1931 AD

American movies were having a good year. Top releases included Frankenstein, Mata Hari, Chaplin’s City Lights and James Cagney’s Public Enemy in addition to Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Other world events too were apace. Thomas Edison was filing his last patent application. New Delhi became India’s capital. The Empire State Building was being completed. Mao Zedong proclaimed the Chinese Soviet Republic and Haile Selassie signed Ethiopia’s first Constitution.

And in that year, a young man from the backwoods country in the southern tip of India set sail for England to pursue the dream of higher education. Along with 5 other Indians, he would be among the first batch of St Catherine’s College in Oxford University. And would later be immortalised as ‘Lost Alumni‘.

I haven’t as yet informed the Dons at St Catherine’s; but if ever there was a person who was not lost, it was this young man. He went on to do a lot of stuff in life, none of which could be characterised as ‘lost’. I know it, because I knew this young man very well.

But in that world, where telephony was an idea and long distance transport was rudimentary, such displacement was probably the equivalent of ‘lost’.

All of this came to me while listening to Paul Theroux the other day. Continue reading

Squiggles on the first page

About twenty five years ago, I saw an old book on a shelf. On the first page of the book was a signature in a neat hand and under it the words, “St Catherine’s, Oxford, 1932″. In that little inscription was buried the first half of the story of a man whose tumultous journey of life took him from being the veritable baby-with-a-golden-spoon, to an orphan with no support, then to a bright young boy who walked over 5 miles and swam across a river everyday to tenaciously pursue the need to study, and onwards to a young man propelled by circumstances to reach what was then the world’s greatest centre of learning. It is the story of a person I loved very much.

Add up all those inscriptions made across the thousands of books that inhabited his library and overlay it with a bit of imagination – and you get one of the most interesting travelogues you can ever lay your hands on.

Over the last decade or so, I have done the same squiggles on every book I bought. There is the P G Wodehouse I bought from the airport on my way to see my first-born. Or the Peter Mayle that I got from the little village of Arbroath, while walking across Scotland. Who knows, maybe a few years later, there might be even be a few people who will find the cumulative story told by my squiggles to be interesting.