By the book: reflections on an Indian childhood reading Soviet hardbacks


Navakarnataka Publications in Karnataka, my home state, who were supplied with hundreds of thousands of books in every genre, sold a wholesome image of the Soviet Union for Rs 5, Rs 10, or at most Rs 50 for a really fat book. Still much less than a full dollar. Some stray copies creep into the second-hand book stores now and then, selling like hot tea in a park on a cold day, often at three to four times the original price. They call them collectibles, these days.

My copy of Mother was possibly a Progress edition, I forget now. Most of the titles grandfather owned, and the ones I continue to collect, are either Progress, or Raduga. Each prettier than the next. One has Pushkin looking over his shoulder, a tall lady on his arm. The other has Tolstoy, a much older Tolstoy, frowning, with a long, white beard. A young Chekhov looks handsome, serious and intense. Pushkin again, leaning against a pillar and staring out casually, one leg up against the pillar. A blurry structure, grey, fluid, befitting for Dostoyevsky's Notes from a Dead House.

Apparently, most of the works were available in several Indian languages. I only ever read them in English. I wonder who the translators were, for the other Indian languages. I wonder a lot of things. The internet hasn't bothered digging up too much it seems.

I prefer the mystery and lack of information, because probably the history is too prosaic anyway

There was once a fox that tried and tried to jump up to eat ripe grapes. But try as it might, it couldn't jump high enough. It then walked away, loudly remarking that the grapes were probably too sour anyway. I am going to say that I prefer the mystery and lack of information, because probably the history is too prosaic anyway.

The 1980s were when I discovered and grew up with books that made names like Boris and Sasha and Nadya and Tatyana and Olga and Vera as relatable as Rama and Sita and Arjuna from the Indian epics that grandma told stories from. They seem like fabulous years, seen through the eyes of wistfulness for the good ol' days and simpler times. Russian writers, and by extension, the Soviet Union, seemed exotically foreign and thus especially intriguing. But perhaps more importantly for me, these books were my connection to my grandfather. Perhaps it was through these that I came to relate to a man who in his own way was the rebel I would turn out to be — left leaning, liberal — in a household and a community that insisted on voting Right.

Or maybe I don't really want to know. The invitation to imagine your own stories and endings is what lends timelessness to a work of literature after all.