it, like he was revealing some delicious secret, something only you and he shared. Often he would be madly contrary, taking the opposite side just to aggravate, and because he loved arguing. “Come on, Shekhar, you can’t possibly believe that Wordsworth is a worthless poet,” said gentle Mrs Sen, distressed at the thought of one of her schoolgirl icons being torn down. “Oh, can’t I?” he’d say.
By the end of his tirade, even I was convinced that Wordsworth was a maudlin, sentimental fool who wrote about daffodils because he was too chicken to write about anything stronger. Later, of course, I would discover that Shekhar loved Wordsworth. He just loved a good debate more.
He had strong literary likes and dislikes, and he was stubborn as a mule about them. He had his own scathing shorthand for books he disliked. He hated magic realism – however celebrated the writers – which he called “magic delusionism”. He thought Rushdie was vastly overrated, and overly verbose. “Never uses one word where he can use 10,000, and 9000 of them puns,” he used to mutter. He detested a vast pantheon of the more fashionable Indian women writers – he called them the Spice Girls – the ones who wrote novels with “women in red saris on the cover”, or a “pair of hennaed hands”.
“Don’t you ever get tired of reading the same-old-same-old about migration, misery, monsoons, and mangoes?” he would say.
But he also did not spare the snark for the established old males of literature either. “Take a soupçon of sexual dysfunction, add a smidgen of fear of dying, top off with an Oedipus complex, and you have a Philip Roth,” he would say, to my secret delight. Skewering sacred cows was his forte.
“How about Jhilmil Ghosh?” I would ask, egging him on. Jhilmil was an American-born-Confused-Desi who had made a fortune and won several prizes for her tales of Bengali migrants in the US.
“Oh, Posh Spice? Could be a good writer if she only reconciled herself to moving to the US,” said Shekhar.
“Her parents moved 40 years ago!” I said.
“Exactly,” said Shekhar, “You would think she’d have made peace with that by now instead of writing endlessly about homesick Bengalis. Honestly, if I have to read one more of her stories with a woman slicing potatoes on a bonti and yearning for hilsa, I swear to god I will kill myself.”
I laughed in spite of myself. He was so wicked.
“Oh, you have a problem with everyone,” I said.
“Nope,” said Shekhar. “You want to read Indian novelists, read the beautiful simplicity of Ruskin Bond and Vikram Seth. They don’t wave their Indianness around like a flag. Or rely on mangoes and monsoons.” And he was off quoting from Ruskin again, “‘Sometimes when words ring true, I am like a lone fox dancing in the mountain dew’.” I had to agree, really.
I remember once when he was invited to a debate about women writers, where writer after writer waxed eloquent about Jane Austen. Most of them were the usual Bombay literati-turned-glitterati, massive dollar-sized bindis, acres of ethnic stoles draped around their necks, clanking silver jewellery on their wrists. Then the moderator, a pretty young thing with hair falling over her eyes, shifted her attention over to Shekhar. “You’ve been very quiet. What do you think of Jane Austen?”, she asked, tossing her hair.
“Well, my dear,” said Shekhar, unfolding his long stork-like legs, and smiling dangerously, like a Nile crocodile. “Let’s just say I share the sentiments of Mark Twain. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
The moderator’s jaw dropped open. For once, she didn’t know what to say. “Right,” she said, backing away so fast she tripped over her mike cord. Next to me, Mrs Sen, who had grown up idolising dear old Jane, was horrified. “Oh my god, why did he say that?! He will never be invited back.” She was right.
Shekhar hated emotional scenes, displays of affection, nosy questions.
He had the reticence of a British person, a stiff upper lip which rarely ever trembled. In this, we were alike. A lifetime of growing up with shouty, weepy Gujarati aunts and uncles had nurtured in me a distinct dislike of messy emotion. For too long I had endured my mother’s hysterics over her health, my father’s yelling, my family’s curious probing. I craved reticence and privacy like I craved a long, cool drink of water after a sickly sweet sherbet. In the Macmillan, and in Shekhar, I found it.
In those early days of my childhood, I suppose I was somewhat in awe of Shekhar. It was only later that he became a friend, a confidante, an equal. During those long Bombay summers, as a gangly teen looking for diversion, I would gape at him, his odd ways, his tics; the strangeness of him. I did not know anyone who read so much, but also I did not know anyone who was quite so weird.
Take his smoking, for instance. My own parents shunned smoking. It was one of those things that only boys with “vices” did, those reprobates who sneaked out of the house to eat kebabs at Bade Miyan and drink Old Monk, then came back home and ate khichdi with their parents. I knew my cousins sneaked behind their parents’ backs and hid packets of Gold Flakes and Charminars under their mattresses, then frantically ate paan to conceal their smokers’ breaths.
But Shekhar’s smoking was nothing like this clandestine, seedy activity. He smoked a pipe. I had never before known anyone who smoked a pipe, except Sherlock Holmes. I would watch him through the half-open door to his office, as he lovingly took his pipe out of the large lacquered box on his desk.
Then he would sigh, and lean back in his chair; the plume of smoke unfurling above his head, and the most delicious aroma, a mixture of apple, vanilla and cinnamon, would slowly permeate through the library. Around him, there would be fine debris of spilt tobacco, like the soil around a recently planted sapling.
Of course, Shekhar was not really supposed to smoke in the library at all. The library even had boards everywhere, warning that smoking was strictly prohibited. DHOOMRAPAAN MANAA HAI. Like so much else, Shekhar paid no attention. If readers remarked on it, he would argue that it was only “filthy smelly cigarettes” that were banned, not the delicious aroma of his pipe. Eventually the readers would get tired of complaining and just got used to it, like the rest of us.
Mrs Sen, who hated smoking even more than my own parents, never got used to it though, and would periodically argue with him. “Killing yourself with that filthy habit. Shortening your life unnecessarily…,” she would bark, as near annoyed as I would ever see her. Shekhar, unperturbed, would retort. “Ah, Anindita, I won’t live longer if I stop smoking. It will just seem like it.” But I would always associate that particular smell, spicy, sweet and bitter all at once, with Shekhar.
Excerpted with permission from The Librarian, Kavitha Rao, Kitaab.