Three years ago, I visited a significant city in the Hindi Heartland, with some hope. In Mumbai, I could not procure a couple of well-known Hindi books. Thus, apart from meeting my family there, this trip was essential. I couldn’t find the books in the first bookstore that I visited. So, moved to the next store. And then from one bookstore to another. But in vein.
All along I kept recalling my visits to these very stores two decades ago. The bookstores then stocked literary works of Hindi writers and Hindi versions of other great works. I remember buying Anton Chekhov’s works in Hindi, Premchand Munshi and even less known authors. And now none were to be found in the city that produced great Hindi poet Narmada Prasad Khare, writer Harishankar Parsai and the great exponent of Hindi Seth Govind Das.
The Last store was the biggest, known to stock all that one needed. My requirement was simple. I needed two collections – one of Harivansh Rai Bachchan and the other from the National Poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. I was disappointed here too. A little frustrated, I expressed my disappointment. The Bookstore owner informed me that “these days nobody reads these things”. He added “you seem to have a job; you can (afford to) indulge in these (unproductive) things. But kids here need to make a career”. I looked around in the store. There were quintals of software related books on glass cases covering the walls, from the floor to the 15-feet ceiling. There were books on how to train for management entrance exams. There were also books on how to ‘Learn to Speak English’.
Bigger stores in Mumbai are no different. Some of the best books on India, written in English language are not available. A great and most referenced book on Maratha history had not ever been heard of, in any of Mumbai’s stores! Finally, a passionate bookstore in Kolkata procured an old copy for me. On another occasion, the book that reveals the inside story of the Princely States and Partition, was not available anywhere. Bookstores have not heard of it.
One of the most successful civilizations has probably been of the Arabs. With little resources, they have been at the centre of power for too long. And it was their ability for documentation and preservation that helped them do it. They have neatly maintained diaries dating back over millennium. Even the relatively less literate Mongols (Mughals) were probably better than us in terms of documentation of history and learning from it. Babur reprimanded his son (Humayun) from warfields in Central Asia, through letters, for his poor writing abilities. And of course, we know of the British in modern times. Minute details of the 18th century Indian courts are available to us through diaries of the English employees of the East India Company. But there are practically no accounts written by Indians (other than court writers in Medieval India) about their own times. At least none survives.
No wonder younger generations in India treats its heritage with such little regard. The walls and surfaces of priceless historical monuments are defaced to write “Ravi loves Ritu”. We have a history of indifference.