To simply describe 69-year old Samik Bandyopadhyay’s books as a ‘collection’ is an understatement. The Kolkata-based scholar, theatre critic and Seagull Foundation trustee has amassed over 30,000 volumes in English and Bengali – roughly three-bedrooms’ worth, with many more stacked in piles on the floor. His interest in books and reading, he says, began at a young age with authors like Mark Twain: “Literature is something that takes you out of your immediate situation and allows you access to other social situations and minds. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I thought, was an emancipatory trip.” 30,000 books’ worth of emancipation, however, does present a unique set of challenges.
There have been storage-related difficulties, for example: “It’s extremely crowded. One has to struggle to keep the books visible and accessible, but I enjoy the adventure.” Bandyopadhyay says he generally buys his books new, but scouts for specialised dealers or estate sales for rarer editions, like his prized edition of Picasso’s 1954 “Aragon Shakespeare” – one of only 1000 ever printed. Certain books carry special significance and meaning, such as Garcia Marquez’s “Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin”: “I had an opportunity to meet with Littin and have a long conversation with him when he came to Calcutta. He autographed my copy of the book and wrote and inscription relating to our conversation. In a way, the inscription became a text in it’s own right.” Bandyopadhyay admits it’s impossible for him to read every single book he has picked up over the years but continues to purchase them regardless, saying that he likes to have immediate access to the texts. His only concern? “The only worry I really have is what happens to these books when I’m dead. It’ll be a shock to the people who end up taking care of them.”
Dr Cheriyan Alexander recalls being fascinated by National Geographic magazines at a young age: “I fell in love with the photographs, the captions and the writing. In those days, an issue cost Rs 3 – second hand, of course, you couldn’t afford them new! – which I would save up some pocket money my mother would give me. That’s how I started collecting books.” Today, the 51-year old English professor reckons he must have 3000-odd books in his collection, for which he has built a special room in his house. Though his family and friends are outwardly ambivalent towards his book-acquiring habit, Alexander notes they are not above tossing the occasional barb at his pack-rat nature: “I can’t throw things away! That can be quite irritating, I imagine. They’re always telling me, ‘Aren’t you done with that book? Can’t you give it away or something?’” A great fan of pavement bookstores, Alexander purchases almost all of his books second-hand or at exhibitions, a childhood habit – something that presents certain hazards for the impulse-driven collector: “I have the collector’s bug in me. Years ago, I fancied I might learn typewriting, so I picked up this old thing on how to use a typewriter that I never opened.” Alexander’s love for reading does verge on the comically absurd, every now and then: “I recently replaced a bulb in the toilet with one of a higher wattage so I could read better. I’m a greater reader in the loo – some people need a cigarette, my movements are programmed by the stimulus of the book!”