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A Bureaucrat’s Diary: Books in the Boondocks

, January 4, 2014, 0 Comments

Books in the Boondocks - MarketExpressOsmanabad, recaptured by Police Action from the Nizam not all that long ago and added to Maharashtra  had a very curious species as their first IAS Assistant Collector in 1964. Someone who let the strains of Italian Opera float over the small town of 15,234, well into the early hours of the morning. Wise heads wagged and said, he must be a Christian. Good if there is trouble between communities.

Benianimo Gigli came with Brahms First and Beethoven’s Sixth in my one tin trunk on the top of a bus from Aurangabad, good old 33rpm’s on a scratchy turntable bought with my Provident Fund when I left after a year with the Railways. Books, as always, were a problem. The Bible at hand was the Assistant Collectors’ Manual nearly a hundred years old, which had many a sapient thought.Do not be sarcastic with your  juniors for they cannot reply. Do not be rude to your seniors for they may reply only too well.

The wise Brit who penned his thoughts, released recently in a spanking new edition, also suggested, do not be angry if you see something written by a subordinate that sounds rude. He may not understand the use of English like you do. Then the clincher of c 1875.When you come to the State, join the Asiatic Society. They send you twenty books at a time packed in a wooden box.

This came to Manmad by broad gauge, to Aurangabad by metre gauge and then on to Yedsi from where hunderkekeris,rara avis of distinct plumage in flowing robes, trundled the box in hand carts or other mysterious ways to my doorstep in Osmanabad.

The world was indeed my oyster. Every time the magic wooden box was slid open, there was many a pearl inside.Poems from Eliot to memorise and recite as I rode on a horse to villages, or mumble in an open courtyard while sunning on a Sunday.  All  of Marcel Proust in the Scott Moncrieff translation, Homer, Gibbons, anything that was fancied, noted down in a list and posted to the distant library.

Since I was quite good at tennis and there was a playable court with an opponent in pajamas who was also the President of the town Municipality as also a wizened trader in a sparkling dhoti, I asked the Willingdon Club in Bombay for a Marker. They did not reply. On the other hand, The Asiatic was phenomenally punctual with the to and fro of books in wooden boxes. Sealed into cloth and stitched as though the Crown Jewels were in transit.

The Sub Divisional Magistrate dispensed justice.. or as a close colleague said of my days in Osmanabad, dispensed with.. from an ancient court. Outside were two huge banyan trees from which Meadowes Taylor hung the Thugs.Lucky Thugs,I thought for their quick exit.Here in the sulfurous heat when outside birds fell dead out of the sky, adipose lawyers with flowing beards argued in Urdu,the next generation in Marathi and the spry young ones in English. All endlessly,to impress clients behind. Above the ancient cloth and tasseled punkah stirred, moved somewhere by a peon with a rope tied to his toe.

One such blazing afternoon, a sparrow sat on my shoulder. Visions of Jehangir in his full glory swam through the haze and the heat. I still thought fondly of the quickly departed Thugs and ordered every book on the subject. Bentinck and William Sleeman,as we all know,are mentioned in every historical dispatch but Meadows Taylor’s  monumental work in Central India is little talked about. Asiatic has a reputation for both elegant and strenuous research and I on books trundled across agro climatic zones, became a huge beneficiary. In the shadows of ancient foliage, recently felled for a spanking sports stadium.

There is a lovely Thugs story. Deciding to hit back, they energised the tribals to group and kill the Collector. The murderers waited in the ravine, still extant, below the tennis court on a quiet Sunday at the Officers’ Club.They would strike as soon as the Set was over. A ball boy noticed and told the Assistant Collector who was playing with his chief. He kept the score even.. 6 all,7all, 8 all.. until the Suptd. of Police, rushed in to save all lives, even as the game teetered into the dark.

Many a lonely night in dak bungalows, after writing judgments of cases heard under a petromax that had to be pumped every now and then to keep the blue effulgence going, the huge parcels from afar were manna in the desert. Books from the Asiatic was more than the sustenance of chilly laden curries for dinners. My misspent youth until then, took on a patina of congress with some of the best minds ever. I had slithered into administration by coming first in the Essay during entrance exam skirmishes.Now with twenty books at a go, to be exchanged at whim and impulse, the mind was fully charged for the greater battles ahead.

All romances have to end. Exotic creatures of the Peace Corps began to arrive with a Five Foot Shelf as decreed by JFK. With the best of contemporary writing at hand, the medieval splendours of the Asiatic drifted to a comma, a semi colon. Finally a huge question mark.On a visit to the old lady recently, I was reminded by a small, fat peon, an immensely knowledgeable, perpetual civil servant that I had not returned two magazines borrowed ten years ago.

Quietly had flowed a great and brilliant tradition of books in wooden boxes on handcarts over dusty roads, now replaced presumably by online tomes a click away.

Give me any day the anxious wait for the hundekeris in the boondocks. They brought books  for succour like the skirl of bagpipes at the Relief of Lucknow.The Assistant Collectors of this day try to fashion paperless offices and read on Kindle. I sigh with envy for my own days of the printed page,delivered from so far,with so much love and affection.