Under my byline

Library of a lifetime

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 10 June 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke, by Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1876Ashok Vajpeyi doesn’t need to go to a library. In his home every corner is crammed with books

Like a good novel, Ashok Vajpeyi’s home is full of twists and turns, dark corners and unexpected surprises. What looks like an ordinary wall in his living room is in fact a shelf of books reversed and painted. In the narrow space behind, overlooked by rows of dusty books, is the more ordinary clutter of home life — gas cylinder, buckets, boxes. Even the balcony has fitted cabinets packed with books. In all, 10,000 books on art, literature, music and dance share this flat with the family.

The earliest libraries belonged to aristocrats, scholars or theologians who could afford to pay manuscript copyists and the leisure to read and discuss. Today books are mass-produced, but large personal libraries are still rare, and still the preserve of an elite — an intellectual rather than economic elite. It still takes a lifetime to build a library.

“I’m not a library-goer,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, a former culture secretary to the government and a poet and author whose work is available in several languages. “I’d much rather own the book.”

Growing up in Sagar in what is now Madhya Pradesh, he bought his first book as a boy with a cash handout from his uncle, a civil servant. Once books became a habit, “I used to steal money from my grandfather’s coat when he came back from court. It became a bit of a game. He realised, so he always kept a 10-rupee note there so I wouldn’t disturb his gaddi.” Then, 10 rupees bought a lot of books: “Children’s books were about four annas.”

He ascribes his shift towards books as a source of intellectual adventure and self-education to his school teacher Lakshmidhar Acharya. “He gave me my two professional ambitions. He told me ‘You should get into the IAS, but you should die as a poet.’” For Vajpeyi’s upanayan or thread ceremony, this teacher sent him “three Hindi novels, four books of Hindi poetry and an English translation of Tagore’s Geetanjali — at the age of 13!”

Franz Kafka, 1906Vajpeyi came to St Stephen’s College in Delhi for his MA in English — having studied throughout in Hindi. “For a brief month I felt uncomfortable, because my mother tongue was being spoken only to the dhobi and the gyp. Then I discovered that I had already read Rilke, Kafka, Cummings, etc., whereas my friends knew just Ben Jonson, Hopkins… They had not even heard these names.” Surprisingly, the university library in Sagar was better equipped than the one in Delhi University.

Ideally and historically, reading is not a solitary activity. Books and conversation are two sides of the coin of scholarly reciprocity, a fellowship of learning that survives into the age of the novel. The best-known manifestation of this is café culture — virtually a cliché of Paris, but also fondly remembered in Mumbai’s surviving Irani joints and Kolkata’s addas — where literature and politics came together combustibly.

What about Delhi? “There was a famous coffee house on Janpath, where you could bump into painters, writers, politicians like Ram Manohar Lohia and J B Kripalani,” says Vajpeyi. “I used to go there to meet Hindi writers, and I concealed the fact that I was a student, that I had taken admission in MA — it was very infra dig!”

These days, he continues, “the education system is going to produce people who know no language properly. They will not know their mother tongue and will not know English well enough.” Indians as a people are full of curiosity, Vajpeyi says, but “most people’s intellectual curiosity ends early. Humdrum life overtakes everything.”

Connaught Place was where one found books in those days. “There used to be a bookseller called Ramakrishna. He knew the books I liked, and kept them hidden: ‘Oh Ashok, there’s an interesting book of Stephen Spender’s, below that… behind that…’”

E E Cummings, by Walter Albertin, 1953Now, however, Vajpeyi buys books in Paris, where he goes twice a year to visit his artist friend S H Raza, some of whose paintings hang on Vajpeyi’s walls. A bookshop near Raza’s home keeps books for him, “Mahmoud Darwish’s poems, something like that.” He shows me a shelf full of recent Paris acquisitions: Rilke, Ted Hughes, love poetry, a Dutch poet, Russian poets, American lit-crit, writers on writers, Primo Levi, Paul Auster, Kafka’s aphorisms, Baudrillard, 20th-century German poets, a “biography” of Picasso’s Guernica.

Although Vajpeyi rarely lends his books, they are still a scholarly resource. “There’s not a poet who’s won the Nobel prize in the past five years that I don’t have. This is hardly a boast. The boast is that there’s unlikely to be a poet in the next 25 years who’ll get the Nobel prize at least one book of whose I don’t have! Once when the Nobel prize was announced, an embassy rang up to say that we don’t have the English version of the book. I said I have it.” And if someone is working on a translation, Vajpeyi will often help.

Humans are mortal, but books go on. What happens to this private library after its owner? “With the help of Raza we’re creating a small centre where artists, writers, musicians, performers can meet for reading, chat,” he says. “I’ll give my books to that centre.”

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