Saturday, August 7, 2010

Of Adorsho Hindu Hotel and Other Books

A month or so ago, I read Adorsho Hindu Hotel by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay. The book tells the story of a poor Brahmin cook who works in a town hotel, but hopes to be able to open a hotel of his own, someday. Hajari Thakur has a lot of dreams and aspirations, and though middle-aged, has the ability and wish to work hard. However, he is desperately poor, and all he can do is work like a slave all day to be able to look after his wife and daughter back at home. In spite of all the hardships, his strong belief that someday his own hotel will come into existence and that he will be its sole owner and run it his own way helps him endure all humiliation from his master and go on with life. The story goes on to tell us about the strange turn of fate in his life that brings him friends and money, and helps him establish his dream hotel. The book gives us a very vivid picture of the entire scenario of the man’s life, and reading it is a very rewarding experience.  

Most people around me seem to suffer from a very acute fear of books. In fact, I can think of several people of varied age groups who would gladly endure physical torture rather than read a good book. The only thing these people ever read, if any at all, is a very cheap kind of chick lit. No wonder Chetan Bhagat books have become best sellers. When I mention some great book like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Christmas Carol, they give me blank stares. Obviously they have never heard of them. Our school library is an embarrassment. Not that there aren’t any good books; I have seen labels like Great Expectations and The Street Lawyer in the showcases. Even a dusty copy of The Kite Runner is lying in a faraway corner. But when it comes to lending books, the students are given a few Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews to select from. When, accidentally, they do give out a good book, they discourage us from taking it. I had found Anne Frank's Diary on the table, and tried to take it. The librarian snatched it away from my hands, saying that it was not a book for children, and handed me a Famous Five. I was in class seven then. Of course, I later discovered three copies of the book at home, so I had nothing to lose!

When it comes to any of the Indian languages, things are much worse. Bengalis don’t read Bengali, Marwaris don’t read Hindi, and Punjabis don’t read Punjabi. To most Indians, their mother tongue is a matter of embarrassment, rather than pride. I have heard one Bengali boy sneering at another because the other had read one Bengali book! We have a lesson in English Literature this year, called “The Last Lesson” by Alphonse Daudet. The writer tells us about their last French lesson after the Prussians had conquered Alsace and Lorraine. The writer’s old master talks of their language with infinite love and pride, and says that every Frenchman should hold on to it, as it can be a key to the prison of slavery. When baba was teaching us this lesson in class, he said that every community should feel the same way about their mother tongue. He joked sadly that the problem with us Bengalis is that “Amra Bangla ta bhule gechhi, aar English ta shikhini” (We have forgotten Bengali, and haven’t learnt English)!

Though I am a voracious reader, I feel ashamed to admit that I have not read many Bengali books yet. My mother tongue is Bengali, which makes it even more shameful. I cannot deny that my father has tried and still keeps trying to make me read more in my mother tongue. I know it is high time I listened to him. I read Adorsho Hindu Hotel, Chander Pahar, Ghonada, Feluda, Byomkesh Bokshi and a few other such books, and got a taste of the invaluable treasure that is waiting for me. Srikanto, Aronyok, Pather Panchali, Kamalakanter Doptor, Muchiram Gur and everything besides, here I come!