Sunday , 18 February 2018

Orphaned books

Frederick Noronha

By 3 p.m., I had to leave. Yet, that was enough time by which to pick up an armful of books. My entire focus had been on books. What is it about paper that can give you that heady feeling, as you carry along the ideas born out of so many people and hundreds of hours of work, and imagine the pleasures that come from reading?

It was a week ago when I made that usual dash for the jumble-sale organised by a local children’s library. Everyone who has children of a certain age should have heard of Bookworm, the library run out of Taleigao, almost directly behind the village church.

While leaving, I counted my treasure trove. There were some 18 books in all, all second-hand and sold at an unbelievably reasonable price. For my Goa book collection, I managed to get eight titles in Konkani, a biography and tribute to Pandurang Mulgaonkar (which one had not come across earlier), books by George Menezes and Sonia Faleiro, two Romi Konkani titles (including a collection of 25 short stories for children called Goycheo Kotha), cartoons by one priest and the liberal parables of another (Anthony de Mello, SJ). In addition, there was this travel guide to Lisbon, which I’m not sure why I bought, an autobiography of a Mangalorean lady, and a Catholic text published during the Cold War with an obviously anti-Red China perspective.

Glad with these new acquisitions, I however felt also a despondency at another level. Why does Goa have to await such opportunities only once or twice a year? Why is one of India’s economically supposedly most affluent states also one of the most information-poor? With all its supposedly good indices, why doesn’t Goa read sufficiently? Why can’t we have a market, or some other network, that encourages the sale and re-use of pre-owned books?

There are related issues too. Goa’s inability to stage successful book events, despite all the claims, can’t but be noticed. Some years back, an attempt to hold an NBT (National Book Trust) book exhibition in Goa was abruptly called off, and hasn’t been held since.

Other states and cities have their own Meccas for affordable books. Delhi has its Daryaganj and Nai Sadak. Kolkata its College Street, Bengaluru’s Avenue Road (besides Blossom’s or Select Bookshop on Brigade Road Cross), Koti and Abids (on Sundays) in Hyderabad, Chennai’s Moore Market, Pune’s Appa Balwant Chowk and Mumbai’s Flora Fountain.

Agreed that vendors at the last spot have wizened up over the years. They have learnt the value of the treasures they’re sitting on, and now ask for far higher prices for their used-books. In Goa too, we do have some prominent bookshops offering good deals, like any-book-for-`100 or even at half that price. Bookshops like Literati at Calangute have their own collection of antique and valuable books for sale, kept behind lock and key. But having some space for an organised exchange would indeed be different.

Bengaluru is supposed to have built its book culture on part on the back of its British residents who were leaving the city after Independence. This set up a trend, which grew into a tradition. One of the bookshops in the city was run by KNS Murthy, a retired aeronautical engineer from the US. The bibliophile in him would know exactly which buyer was interested in which books. For long years, he would send me inland letters whenever he came across books on themes related to Goa, journalism, religion and the like.

In Goa today, there are quite a few old collections which are looking for new owners. Such books are often a delight to collect, as they contain hidden treasures and loads of knowledge (or entertaining reading) within their pages. Like cute and affectionate puppies waiting for a new home, these books too deserve better.

It’s not that efforts have not been made in Goa. Here itself, two expat friends, Leonard Fernandes and Queenie Rodrigues, returned back in Goa over a decade ago, in part to chase their dream of setting up on online used-books portal. (That idea didn’t quite get the response they expected, and they went into book publishing and, more recently, took the bold decision of setting up their own bookshop too, at Margao. But that is another story.)

Bibliophiles and book collectors are often an inveterate lot. Sajan Venniyoor, former broadcaster who earlier worked at All India Radio, is one of them. He is forever trying to get some Goa participation in book fairs in New Delhi, share his experiences with used book outlets elsewhere, and even try and see if collections out for donation could reach institutions in Goa.

Venniyoor wrote recently: “I had often wondered why [some of the village clubs in Goa were called ‘institute’.] But the answer came to me when I picked up a second-hand copy of “James Herriot’s Yorkshire”, which has an elegy to ‘The Village Institute’. It turns out that village institutes are a fairly common European phenomenon, and they began life as “reading rooms for the betterment of local folk”. Hence the ‘institute’.”

Harsh Singh Lohit, a neo-Goan by way of residence, managed to get the donation of some excellent books from an American school library in New Delhi, shipped down to a school in Goa. Others have also supported attempts to promote reading in Goa.

Bookworm, mentioned above, has been doing its own great work in connecting books and children. My only complaint against them is that they don’t have the time to tom-tom (or even modestly publicise) their achievements and programmes. This means that if one is not aware about their work, you could end up never ever knowing what they do. Or that they even exist!

Statistics of our times suggest that the Indian book market is one of the biggest in the world, and growing at 20 per cent a year. Recent months have seen some very inexplicable and unhelpful policy moves over books (eight-month delays to allocate ISBN numbers, GST on printing to 12 per cent and at a bizarre 18 per cent on ebooks – this is a tax on knowledge really). But, despite this, India and Goa too can perhaps build its book culture. In doing so, one crucial aspect would be to ensure that it reuses available books. Efficiently.

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