Thursday, October 28, 2010

The XI: books that have affected me the most

This is something that I have always wanted to write about. Let me just mention here that this is not a list of the best I've ever read: these are the books that have affected me the most over the years.

I had a tough time leaving out several books that I've read and re-read dozens of times, but did not match the impact of this XI. So, no Shakespeare, no Jane Austen, no Agatha Christie, no Grimm Brothers, no Mother Goose, no O Henry, no Maupassant, no Oscar Wilde, no Chekov, no Gogol, no Hemmingway - not even Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne or Asimov. I briefly considered including Enid Blyton, but decided otherwise in the end. Also excluded are Bangla books, which shall appear as a separate entry.

I considered putting them alphabetically, then according to their impact on me, but finally I settled upon the chronological order of them coming to my life.

Also, this is not going to be a book review article. This is supposed to be personal: my take on these books, and an account of how these books helped change my life.

1. When Daddy was a Little Boy, Alexander Raskin
I have no recollection about getting this book. It was probably my parents from a book fair, but it could've been anyone else as well. This was the first book I remember to be obsessed with. I read it from cover to cover in seemingly infinite loops.

The book was a very simple one: it was basically stories of a father, as told to his son (that's my gender bias for you). The unusual bit was that they were narrated in the third person, and every chapter started with "When Daddy was a little boy...". One might argue that it was possibly told by someone else about the father, but the narrations were so vivid that I won't accept the theory.

The stories reached out to this six-year old in a surprisingly uncomplicated way, and yet me think about life. Somehow Moscow of a bygone era metamorphosed into Kolkata of the 1980s, and "daddy" somehow started living next door.

It's out of print (for whatever unfathomable reason) these days, and whatever second-handed versions are available online cost $200-odd. Can anyone send me even a photocopied version? Please? There's a chunk of my childhood captured in that book that I'm desperate to get back.

There was only one story that actually mentioned Daddy's name. I have been dying to ask this question to everyone, but unfortunately no one I know has read the book. The name is Sasha.

2. Mathematics Can be Fun, Yakov Isidorovich Perelman
One of the salient features of the 1980s was the stream of Russian books infiltrating the Kolkata book market. Right from that mouth-watering magazine called Misha to the outrageously discounted computer programming books, you couldn't find a single book-stall that sold English books but didn't sell translated Russian books.

My affinity towards numbers can be broadly classified into two eras: before and after Perelman. Years of formal education and thick volumes of books could not achieve what this single hard-bound off-white book could: it actually got me to think in numbers.

The book turned out to be immensely popular among my classmates as well, and led me to buy Physics Can be Fun as well, which wasn't really half as interesting.

This book taught me about logarithms when I was nine or so. I couldn't understand a single thing and skipped the chapter. A few years later, when I actually read the chapter for the first time, I was amazed how easy and elegant it was compared to Messrs. Das-Mukherjee, Bhanja-Ganguly and S N De.

3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
This should possibly have come lower down the order: though I had read this book at a very young age, I never really appreciated its worth till I was, well, 20+.

It's a common occurrence that there are incidents that make people change their mindset for the rest of their lives. Though not an occurrence that common, there are books that make some people do the same. The Little Prince did the same to me.

It taught me which aspects of life are really important and which overhyped ones are not. It told me of life. It told me to love deserts. It also told me why I should take it seriously if my daughter ever draws a hat. It was this book that made me laugh and cry simultaneously at possibly the thirtieth back-to-back reading in a self-inflicted confinement in a hostel room in Delhi. Wipe tears. Laugh out loud. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

All these years I was under the impression that I shall never come across another Exupéry book. I did, finally, and very recently. During a recent nocturnal DVD viewing of Shukno Lonka at a friend's I saw Sabyasachi Chakraborty at a book-stall, ogling a Ritwik Ghatak book. The book that lay next to it was indeed an Exupéry book (possibly Flight to Arras, though I'm not sure). Obviously I made them rewind to the scene and pause. Yes, I am insane.

4. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles John Huffam Dickens
I clearly remember that this was our, well, rapid-reader in Class VII. The abridged version had a yellow spine. I immediately went to Apex in Lake Market and borrowed the original version, and read it some 30-40 times in quick succession. If asked to list books that formed my adolescence, this one would definitely top the charts.

What made the book incredible is the unbelievable assortment of character and their multiple dimensions. All that, amidst the vivid description of The French Revolution and the two cities that have captured my imagination the most, took the book to the top of my favourites' list. Even at that age (when books I liked and books I was supposed to like were two mutually exclusive segments) Dickens simply catapulted me to Bastille. I mean, it took a special effort to make the sequence of events circa 1789 interesting to a 12-year old in 1989.

My (and everyone else's in my classroom) favourite character from the book was, of course, Sydney Carton. Oh, how we quoted his lines in class! I vividly remember that his most famous quote in the abridged version was "I'm ready to give my life for a life you love". I remember quoting "O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father's face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!" from the original version and becoming an instant hero in my class!

5. The Asterix series, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
I know this is cheating, since a series hardly qualifies as a book. But then, this is my list, and I shall do whatever I feel like.

My first bite at Asterix was possibly at an age of 11 or so. I was bored. I mean, the pictures looked clumsier than Tintin, the contents weren't as mushy as Archie, and the jokes were too obscure for me to comprehend. I shall never forgive the person (come on, coward, speak up if you're reading this - consider yourself lucky that I have no recollection of you) who had asked me to read Asterix at that age; the incident developed an Asterixphobia in me for a period of seven or so years.

I was stuck in a library amidst one of those torrid Nor'westers. There was an elderly copy of Asterix and the Soothsayer (later to be one of my least favourites of the series). I read it. Once. Thought about it for a while. Asked the librarian about the first book of the series. Cancelled the book I was supposed to take back. Returned home with an equally battered copy of Asterix the Gaul. My life changed from that point of time.

It took me three libraries (two of them in two hostels in two different cities) and a few borrows to finish them off. Once I had a job, it took me a few years to spend serious hard cash on the entire series. It was entirely worth it.

What does Asterix mean to me? Let me put it this way: if I'm ever down, seriously (and when I say seriously I usually mean it) down, I simply pick up my copy of Asterix in Britain or Asterix the Legionary (those two are my personal favourites, along with Cleopatra, The Goths and Switzerland). True, it does take a few minutes, but Goscinny has always been the perfect healer. Always.

There's another aspect of being an Asterix fan: on the nth re-read (where n is often a very large natural number) you come across a gem that you had missed out on the previous (n-1) occasions. When the thing actually hits you, it's quite possible for you to exceed all known bounds of ecstasy, and would make you call, email, scrap, message or whatever earthly way there is to all Asterix fans around you. If there isn't any, it might make you do the same to anyone around you, even someone who might ask "you mean asterisk, correct?"


This is a perfect example: it took me about 34 reads to get this.

6. Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl
This was during my graduation years. I went to a friend's, and she was not at home (remember, this was the pre-cellphone era). She had asked me to wait. I looked around and found a battered copy of Kiss Kiss. The first story was called The Visitor.

As the story reached its climax I had (possibly) stood up in anticipation. Oh, how desperately I wanted my friend to return late! The story ended. And left me gaping for more. I got mad: Why, oh why did he not explain everything? Why did he have to leave me with my tongue out, gasping for more, desperate to know exactly what happened, dying from a kind of suffocation that the story ended at that point of time?

And that wasn't all, either. I couldn't sleep that night. Visions of the story kept coming back. I had borrowed the book, of course. And as I kept on reading Georgy Porgy, Pig or the others I woke up in cold sweats at the middle of the night. I needed a word to describe these stories, but my limited vocabulary didn't permit me. It took me a purchase of Collected Short Stories of the author. The word was mentioned on the back cover: MACABRE.

A few years back Sanjay Gupta directed Matrimony, the first story of Dus Kahaniyaan. This was lifted straight from Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, and Dahl was not acknowledged anywhere. This made me so mad that I couldn't bring myself to like the other nine stories as well.

7. Father Brown cases, Gilbert Keith Chesterton
When I was in Class VII or VIII we had to do a small project on detectives. Nothing much, just filling up a scrapbook (for the uninitiated, this was a rather large book with thick pages of multiple colours where you were supposed to glue stuff) with texts and pictures. I remember Anandamela timing it brilliantly by launching an issue with world detective stories as the cover story, and all of us surprised the teacher by submitting scrapbooks with more or less identical images.

Anyway, this was when I was introduced to some people I had never heard of before: Sherlock Holmes was fine, but who exactly were August Dupont, Dr J E Thorndyke, Perry Mason and Father Brown? I did meticulously copy the names to my scrapbook, but my bibliophile curiosity remained unsatisfied.

Then, in a library in the Delhi hostel, I spotted a Father Brown Stories Collection. I did grab it, skipped evening coffee at Tanku's with friends and got started on it.

The first story was called The Blue Cross. The climax, well, HITS you on your face. That obvious? And yet, that inconspicuous? I mean, what kind of a story is this? This was unlike anything that I used to know as a detective story! This was too absurdly good to be true!!

That was the only time that I had ever carried a book to dinner in a hostel. And stayed up till four or five, ignoring the newly found goldmine called Yahoo! Chat.

He has remained a constant re-read of mine over the years. Till date whenever I hear the word detective I do not think of a man with a pipe or a violin or a Belgian with a non-trivial moustache. It's always the priest with a round face.

Barring trivial exceptions, there are two factors that make Chesterton the greatest writer of thrillers ever:
1. Father Brown was by far an unremarkable, unnoticeable character. He was a priest, to start with; but a priest who was rational enough to think on the lines of "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." He was never a standout the way Holmes or Poirot was. He could easily be the person whom you have laughed at today morning because a storm inverted his umbrella. Just an ordinary person with rational, intuitive skills.
2. The simplicity of the solutions despite the bizarreness of the stories. There was never a Moriarty. There was hardly an assault on the man himself. The storylines were almost always singular (well, at least for the best stories), and yet, when the man explained things himself, it didn't seem as far-fetched as most of Miss Marple's or Holmes' solutions.

Still haven't read Father Brown? Read his first story here or here (just in case you think I'm asking you to do something illegal, Chesterton's copyright has expired fourteen years back). I'd be surprised if you aren't hooked.

8. The Harry Potter series, Joanne K Rowling
The Graffiti, in those days, used to publish the list of the ten most sold English books every week. There used to be all four Harry Potter books on the list, week after week (and one of them was had a word that looked vaguely like Azerbaijan).

Who was Harry Potter? I tried checking the books at Emami Landmark. They were too expensive for comfort, and too thick to be finished undisturbed while standing in the bookstore. Bloody overhyped foreign books, I thought.

When I visited this country in 2001, the nine-year old daughter of a colleague of mine coaxed me into reading Book One. She insisted that it was fun, despite being about magic, witches and wizardry.

Let me give it a try. What the hell, I was doing nothing worth a mention, given that I didn't have a laptop those days. So I started on it after dinner. And went to bed at about three. After finishing it. And didn't return it the next day, since I had a read it again. I saved $80 on that trip, and spent a quarter of that next day on the first four books. The jetlag helped, and it took me less than a week to finish them.

Now that I own all seven (the last three pre-ordered from Fabmall/Indiaplaza), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages and Tales of Beedle the Bard, I think I should also mention here here that I used to be a daily visitor to Mugglenet, The Harry Potter Lexicon and JKRowling.com from 2002 through 2009 - in quest of rumours or news about the upcoming book - or to research the character name etymologies (why Remus? why Lupin? why Sirius? who was Hermione? what does Dumbledore mean? who was Fawkes? what is Erised?) or some equally important stuff (what does all that Latin mean? what was the text on the Mirror of Erised stand for?). I got sorted online into houses (mostly Ravenclaw) and read gigabytes worth of fanfiction text.

I also came out with flying colours in all the online quizzes. You see, it's not for nothing that I have read all books of the series at least five times each. Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, well, possibly ten times each. Thanks for everything, JKR. Thanks for giving me back the vigour of my college days.

There are numerous curious observations from the series. The best two, though, come from my least favourite of them: Order of the Phoenix (I found both on the internet). "They climbed a flight of stairs and entered the "Creature-Induced Injuries" corridor, where the second door on the right bore the words 'DANGEROUS' DAI LLEWELLYN WARD: SERIOUS BITES."


Try to visualise the signboard, now. It possibly looked something like this:
Now take the first towrd of each line: if you think it's Creature Dangerous Dai Serious, read again; and again; and again. If you get the giveaway hint, don't yell.

And then, when they started the battle at the ministry, the prophecies were smashed. From one emerged two figures, and this is what happened:
'… at the solstice will come a new …' said the figure of an old, bearded man.
'… and none will come after…' said the figure of a young woman.



The fans got curious as soon as JKR announced the release date of Deathly Hallows. Yes, she admitted later on that she had indeed predicted the release of Book Seven on Summer Solstice.

9. The Ultimate Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Noel Adams
It was navy blue in colour. The cover page said FIVE NOVELS IN ONE OUTRAGEOUS VOLUME. There was a picture of a creature with a green blob for its head; its tongue sticking out; a briefcase dangling from one hand; the other balancing a hat on its head.

WTF, I thought, and started. The About the Author took off with "He was tall. Very tall."

WTF, I thought again. The story started with a one-page introduction that ended in narrating vividly about what a girl in Rickmansworth thought one day. And the page ended with a line that said "This is not her story.

Huh?

I decided to leave for work after five (smallish) chapters. I couldn't. The first sentence of the sixth chapter caught my eye. It said "Howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl gargle gargle howl gargle gargle gargle howl slurrp uuuurgh should have a good time."

Three hours later I realised that I was late for work for the first time. And I wasn't even a permanent employee then. And I reached after lunch, and made up a story which no one possibly believed.

It was English like I've never read before. It defied all the norms of literature, countered classical writing in all possible ways and took into permanent custody life, the universe and everything that I had. When quizzed about who my favourite author is (yes, I know what I'm saying) I don't wait for a single moment.

My life changed from that day. Yes, there are two distinct categories of people, and you know how to classify them. I thought in terms of 42. I read all Dirk Gently stories - all 2.5 of them. And The Deeper Meaning of Liff. And The Salmon of Doubt. And even Last Chance to See, a book no one I know has read.


In case you're still not aware, Last Chance to See has the following line:
"We were walking through the only known anagram of my name - which is Sago Mud Salad."


Find me another author who can come up with this in a non-fiction book.

10. 10 for 66 and All That, Arthur Alfred Mailey
There had to be one cricket book in the list, correct? I thought very hard over this. Would it be the Sunny Days, memoirs of the man I considered God a quarter of a century back? Would it be A Farewell to Cricket? It would take someone more above my intellect to fall in love with Beyond a Boundary, and (I know this might be considered blasphemy) I don't rate Cardus as highly as some people do.

I remember reading a Bangla translation of this online at a very young age. Little did I know that this was an excerpt from an autobiography. Then I came across the original text. Yes, it was a re-read. And yes, I still had a lump in my throat as I read it, especially the dove bit. At that point of time I knew I had to own it, or at least, read it.

I went out on a wild search. This was one of the rare occasions when College Street had failed me. Why, no one had even heard of the book! I searched online, and could find second-handed versions on British and Australian websites.

What good was that supposed to be?

I have seldom craved for any single thing so strongly. The fact that Guha listed the book among his fifty top books in The Picador Book of Cricket simply added to my agony.

What the hell, there MUST BE a way to get that freaking book!

Then I got to know that the only person I knew from UK was supposed to come home. My heart did a JLH (3) H (2), and I promptly asked him for a favour. Or rather, the favour.

One of the limited aspects life has somehow managed to teach me successfully is the fact that when you finally get something after a lot of craving and anticipation, it often turns out to be an anticlimax. Well, this turned out to be an exception.

A great sportsperson doesn't necessarily make a great author. You can't really blame them - I mean, they're already excellent at something, mastering another profession might be asking too much of them!

Mailey was special. Not only was he one of the all-time greats, he was also incredibly lucid on his desk. And by that I do not simply mean the text - let's not forget he used to be a champion cartoonist as well. The entire book is one to be treasured, and there is no doubt whatsoever that it's the crown jewel in my cricket library of over a hundred books.

His first encounter with Trumper. The evening when he had BOTH Trumper and The Don at his place for dinner (see, I'm getting goosebumps as I write this). His twelve or so professions. Not many people can laugh at himself while recounting a spell of 64-0-362-4. Mailey did.

There was once a pub argument between Cardus and Mailey (just think of the names!). The former claimed that he could read Mailey's googly. A tennis ball was conjured, and the group moved to Picadilly Circus. Mailey bowled with his dinner jacket on; it was tossed up, the ball looped, Cardus moved to his right, the ball pitched and went towards Leicester Square.

I was at London last year. When I came out of the Tube Station at Picadilly Circus everything else eluded my eye, even that Sanyo billboard. I simply asked a passer-by which way Leicester Square was.

Yet another of those moments, guys. Life suddenly became worth living once again.

11. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
This isn't even Rand's best book in my opinion. The Fountainhead is, and even We The Living is at least at par (I haven't read Anthem yet). But Atlas Shrugged was the first Ayn Rand I ever read, and remains the most special of them all.

Like most people I had borne thoughts and ideals from a very young age. The catch was, they were what would generally be drubbed as parts of a selfish, or at least a self-centered philosophy. At times I felt so isolated that I had a seriously low self-esteem as far as priorities were concerned.

Then came Ms Rand.

I learnt that whatever I had been thinking of all those years actually had a name. It was termed objectivism. Quoting from the book, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Why did the world keep you from me all these years, woman? Where were you hiding? And even you did, why did you let Dagny Taggart remain a stranger to me? Did I ever fall more in love with a character from a book? Shall I? Ever? I doubt.

With this book Rand put the much-needed self-belief back into me. I know now that I wasn't wrong. The others were, or maybe they were right as well. But with Ms Rand and her objectivist clan behind me, who cares a damn? Or rather, who is John Galt?


I was so enthralled by the book that I put up "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" as my Facebook (or was it Orkut?) status. One of my friends pointed out that it was possibly because I was heterosexual, and I wouldn't really replace man by woman in the same sentence. I was dumbstruck at this new angle.

***

PS: The following would remain in the squad, but would not get a chance. All of them remain fabulous books, some possibly better than a few on the list, but then, they haven't altered my life to that extent:
To Kill a Mocking-Bird, Nelle Harper Lee
The Jungle Book, Joseph Rudyard Kipling
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Gabriel Verne
The Tintin Series, Georges Prosper Remi a k a Hergé
The Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov

***

PS 2: Coming up soon - a similar list of Bangla books, as promised above.

21 comments:

  1. nice post, that should appeal to a select audience. knowing you (in whatever limited capacity), half of the list did not surprise me. but what caused me some joy is the appearance of Dahl.

    and now, I MUST read Ayn Rand - I'm no longer enjoying being the odd person out.

    looking forward to the Bangla list...

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  2. I HAD to comment on this post Abhi.. YOU kept motivating me to read... and now I am so addicted to my books - Never got a chance - so just wanna say THANK YOU. I wanna read Kiss Kiss and The Little Prince....Hopefully should be able to get them here. BTW... Great post.. Also I wish I was Asterix.. at least had the healing power...

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  3. oshombhob bhlao post...ekta thank u prapyo...

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  4. Liked your list. Asterix the Legionary is my favourite too, along with Cleopatra. I love The Fountainhead too, though I am ashamed to say I picked it up as late as 2005.

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  5. Abhishek's all-time XI is a list that much resonates. 1, 2, 10- never read. Might check out 2 at the time I acquire my copy of 'what-to-expect', so that my kid/s get to know Perelman. so not anytime soon.

    3- features on my all-time XI too ! I once bought a LP calender and still have the pics.

    4,5- no comments, though I do love 5.

    6- RD is all time favorite. I have been eyeing the omnibus on amazon. Sad they don't have diwali bonus for ass profs.

    7- Love father brown, but haven't read too many.

    8- HP, I am sad to say, but they did not leave much of a mark. Excellent work sure, but not as life-altering as 9.

    9- is is is...anything I say would belittle the greatest work...so...

    11- did you know that AS and FHead were bestsellers during the recent recession? I liked some of the ideas when I was younger, more impressionable. Now I am a peer-reviewed/peer-reviewing cynic. The writing is abysmal though.

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  6. how about english, bangla and hindi movie elevens while you are at it. but serious ones only plz...no gunda-s and govinda-s.

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  7. Haha, yet another Father Brown fan! Koto kom lok Father Brown porey, it's a crying shame.

    Aar you like Ayn Rand jene aektu dukkhito holam. I detest Ms. Rand's ideology and reject it on the premise of completely failure when employed in reality, although it does sound perfect inside the controlled theatre of our brains.

    But, no matter. If everyone had similar tastes the world would be a very boring place indeed.

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  8. Darun ar khub helpful lekha

    Abhishek da Father Brown porte debe bolechhilo, deyni!
    Atlas Shrugged er khetreo eki rakom obhiggata..

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  9. Hostels are rarely the quietest selection of accommodation.

    Hostels in Cordoba

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  11. The Russian books - I so loved them! Ditto on a few of these - Atlas Shrugged, Little Prince, Harry Potter and of course, Asterix. Where is the list of Bangla books?

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  12. Online Bengali Book Shop, Largest online store of Bangla Boi : - Poetry Stories / Novel Travel Comics Biography Detective / Thriller Astrology / Bastu Cook Book

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  13. Haven't read a lot of them,(except potter, of course) actually most of them , but your writing has a very curious quality of bringing my 1980s and childhood memories alive for me.

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  14. Dear Avi,
    I don't know you.
    I also did not know about your blog.
    I just happened to stumble across your blog in my quest to get hold of a copy of Algebra Can Be Fun by Ya Perelman.
    However,going through your blog has been a rewarding and enriching experience,and i'm glad the internet introduced you to me.(does this come any close to 'serendipity'?....i wonder..)
    We share common likes and that emboldens me to reach out to you and ask you whether you know where in Kolkata i can get hold of the entire series by Perelman,and if you do,would you be kind enough to share the information with me?
    Please write to me at kausikdoc@gmail.com or getdrkb@gmail
    I DID find the book on landmarkonthenet.com, but the price is something like Rs1800/-
    As far as my recollection goes,i had bought copy of the book in Durgapur in the early eighties for something like Rs50/-!!
    What happened all of a sudden?
    Do keep writing...you are very inspiring.
    Regards,
    Awaiting your reply eagerly,
    Dr.Kausik Basu

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  15. I can't thank you enough for penning this.
    Since you read a lot-and i mean a lot,can you write another book post, telling us of the books you liked the most,from the recently read to the ones that actually defined you.Books that you carry in your heart,that you'd want your daughter to read to plough through life?

    And have you read ' a fine balance' by rohinton mistry,and ' autobiography of a yogi'?

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    Replies
    1. I will keep that in mind. I will definitely do the same.

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  16. WHEN DADDY WAS A LITTLE BOY ebook link:
    http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15497688/Raskin%2C%20Alexander%20-%20When%20Daddy%20Was%20A%20Little%20Boy.pdf

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  17. Abhishek, Happy to bring you back to your childhood.
    http://sovietbooksinbengali.blogspot.in/
    Find here the books of your lost days, specially "baba Jakhan chhoTo" as I read from your reminiscence. Enjoy the childhood regained. (right bottom of the blog has the archive, you need to expand monthwise)

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  18. It was a very pleasant surprise to see Perelman's name on the list. He features on my list as well, though Physics Can be Fun was my favourite. I was given those books by my grandfather. I thought nobody reads those books nowadays.

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