My love affair with books which has charmed and informed me all my life,
started very early in childhood. A fond memory, which still lingers in mind,
is that of us going with Barey Abbaji to the school bookshop to get our annual
text books. I liked the sight, the smell and the feel of books. The very
thought of buying books which I was going to keep for a whole year filled
my little heart with great joy. We would take our new books straight to the
local bookbinder who would let us choose the pattern of the paper for the
cover of each book. The ladies, much maligned for taking their time over
choosing clothes or jewelery, could not have been able to compete with me in
the care and time I took in making my choice. And the smell and the sight of
newly bound books was heavenly to me. Some of the books were amazingly
attractive in themselves. I particularly remember Nelson's English Reader
which was printed in England, on a glossy paper, with illustrations in
colour - a milkmaid standing by a farm gate, a man saving a young boy from
a rabid dog, a young lad scoring a winning try in a game of rugby in the last
minute of the match to become the hero of the whole school.(I did wonder
about the odd shape of the rugby ball and the fact that he was running
towards the touchline with the ball under his arm which made the whole
business even more fascinating).
We were oblivious to the harsh economic realities which our elders were facing following partition of India and migration to Pakistan. Our basic necessities were met very well and these seemed to include a daily newspaper and books which were shared by all. There were quite a few books in P-1125 which had probably belonged to the previous occupants - a biography of Motilal Nehru, stories of spying during the world war II, scripts of Indian films penned by an erratic calligrapher and many more. I read them all. As time went by and the economic circumstances improved, the trickle of literary books, both English and Urdu, became a substantial influx into our homes. The received wisdom amongst the elders of the day was that literature has a corrupting influence on the young minds. In many a household, if young people were 'caught' reading a novel, they were reprimanded in no uncertain terms. Mercifully, that wasn't the case in our family. I was able to read both Urdu and English literature all through my student days. Our schools and colleges had a tradition of awarding prizes to the boys who stood first in each subject and the winners were given a free hand in choosing the prize books for themselves. This was a much appreciated source of books for me every year and my choice matured from 'The Treasure Island' and 'Gulliver's Travels' in the early days to 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Mill on the Floss', 'David Copperfield', 'Brave New World' and so on as I grew older.
I spent a considerable amount of time as a youngster at mamoonjan Anwar's house and was very fortunate to listen to informal chats and discussions about the latest writers and novels which seemed to be going on all the time. To call them just stimulating would be an understatement! I was also fortunate to spend many a summer vacation with bhaijan Salahuddin who had an extremely well stocked library, comprising mostly English fiction. He had brought most of those books from England after completing his diploma in phonetics from London University and while his colleagues brought back fridges and cars, he chose to bring a huge collection of books with him. I was very lucky to have access to all those books. Those summer holidays, with the knowledge that I had passed my annual examinations and had two months free of academic worries, would be the highlight of the year for me in bhaijan Salahuddin's excitingly enjoyable company. And then, sitting in the verandah of his bungalow in Kakul in cool breeze with a good book in hand (eg 'Crime and Punishment' , 'Les Miserable', 'The Cruel Sea' and so on) completed my idea of heaven. Bhaijan's enthusiasm for English literature was truly infectious!
I was quite young when mamoonjan Aslam was writing his PhD thesis on Urdu drama. He used to sit on the floor with books and papers spread all around him, occasionally having a puff of the 'huqqa' which had a long hose and stood in the corner of the room. I would make the 'chilam' for his 'huqqa' once in a while and would be allowed to sit in the room and read his books so long a I did not cause any disturbance. I loved it. I used to find reading a play rather tedious at that time but his enthusiasm and devotion to Urdu drama made me take fresh stock of my reading habits.
I still love books. I am grateful to God that I can buy them every now and again. My stamina for reading is much less now with advancing years and waning memory but it has its compensations. The fact that I cannot remember the details of the books that I read and enjoyed some time ago has enabled me to read many of those old classics again with renewed enjoyment. Moreover I can afford to read in a truly leisurely fashion now without having to rush at all. This has enhanced the enjoyment of reading and re-reading poetry beyond my expectations.
Books do play an important part in our household. Yasman has always been in the habit of reading at bedtime, sometimes for hours on end. And it is lovely to see our own children buying and reading books regularly despite their extremely busy professional lives. They will probably already know what Will Durant meant when he wrote the following in his eminently readable book titled 'The Pleasures of Philosophy':
" To enter that Country of the Mind, where all remembered geniuses still live and teach, it is only necessary to read and see. To see, without haste, those pictures and statues in which artists have written their philosophies of life into a figure or a face; to drink in leisurely the nobility of the Parthenon or the grace and tenderness of Chartres; and to read without haste those books which time has winnowed for us, out of the dross of every age, to carry down the intellectual heritage of mankind.
I believe that it is through reading, rather than through high school and college, that we acquire 'liberal education'. Today we think that a man is educated if he can read the newspaper morning, noon and night; but though our colleges turn out graduates like so many standardized Fords every year, there is a visible dearth of real culture in our life; we are a nation with a hundred thousand schools, and hardly a dozen educated men."
We have been lucky to have (and have had) so many educated men and women in our family. Has my love affair with books made me an educated man? I have my doubts, though I do hope that I am heading in the right direction.