Serendipity. I can sum up my day today with this one word.
It was a day that began very simply with my camera and I setting out to do a bit of exploration of my city. We first went to Sion, clicked some impressions and recorded some memories. And then to Matunga to have some hot filter kaapi. Happy and satisfied with the morning’s efforts and eager to see the results of my photography, I turned homeward.
As I walked towards my bus stop, I came across this sight of booksellers setting up their stalls on the pavement at King’s Circle.
The late morning winter sunlight created beautiful patterns of light and shadows amongst the piles of National Geographic, Home & Garden, travel magazines, self-help books, classics, Mills & Boon, pirated copies of best sellers… It was delightful to see the books being dusted and lovingly laid out. Since, I had already packed my camera away, it was my cell phone camera that had the honour of capturing this sight.
As my eyes skimmed the book piles, the magazine stacks, and the neatly laid out rows of books, there came that little heart-stopping moment of the beautiful kind. The one where you see an unexpected treasure in the form of a book. One that lights up your eyes in anticipation, and quickens your breath just that little bit. And as you savour that moment, the world slows down just for you.
Nestled among the books, and almost blending into the background because of its understated cover, was a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald.
As I picked up the book and opened it with trembling hands, it automatically opened to this page, obviously a page much read by the book’s previous owners/readers. One look at the beautifully laid out-book, the calligraphic font, the geometrical designs, and the luminous illustrations and I was in love with the book.
And Rs.50 later, I was the proud and happy owner of this book. I couldn’t thank the bewildered bookseller enough, who instead of facing the normal bargaining session with a customer was getting some embarrassingly effusive thanks. As he dusted the book before handing it over to me, he took pains to point out the warped hardcover, the yellowed pages that were turning brittle, some damage due to moisture… In turn, I had great pleasure in showing him why I loved the book.
Once in the bus, it was time for a more leisurely examination of the book. Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet, astronomer and mathematician and is credited with having written over a 1000 verses in the rubaa’i format or a quatrain. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam contains 75 quatrains translated by Edward Fitzgerald and illustrated by William Pogany. This slim, non-paginated and undated volume has been published by D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Bombay (now Mumbai) and printed in the Norwich, United Kingdom. There is a beautiful inscription just before the title page, which says:
These pearls of thought in Persian Gulfs were bred
Each softly lucent as a rounded moon:
The diver Omar plucked them from their bed
Fitzgerald strung them on an English thread.
My copy of this book belonged to the Keropet Club’s Library of the erstwhile Burmah-Shell oil company in Bombay, who purchased it for a princely sum of Rs.9.50 !
This book was first issued out on 14 July 1950 and last issued on 23 July 1959. There is no record of where this book went after that. Apart from the Library stamp in many of the pages, there are no inscriptions or defacement to indicate who had previously read or owned this copy. Rubaiyat doesn’t seem to have been a particularly popular book as in the 9 years it was at Keropat Library, it was lent out only 7 times !
I am fascinated by second-hand books and I wish I knew what the previous readers of Rubaiyat thought of it. I am always reminded of these lines from 84 Charing Cross Road, whenever I buy a second-hand book:
I do love second-hand books that open to the page the previous owner read oftenest…I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long ago has called my attention to.
As I flipped though the pages of the book, some of the lines and illustrations stood out. Like this one:
I love a good book design as much as I love a well-written book. And today I have been feasting on my latest acquisition and the sensory delights it has to offer. I haven’t yet gotten around to reading the quatrains; that is going to take some time. Right now, each page has a new design to exclaim over, wonder at and marvel. Each watercolour invites exploration into its world. As for the Omar Khayyam’s verses, their turn to be read and enjoyed will come.
I have been smiling the whole day. It’s a smile that only a book can bring, a smile of contentment and happiness. And a smile of serendipity too