What is a long train journey without books for company? Like migratory birds flying south in winter, I belonged to the flock of students who make their annual passage from boarding schools to their homes during vacation time. Only, flying was never an option for us in those days before the advent of discounted air fares. We had to slog it out on trains for an entire day, or even more. But we turned the ordeal into an opportunity for reading books. Perched on an upper berth, we would remain immersed in our fictional world as the miles sped by.
Each of us had our own tastes in reading. I was fond of thrillers and mysteries, especially Perry Mason and Agatha Christie whodunits. Whenever I solved a case with my intuition before the author had reached its denouement, I would be tickled to the bone. I didn’t have to carry any books because the Indian Railways had a chain of A.H. Wheeler & Co. outlets dotted all over the country. Wheeler also had a remarkable buy-back policy, whereby I didn’t have to add the books I bought to my luggage. I could surrender a book after reading it at half its price. Through fierce bargaining, Indian-style, I often managed to net almost two-thirds of the value. No sooner did I finish a title than I would rush to the next Wheeler’s stall and ‘trade’ it in for another book for the next leg of my journey. I finished two or even three mysteries on one trip. Murders, I observed, are lighter on one’s grey cells than heavy mental stuff!
Once I couldn’t find any book by a familiar author at the bookstall and grabbed something even as the train started rolling. The title suggested a mystery novel. But what a red herring it was! A few pages into Crime and Punishment by one Dostoevsky and I had that herring sticking in my gullet. Though it was sheer punishment to plough through its dark world, I had no alternative but to carry on reading it till the next Wheeler came into view.
I don’t know when exactly it happened. But I soon found myself deep in the tunnels of the novel, trying to unearth not a mystery but the fascinating characters of the murderer and his two victims. Many a Wheeler stall came and went, but I continued reading Crime and Punishment as if there was no tomorrow. That book never went back to Wheeler under buy-back. It remains in my small library, to be read again and again into my sunset years.