Serendipity and a second-hand book

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.

Pavement Bookstalls

Booksellers setting up their stalls on the pavement at King’s Circle in Mumbai

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.

An inside page of 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 :-)

 

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53 thoughts on “Serendipity and a second-hand book

  1. I would have loved to see some more shots of the pages that made you smile all day long! An aged book with the pages turned brittle and yellowed with time does make the pulses quicken and the smell is divine too. Ah, how I envy you for being able to unearth such a treasure on a serendipitous morning and at such throw away price too.

    In true Sudha style you have shared the library marks and observed the number of times it has been issued. You never fail to amaze me with your eye for details. Waiting to lay my hands on this one too. And of course waiting to read the review of the contents :)

    • This book was a lucky find. It is far more beautiful than its pictures and I have got it to office today to share it with fellow book lovers. Suffice it to say that not much work got done today morning :-D

      I would have loved to share more, but then a little bit of anticipation is always good, right? And There will be no review of the contents, I’m afraid. Poetry is not really my thing and that too as highly metaphorical as Omar Khayyam. Maybe someone else can review it?

      As for me, I am just enjoying the beautiful book that is living up to the phrase “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

  2. what a wonderful find! thats just whats draws me to those pavement book sellers. and this one seems to be just too good to be true! with all those details too… its so much fun to trace the history of books.. at least some of them… and as Zephyr says, in true sudha style, you have managed to glean so much more than any of us probably would have!

    • I know an author who haunts second hand book stalls across the city to pick up books, not for the books but for the stuff written inside. The author used to get inspiration for future writings from that — once the author came across a book with a note inside on ruled pink paper that said, “Dear M, I never knew it was you. Sorry. L” Just listening to this incident, which was later developed into a story, gave me goosebumps.

      This book was a lucky find and somehow just meant for me, I think. :-D

    • Why just books, everything and everybody has a story behind it. But I always wonder more about the history of the book — I wonder why it was sold or given away or discarded, etc. So what all books have you purchased from the Patna second hand book market? Do share some stories :-)

    • :-D I think this was the weekend for serendipity.

      Yesterday, I was listening to some recently unearthed CDs, one of them being of the Madras String Quartet (MSQ). I finish listening to them and as I am thinking as to what I should play next, my email pings and I get a reminder about a concert of the MSQ at Chennai which was being webcast live. I immediately switched on the laptop and spent another two hours listening to them.

      Serendipity indeed !

  3. Fantastic! What I’ve also found is that books that really show their age, are dogeared and stained, end up being something that was much loved and are the best. I might have to search out this book that you’ve found too.

    • A warm welcome to my blog, Saree Wearing Mama, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. :-)

      There was a time when I did not like second hand books; the thought of handling a book that someone else had touched was unbearable. Till one day, I discovered the magical world of second hand books and the stories they said of their previous owners and fell in love with them.

      Good luck on finding this book !

  4. oh I loved this post..you took me to the times when Appa would take me to King’s Circle (My Chitappa stays there) on our visits to Bombay and allow me to buy as many second hand books as I wanted…we would come back with loads and Amma would crib about lack of space in the house..and guess what, we would carry all of them to Baroda with us…It was the bestest memories of my earlier trips to Bombay

    now the irony..I live in Bombay but havent been to the second hand book shop in years!

    • Glad you loved it, R’s Mom. :-D I love this area as it was home for some time when I was growing up. And these days it is nostalgia time and counting what is still standing from those days. And picking up an occasional book like this :-)

      I think it is time that you visited this place once again for the books, the bhelpuri and other great street food.

    • Thanks, Ghazala. I have read just a couple of the quatrains in the book and have liked them so far. It is difficult and highly metaphorical and it needs time and respect to truly enjoy and relish each line. :-)

  5. What a treasure! I love second-hand books for the same reason I love old buildings. The history attached to them. Imagining the places they have visited. Wondering how previous owners treated them. To find an old copy of a wonderful book. Double delight! Thanks for a lovely post.

    • So happy that you enjoyed this post, Shankari. And I love old buildings too :-) Perhaps that’s why I always seek out history and culture in my travels and love photographing buildings. And second-hand books too !

      As I responded to Anu earlier, I know an author who haunts second hand book stalls across the city to pick up books, not for the books but for the stuff written inside. The author used to get inspiration for future writings from that — once the author came across a book with a note inside on ruled pink paper that said, “Dear M, I never knew it was you. Sorry. L” Just listening to this incident, which was later developed into a story, gave me goosebumps.

  6. You shopped at my favorite place. Well, over 10 years ago, I was fresh out of college and working in Bombay. I used to cross King’s Circle every day, sometimes, several times a day. I never came away without a book. My parents’ bookshelves are full of books I picked up at that second hand market. How I wish my daily commute included that place :(

    • This is my favourite place too :-) Can you share any of the books bought there? And next time you are here in Bombay we’ll go here as well. BTW, I just realised that the list of things we are going to do in Mumbai is growing and growing … :-)

      • Gone with the wind, Not a Penny More Not a Penny less, Kane and Abel. Atlas Shrugged, some Mills and Boons that I am embarrassed about now. Several other books, that I can’t remember now. Oh yes, i bought Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Love Signs here too and I read them cover to cover. :)

        • I don’t think know anybody who bought a new copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Love Signs. I read a friend’s book who got it from a cousin who got it from somewhere else … :-D

          • Now you know one!! I used to have people in the local train read over my shoulder when I read those tomes. And some enthusiastic ones asked me to turn to the pages of their respective sun signs (or their partner’s) to gain better insight :)

  7. It’s a beautiful post, and one needs to not go beyond three lines to know how much you love books, and everything that comes along with the story – the yellowed pages, the smell, the cover. I was smiling all throughout while reading the post, and you made my day better, Sudhagee!

    • Thank you so much for such warm and lovely words, Neeraj. Yes, I love books in a quiet way and not in the way I love music, which is passionately. Books are my best friends, my companions, my comfort zone… so yes this post brought it all out.

      And Neeraj, your comment made my day. :-) Thank you.

  8. What a gem! A serendipitous find, indeed!

    I LOVE second-hand books for the same reason – I love seeing who all have read the book before me, and reading their favourite passages, if I can. I LOVE Blossoms, the second-hand bookstore in Bangalore, for this very reason.

    Many times, I have,like you come across such gems on pavements and haven’t bothered to bargain, considering the meagre price that had been fixed for these books. The book sellers have been amazed. In such situations, I often feel – do the book sellers really know the value of this book? How can they sell it so dirt cheap? I feel it would be an insult if I bargain further.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE 84, Charing Cross Road. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It is one of my all-time favourites. Have you read The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society? If you liked 84, Charing Cross Road, you will love this one, too.

    • First things first, TGND.

      A big, warm hug to you. Anybody who loves 84 Charing Cross Road is my BBF (Best Book Friend). And I hope that I get to meet you soon :-)

      I think picking and choosing second hand books is almost karmic. Why else would a particular book be available for you at a particular time. I remember picking a Lucky Luke comic for 100 rupees in a store full of Mills & Boons. Scores of people must have come and gone and yet that book was picked up by me. The bookseller was so relieved when I picked it up that he was willing to give it to me for free. I insisted on paying him. And like you, I can never bargain with book sellers.

      They sell it dirt cheap because they get it dirt cheap – the books often come to them by weight or at a standard rate of say Rs. 50 for a bundle of 100 books. And sometimes these books are picked off at pulping factories where they are sent for recycling. Just thinking of such a fate for my Rubaiyat sends shivers down my spine.

      And thank you for the recommendation for The Guernsey Literary Society… Just ordered a copy for myself. :-)

    • Yes, lucky me :-) A friend of mine knows Farsi and she would often read from the original. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand a word of what she read out – but it sounded so beautiful. :-)

  9. there came that little heart-stopping moment of the beautiful kind!!
    few months back I was out on the streets of Malleshwaram in Blore and went through the same feel when I found The Motorcycle diaries of Che Guevera with a footpath vendor!
    and tell me about the smile that follows! ;)

    • The smile is wide and warm and a little bit tinged with envy. I have only seen the film, and have not read the book. Yet. Maybe the book is waiting for me somewhere and I’ll find it one day. :-)

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    • Thank you, Kaye. Yes, this book is a real find and is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. You’ll be surprised to find that Kings Circle has not really changed in the sense that the second hand books stalls. :-)

  11. That is a great find…an absolute treasure. Am going to borrow that book from you after you have finished. I think I am going to make a trip to Matunga … …for nostalgia sake. Care to join me.

  12. What a treasure you seem to have found! If you ever are in Bangalore, check out this second hand bookstore called Blossoms…three stories of absolute treasures like this one. once I found a 1920s spanish illustrated version of the bible that was absolutely breathtaking.

    • Yes, the Rubaiyat is an absolute treasure, isn’t it? :-) I visited Blossoms last February, but got so mesmerised by their stationery section that their second-hand section got neglected. But next time, it will be the second-hand books that get my attention and love :-D

  13. Pingback: Awesome Read -(1) – The Unpublished David Ogilvy « Cleaning up the clutter

  14. The funny thing is I picked up a copy of Rubaiyyat from the same place, and I think the same price too, though mine is a small red thing with few and simple illustrations. I don’t know if you’ve been to the area (King’s Circle yes?) recently, but ask around for this bookseller called Afzal who hangs out on the pavement on the circle next to Cafe Madras. That guy is himself a gem and always happy to undertake wild treasure hunts for me when I ask him for a few of the more elusive titles.

    • Welcome here, Reza. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting and also for subscribing to my blog.

      I know the King’s Circle second hand bookshops pretty well and I think I have also met Afzal – I bought a precious bundle of 6 AJ Cronin books from him. I have asked him to keep a lookout for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 3 Investigators series”. I lost my collection while moving houses and never found another set again. I hope I get to find at least a few from the series.

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