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Business News/ Opinion / When nations chill, with a book

Books are in the news again in India, for what appear to be the right reasons. Calls for banning books have subsided since Narendra Modi became prime minister, having peaked in the run-up to his 26 May swearing-in. And last week, books took centre stage during Modi’s visit to the US.

Modi gifted President Barack Obama a book on the Bhagavad Gita, the code of conduct gleaned from conversations between a warrior-prince and his charioteer and spiritual mentor that are a central part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The book is a verse-by-verse interpretation of the Gita by Mahatma Gandhi, based on his lectures.

In turn, Obama delighted Modi by presenting him a copy of an antiquarian book, The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered Before the Parliament. Thanks to digital technology and the generosity of American academia, the book—published a year after the 1893 Congress of Religions held in Chicago—is free for anyone to download on the Internet. It, quite naturally, reproduces the text of the historic speech delivered to the Congress by Swami Vivekananda, spiritual guide and hero to Modi.

Gandhi did not figure in most Indians’ lists in the Facebook Book Bucket challenge, where Facebookers were asked to name the 10 books that most influenced them. Indian preferences, according to one newspaper report, were quite distinct from international lists, with an abundance of Dan Brown (The Da Vince Code), Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and local writer Chetan Bhagat. Missing were international favourites Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

In the midst of this, I was—like Modi—delighted to come across an Indianized version of a book that has been a hit in the West, The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies. The original book was written by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin and the edition sold in India has additions by the writer Indrajit Hazra, who shares his thoughts on possible Indian cures to the book’s wide array of listed ailments.

One ailment is “reverence of books, excessive". The cure the wonderfully inventive authors offer in their gentle prose is for the reader to “personalize" their books (just as you would with this newspaper). “We implore you to fold, crack and scribble on your books," they urge. “Underline the good bits, exclaim ‘YES!’ and ‘NO!’ in the margins... Draw pictures, jot down phone numbers... Stick postcards..."

I asked Hazra what he made of reading habits in Delhi, all of whose 16 million citizens (2011 census) seem to be in too much of a mad rush to sit down with a book—unlike say, their compatriots in London, where eight out of 10 commuters in a metro train have their noses buried in a book.

“Far more kinds of books are available in India today than before," Hazra replied. “And, unlike in London, we can read a Nabarun Bhattacharya as well as an Ian McEwan. Plus there are middle-brow writers."

“I do the bulk of my buying on either Flipkart (an online retailer) or Kindle. I don’t think in the history of reading so much has been available at so little cost. Reading has reached a boom in India."

I happened to be in Kolkata one time, visiting a city that once (a very long time ago) brimmed with the promise of the East and intellectual pride, keeping pace with every strand and minutiae of Western thought, until one day it went over the edge. The Paris Spring of 1968 degenerated into the unending nightmare of the Naxalite movement in the hands of Kolkatans, known for their macabre imagination and passion for political violence—from years dating well back to the start of India’s fight for freedom.

Never having lived in that city, I was fascinated by its reading culture, and decided to pay a visit to College Street, a north Kolkata street neighbouring more than half-a-dozen colleges, including the famous Presidency College, nurseries to scores of men and women who helped shape India’s intellectual history. It is home to many bookshops that sell rare antiquarian books of the kind Obama gifted Modi.

The street is best known for a café—the Indian Coffee House—whose patrons are said to plot revolutions, film scripts and mathematical theories over cups of coffee. “Back in the 1960s," a late relative told me, “I once saw a familiar-looking white man sitting with a bunch of upcoming local writers. It turned out to be Allen Ginsberg"—the celebrated American beatnik poet had come visiting with his partner Peter Orlovsky, also a poet.

I stopped by a few bookshops and asked for a book I was looking for—the hardbound edition of a Bengali literary collection. Instead, shopkeepers offered me glossy books on computers and on how to pass American entrance exams, thwacking the paperbacks with a flat wooden stick to hurry me on. These sellers may well have calmed down now but at the time, when I narrated my experience to a veteran academic, he wasn’t the least bit surprised: “I call them the ‘hyan, ki chai’ (yes, what do you want) book shops," he said.

There was a manic air about the place, as if exams for American schools were around the corner, and maybe they were. It had the din of a fish market, another Kolkata favourite. Hazra tells me reading, in his view, “is a luxury—you get from books what you won’t get from television or snorkelling."

Just so. I don’t know about Modi’s reading habits. But nations, just as their citizens, need quiet time too—to chill, reflect and to grow with a book.

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Updated: 09 Oct 2014, 11:58 PM IST
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