Updated: Oct 11
As the eldest child, I had the run of the house. One great pleasure was rummaging through the collection of old books and magazines. Some of them belonged to my grandfather, a lawyer and a great lover of reading. My mother told me once that he would collect pieces of old newspapers from shopping packages, smoothen them and read. Some books even went back to my great grandfather. Textbooks on astronomy and mathematics were probably from my father's college days in Calcutta.\
There were books in Latin and English. I remember trying to read Latin. It would sound very grand, though I did not understand the meaning. Though I could read only haltingly, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and the Black Company were favourites from the English collection.
I started serious reading when I became a member of the nearby Bharathivilasam library. The place had only Malayalam books, and I quickly ran through the perennial favourites like Vaikom Mohammed Bashir, Muttathu Varkey, Thakazhi and others. Poetry was also a favourite. Within a short time, I read most of the fiction in this library. I also nagged my father into subscribing to Mathrubhoomi, the Malayalam weekly, which opened a world of modern writing in Malayalam. One of the stories I still remember is M. T. Vasudevan Nair's prize-winning story, Valarthumrigangal, about life in a travelling circus.
I had a school friend John Isaac, a scholar who edited the Deepika newspaper. They had a collection of translations from Homer, each book a small story. John Isaac would allow me to borrow one book a day, and within a short while, I finished all the books. I also read a Malayalam translation of Edgar Burroughs' Tarzan from their collection.
When I went to Trivandrum to study at the University Intermediate College for the Pre-Degree course, I became a member of the University Hostel. This was fortuitous since the famous University Library was next to the hostel. Through the good offices of Lillykochamma, my cousin, I became a member, opening up the grand world of English books. The library also had a vast collection of magazines and journals, and the luxury of spreading oneself on a plush sofa and reading Punch was unsurpassable. The librarian knew Lillykochamma and had a soft corner for me, perhaps because I was one of the youngest members who frequented the library.
Another hostel mate, Pyarelal, an Indian student from East Africa, was also a book lover. Hearing that I had a membership in the Public Library, she would ask me to lend him books. Our common interest was the adventures of Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy's stories about the French Revolution. I joined St. Berchman's College at Changanacherry for my B.Sc. degree. I was delighted that Prof. C. A. Shepard taught modern drama, and the choice was Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man. I decided to read all the Shavian literature, carried away by Shaw's introduction, critiquing Bergson's philosophy. I had by this time become a member of the Kottayam Public Library. I was a day student at SB and travelled to and from Changanacherry by bus. On the way back, I used to stop at the library and pick up books. In a month, I read all the Shavian drama.
I found that the SB college library had a collection of old Scientific American stacked in an inaccessible part of the library. I persuaded the librarian to allow me to read them. This rich fare of articles further activated my fascination with science. I was equally enamoured by the job advertisements, which was a signpost to future possibilities in a career in science. Unfortunately, I had not talked to anyone about this surreptitious reading adventure. Still, when I met Fr. George Madathiparambil, one of my classmates much later when he became the college principal, he told the story to my brother Reji, who had accompanied me.
My two-year sojourn at the Union Christian College at Alwaye was not remarkable regarding my reading interests. The college library frowned upon anyone demanding books to read. Except for an occasional visit to the Pai & Co bookshop in Ernakulam, coupled with a movie trip, I do not remember much reading done those days. But a high point of the Alwaye days was the start of publication of the magazine Imprint, which, like the Readers Digest Condensed books, used to publish abridged versions of new books. I started buying it from the beginning. I had accumulated a vast collection, which I lost sometime later, much to my regret.
The only bright part of this was that my family had shifted to Trivandrum because of my father's work, and I joined the American Centre Library near the University where we stayed. On holidays from Kothamangalam, I could renew my acquaintance with books, though now confined to American authors. Then I went to Aligarh for doing my Ph. D. The University had a vast library, a seven-floor giant, with an extensive collection of English books. There were also many friends fond of books, and I could read and discuss books. There was also a bookshop near the Sulaiman Hall, my hostel, where I could browse. Occasional Delhi visits took me to the Panchkuian road with its roadside bookshops.
And finally, to Ahmedabad. When I came here in 1972, book shops were a rarity. But true to the Gujarati entrepreneurship tradition, lending libraries were common. A flourishing one, GyanPrapa was near Kuldip society where we stayed. Later on, good book shops opened in Ahmedabad, notably Cross Words and later Landmark conveniently close to Bopal.
When we visited San Diego to stay with my son Thomas, who was working at the Scripps Research Institute, I called upon Prof. D. Lal, the director of PRL, and later moved to UCSD permanently. Prof. Lal is a passionate collector of books, mostly in science. So it was sheer joy to walk around his house, practically inundated with books stacked all over the place.