In the age of the digital when most reading is done off the screen, the sensory appeal of paper as the reading material has its own charm. A room full of books plays on our senses in so many ways. The smell, texture and rustle of paper draws any ardent reader into an immersion that is not worthy of any comparison with reading off a screen. Ask any voracious reader and she will say that we all prefer paper. Possessing books is as valuable for readers as collecting jewelry is for many.
My father Ziaul Haq is one such person. He has a vast personal collection of books that he has slowly nurtured and built over a period of seventy years. At 97 years of age, he sits proudly amongst the books he loves so much.
Allahabad, the city where he resides had the reputation of being a hub of the literary elite in India through a major part of 20th century. It was not uncommon for households to have a rich collection of books. A substantial population of the city was associated with the Allahabad University or the legal fraternity via the High Court.
This scenario changed gradually and the old guard passed on. The city which once boasted literary luminaries like ‘Firaq’, Mahadevi Varma, ‘Nirala’, Sumitranandan Pant, ‘Ashk’ to name a few gradually lost its intellectual sheen and with that also disappeared the lovely personal libraries that adorned such people’s homes.
Among the few that have survived is my father’s library and I feel proud that it has been an important part of my childhood and youth. Growing up, I had heard much praise for this collection from various quarters. People often cited it as the best collection of books on Marxism, history, politics and literature in the city; so many books under a roof in three languages – English, Hindi and Urdu – were found nowhere else.
The library boasts a rich collection of Hindi literature
Urdu poetry has a special place in this collection
He believes Mahabharata is one of the greatest books of India
I had seen young students, scholars and activists in town visit our place and borrow books of interest to them. The collection held not only books but subscriptions to journals and magazines from all over the world as well. AH Wheeler & Co. and Rupa, book suppliers in the city, readily supplied every new book published in areas they knew to be of interest to my father; it is not difficult to locate a book published in the 1940s or 1950s in this collection.
The 1954 edition of Karl Marx’s Capital, one of the many to be found here
As I lived in Delhi and was only a regular visitor to Allahabad, I had seen the depletion in the state of the room that housed this vast collection of books. Age had taken its toll on both my father as well his books. Gradually, he had lost the energy to maintain a room that required great attention and care. The reading material was laden with dust and scattered on the floor; cobwebs hung in the far reaches of the shelves. With moisture stains increasingly visible everywhere, the neglect was palpable. My father, I noticed, had stopped entering the library as if unwilling to confront the dishevelment of a place he had so loved and nurtured. Sensing this, I decided that during the period of my visit, I would try my best to restore the library to its past glory. This would bring cheer not only to my father but to me as well because by now I had realized that these books were my heirloom and deserved to be treated with respect and care.
The library before the cleaning began
Two volunteers clean the books piece by piece
The task was daunting as a few thousand books were required to be extricated from their shelves, the room emptied, painted, followed by putting the books back in order. Two young volunteers came to my aid; we wore dust masks to shift the books and cleaned them one by one painstaking. What came as a revelation to me in the process were not the books but my father’s personal archives that had been lying untouched for a long time in the drawers of his lone study desk. Letters more than fifty years old from when he lived in Delhi, old photographs of near and dear ones, notes and listing of books in his own handwriting made me wonder how easy this task of stock taking and cataloging of books would be in a pre computer age. An age which is still very much a part of his life.
I have now requested one of the volunteers to make a list of all the books in an excel sheet for our convenience.
Listing of books bought, in Zia’s handwriting
Very old personal letters and a young self-portrait
A rejuvenated library was the present I gave my father the day he turned 97 on the 28th of September. He walked in and observed the changes with happiness, as well as a touch of suspicion, as he had been unsure about what I intended to do with his precious collection. It had indeed taken a lot of cajoling to get a green signal from him to start work.
The bookshelves restored
Mirza Ghalib, Urdu’s finest poet has a special place
Some of his friends who came in to wish him admired the space too. A gentleman who is the Head of the Urdu department at Allahabad University pronounced this the best personal collection of books in the Progressive literature that he had ever seen.
I am satisfied with the response that this effort has received, as already some visitors have expressed an interest in using the library for their research. Long live the collection!