Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE – Jerry Pinto
What meaning lies in any library? The truth has gone with Mehlli Gobhai, one of the finest abstractionists India has produced
If you have not read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader , I should suggest you waste no time in heading to your nearest bookshop. It is a lovely book and one of the essays I read with a detached interest was on the marriage of two bibliophile’s collections of books. What does one do with duplicates? How does one measure the sentiment one attached to one’s own second-hand copy of Book X and the spouse’s much-thumbed copy of the same book? And how does one work one’s way to some unity, some harmony? Perhaps in the expanses of American apartments some duplication might be permissible but what does one do here, in a city of small flats? Some sacrifices would be necessary. And what would happen, if the marriage of the people were not to work?
I am thinking of all this because I have had to dismantle a friend’s library over the last few weeks. This was the library of Mehlli Gobhai, who has been described as one of the finest abstractionists India has ever produced. He was a man of varied interests, some of which I knew about. It is difficult not to know that a man loves dogs when the click of toenails sounds each time you reach his home and you are greeted by 30 kilos of excited Boxer. (Aryan, the said Boxer, was one in a line of dogs but I only met another, the delicate Kudi, a fox terrier out of a distinguished Bandra line.)
Listing it out
I have always held the belief that a person’s mind may be known by the books s/he has kept. Perhaps also the books s/he has read but unless the person in question maintains some kind of list — Arun Kolatkar the poet did — we will never know because these may come out of libraries, they may be books taken away, they may be books borrowed and returned. And so I set out to make a list because I believe that this list may be of interest to some researcher in the future who wants to know what Mehlli read and thought.
Mehlli was a carnal reader, to use a Fadimanism. He would mark his books in a number of ways, mostly underlining things that mattered to him, sentiments he felt echoed his own. He also had a set of notebooks into which, as a younger man, he would copy out the quotations he really cared about. I tell this to my students at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai all the time. The act of writing out is old-fashioned and may bring back the schoolroom with all its indignities and impositions but it is an important way in which one may take part in the ownership of something. Of course, I also emphasise that writing down the source makes you sure that you will not be found guilty of inadvertent plagiarism later. Mehlli did this meticulously and so I am trying to be as meticulous as I dismantle his library.
Many years ago, Dom Moraes needed his library put in some kind of order but as soon as it was done, he knew that he would be dismantling the order again. That is what happens to a well-used library. Books move constantly; and in Mehlli’s case there were two houses, a country home and a city flat and if a book was started in one, it might be carried back and forth and then left behind where it was finished.
A keen collector
He was also a packrat. He collected everything from dolphin skulls he found on the beach in Gujarat to withered coconuts. And when your friends know this about you, they encourage you sometimes unconsciously and sometimes with relief. In other words: what do you do when you have hundreds of art magazines from the 1950s and 1960s? You can’t throw them away because you have kept them for nearly 30 years, and so to consign them to the old-paper man would be to make a mockery of those decades. But if you give them to a friend? A friend who has space because he has two homes? A friend who says, ‘I say!’ in wonder as he leafs through the old pages with those not-very-good reproductions? You feel you have made something out of your nothing.
I wonder now as I look for homes for this magnificent collection whether I am not doing the same thing. The art books will find a home, I am sure. I don’t know what to do with the cookbooks though.
Mrs. Perin Gobhai, Mehlli’s redoubtable and beautiful mother, was a member of the Time and Talents Club and she contributed some recipes to its cookbook.
Among Mehlli’s many friends was Niloufer King who also wrote a cookbook, My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking , which won the James Beard Award for Asian Cuisine. There are books about dietetics and a whole selection of theosophy books, for Mehlli was fascinated by the occult, the mysterious, the hidden.
What meaning lies in this concatenation of books? What meaning lies in any library? The truth has gone with Mehlli but we may play at jigsaws of the mind even as we list a book about the gathas of Zarathushtra and another about the art of tantra. I will try my best to find good homes for the books but the list will be the string into the labyrinth of that greatest of all mysteries, a human mind.
I have always held the belief that a person’s mind may be known by the books s/he has kept
You can’t throw them away because you have kept them for nearly 30 years, and so to consign them to the old-paper man would be to make a mockery of those decades