Top shelf.

My grandparents had a living room and a sitting room. We hardly ever used the former; it was a long, large cavernous place with my grandmother’s gramophone in one corner and a fireplace we never needed in Lahore’s equatorial heat. The living room was just for occasional cocktail and dinner parties but the sitting room was used every day.

At the end of the work day, my grandparents and their junior partner, Dr. Iqbal, would relax with a gin and tonic and some monkey nuts from the drinks cart and discuss the business of the day. I would have a bottle of 7Up, tall and green with white bubbles painted up its side, and look through the book shelves. They were recessed into an alcove on the right-hand side of the room, teak planks reaching to the ceiling.

When there were adults in the room, I would concentrate on the lower shelves, a row of coffee table books on art and Pakistani archeology, a set of Will and Ariel Durant’s encyclopedic Story of Civilization, various slip-cased editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and a Punch annual from 1954.

But when the adults were distracted or absent from the room, I would clamber onto the cabinets beneath the shelves so I could study the topmost shelves. There were the ‘grownup books’: fat, sexy novels by Harold Robbins and Henry Miller, chunky bestsellers by Robert Ruark,  William Golding, Nikos Kazantzakis, and James Jones. These top shelves were where I first discovered Gerald Durrell, Irving Stone, Richard Gordon, and Paul Gallico. I’d stand on the narrow ledge, my head grazing the ceiling, my eyes skimming back and forth across the spines.

yellow-books1More than forty years later, I still remember all the publisher imprints, ingrained in my skull from staring so hard at the jackets of all those illicit books. Penguins in orange, blue and green, Faber and Faber, yellow jacketed book from Gollancz, Corgi paperbacks, and the gorgeous bindings of the Folio Society.

My grandfather had a second library, in his brown office, so-called to distinguish it from the white consulting room where he examined patients and kept his gleaming steel tools behind the glass-doored of white enameled cabinets.

The Grandmaster
The brown office was a dark and cozy study that smelled of the tobacco he kept in a glass caddy and his row of burled oak pipes. It had two deep leather armchairs, heavily shaded lamps, wooden blinds and walls covered with framed photos from the Maharajahs and Maharanis that he’d treated, plaques and groups photos from his tenure as the Grandmaster of Pakistani Freemasons and the President of the Rotary.

These shelves were stocked with medical books in German, Italian and English, full of plates and diagrams of biopsied organs, tumors, amputations, and the unfortunates who presented with them. There was a series of books with acetate inserts that let me flip through slices of the human body, exposing the skin, the organs, the viscera, the skeleton, with each turn of the page. And there was Gran’s prized possession: a first edition of the collected works of Freud, in German, eleven volumes in stern blue.

As my grandfather worked at his desk, I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and slowly turn the pages of his medical school scrapbook, a heavy, black book with thick grey pages containing deckle-edged photos of his patients and their infirmities. An old woman with a goiter the size of a watermelon. A man with a moustache and no nose. Twins with matching tumors. A young girl with knocked-knees and no clothes. I still own that scrapbook and it still has the power to stir me with its voyeuristic perversity.

I haven’t been in my grandparents’ house since 1970. But I can still remember the sequence of the books, the smell of the bindings, the illicit thrill of reading books I was far too young to understand. The pages of books still provide most of the important experiences and enduring memories of my life.