Some people collect books; I collect, or used to collect, authors, a different proposition altogether, of course. I didn’t actually ‘collect’ them, only their signatures or autographs, so many of them that at one time I had four or five notebooks full of them.
They ranged from Aldous Huxley, whose novels were quite fashionable in those days, to Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian writer who had been sentenced to death, but escaped with his life as a result of strong protests from his admirers. In between, I had autographs of crazy people like G B Shaw, a Nobel Prize winner and an ill-tempered playwright who also wrote cranky letters to newspapers and made so much noise that he managed to be always in the news.
Shaw was also a very old man, in his nineties in fact, and since I had never met him, I would not have got him for my book had I not accompanied Pandit Nehru to his house during one of the latter’s visits to London. I was working at the time for Krishna Menon, a choleric character who outdid Shaw in shouting, though he was our high commissioner and was supposed to make friends, not enemies.
I was asked to accompany Nehru to Shaw’s house somewhere outside London and also take notes and report back to Menon. The visit lasted about half an hour, during which Shaw did most of the talking, leaving Nehru so tongue-tied that we almost went to sleep. We were served a strange concoction which was called tea but which tasted like the stuff my grandmother forced me to drink whenever I was unwell. And, horror of horror, we were served nuts instead of good old English biscuits, which apparently kept the old man going in his final years.
Before returning to London, I asked Shaw if he would care to sign my little books of autographs, and surprise, surprise, he whipped out his pen and proceeded to sign with a flourish that seemed unusual for a man of his age. Back in the car, I got an autograph of Nehru himself, along with a slogan, which, I was told, was a practice back home.
That set the ball rolling. If I could wangle signatures of great men, and, hopefully, women, all that easily, why not go the whole hog and rope in others and make the most of it? Trouble was that I knew very few people in London, the kind who gave autographs, or were famous enough for the operation, but my job in our embassy provided a good launching pad for this kind of activity, provided I invested my scarce resources in presentable notebooks, the kind that cost quite a packet in those days.
The next quarry was H G Wells, also a famous author, who knew Menon and was therefore approachable. Wells was a novelist and also some kind of futurist, but since I had not read any of his books, it made no difference. I do not now remember why I selected him, but the man agreed readily and I had two signatures in less than a week, a good start, I thought, considering the odds.
London is a strange city and there is something in the air which makes strong men quail and agree to your pleadings when you least expect them. In no time at all, my little book was overflowing with strange squiggles, in colours varying from brown and black to purple and orange, perhaps to match the moods of writers or their unreliable pens. George Orwell, who had just published his ‘Animal Farm’, signed with a pencil, which I told him firmly, simply would not do, and he sheepishly overwrote with his pen, while we sipped tea in a self-help restaurant within sight of Menon’s India House. Orwell was a friend of Menon too, but Menon also had enemies, and many of them were on prowl in the city, but they did no harm as long as I did not pester them for their signatures.
A year or two later, I returned to India, and after a short holiday, began looking for a job. There were so many jobs going, I had a hard time making a choice, but in the end, I chose one in a place called Jamshedpur, where Tatas had set up their first and only steel plant and they were looking for engineers. I was not much of an engineer, but the fact that I had returned with a foreign degree was enough.
I used to spend long weekends in Calcutta – it was still Calcutta, not Kolkata – looking for likely people interested in my little book. Surprisingly, there were no customers. There were a few professors who were interested in Virginia Woolf and others, but they had no money. They had no money for books either, though the book shop in Park Street was packed with penguins, including, of course, ‘Animal Farm’.
What I had not noticed was that the country had changed and was no more the country I had left behind five or six years earlier. In Delhi, most people spoke Hindi, not English, and few wore ties. “Who is Wells?” a student asked me, going through my little book. I tried to explain, but it did not register. India was changing so rapidly it was not the same country any more. My little book was a source of great merriment as was I.
People like me, so called London returned, were big jokes and some people made fun of us. I used to put on a full suit after my morning bath, though I did not go out much, which my mother found amusing. I used to have toast and butter and marmalade for breakfast, instead of chapatis and vegetables. In less than six months, the toast was out and I began having chapatis, and became a regular Indian.
I also stopped adding to my pile of autographs and started giving them away. I distributed Shaw, and Woolf and Orwell to whomsoever would have it until the pile dwindled to nothing. That day, I became an Indian again, and started wearing a dhoti, first at home and then outside.