The highlight of the week gone by, was the arrival of my father’s book collection from Chennai. He was an avid reader, and much to my mother’s dismay, always spent some part of this less than generous sarkari salary on buying books. And I always thank him for permitting me unlimited access to his books. I am not sure if, in the more casual parenting style of those times, he had taken a considered decision on this, or I was just a beneficiary of the casual parenting. His book collection stayed in trunks at a friend’s place, in the late 60s when he went to UK for a posting. And then moved with him from Delhi to Hyderabad, back to Delhi and then to his final home in Bangalore. The book shelves were always a part of my parent’s home – and after his death, when my mother moved to Chennai, I did a lot of weeding and discarding , an activity that in retrospect I regret. The rest of them got packed, and unpacked onto new shelves in her Chennai TV room. Not a reader, and not at home in English, the cleaning and re-arrangement of the books was left to me, a ritual of my visits to Chennai. And while my father, kept a strict record of borrowers and demanded return of his books, my mother could not be stern with her visitors and so a gradual attrition did take place. I always had a proprietary feeling over them – although at various points of time I also gave away some, like the books on economics and history of WWII. For the rest, ever since my mother made the permanent move to live with me, they were waiting to get transported. So, their arrival has been overdue, and I’m waiting to get the shelving done before I unpack – a treasure trove of books read and unread.
The book I did read was Anita Desai’s ‘Baumgarten’s Bombay’ – a small, beautiful story of displacement and loneliness. The protagonist, Baumgarten, is a young German upper class Jew, who is sent to India in the 1930s,to escape the rise of the Nazis. And of course, ha can never go back – the war years in an internment camp along with the Nazi sympathizing expat Germans, his simple life of acceptance of all that is India, and his final days of loneliness are captured with sympathy.
Anita Desai is among the early Indians writing in English with a wonderful way with the language. Her Bombay is so live and real that I could almost smell its unique smell (or stench?). Her story and characters are minimal and convey much about the loneliness of displacement. The book reminded of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadow – another tale of displacement. In this book the Japanese protagonist spends most of her adult life in Karachi – under the shadow of another 20th century horror – the nuclear holocaust! He story is different in that she is the opposite of Baumgarten, never faces loneliness but still is a foreigner in the eyes of the locals to the very end!!
This was an e-book and I found a number of editorial mistakes, spelling and otherwise a bit unusual and irritating.