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Delhiwale: In a Jane Austen lover’s home

Manisha Saluja grew up in a Delhi slum with no books at home. She discovered the joys of reading only after receiving Pride and Prejudice as a prize for coming first in Class 10 Boards.

delhi Updated: Feb 01, 2018 15:10 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
Delhiwale,Dilliwale,Jane Austen
Manisha Saluja at her home in southwest Delhi’s Inderpuri.(Mayank Austen Soofi / HT Photo)

Happy disorder. Viable anarchy. Enticing mishmash. Call it what you want, but the fact remains that finding a book in her private library is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Her bibliophilic mess gets even more delectable when you notice that books written by vernacular Indian authors are piled amid English ones. On the drawing room shelf, for instance, Mahasweta Devi is stacked beside Albert Camus. Rahi Masoom Raza is on the bedside table. Zadie Smith is sitting beside the mirror.

We are at Manisha Saluja’s home in southwest Delhi’s Inderpuri. An assistant professor in Delhi University’s Maitreyi College, Ms Saluja, 34, lives with her husband, a young daughter and about 600 books along with “200kgs of spiral-bound books — because I couldn’t afford to buy those, I borrowed them from libraries and got them xeroxed.”

While snooping around her book-filled home, we realize that Ms Saluja has a passionate relationship with Jane Austen. This makes her dayjob doubly satisfying, since she has been teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the last few academic years. Indeed, she tells us, this is the only Jane Austen novel taught in all the Delhi University colleges (our heartfelt sympathies to Emma fans).

Ms Saluja and the English novelist have been friends for many years. Having grown up in a Delhi slum with no books at home, she discovered the joys of reading only after receiving Pride and Prejudice as a prize for coming first in Class 10 Boards.

At home, such love-story reads were not looked upon favourably. Ms Saluja’s mother, determined to have her child dedicate herself to a promising career, encouraged her to study more lucrative subjects instead of the humanities. This meant that the poor girl often had to read Jane secretly, the novel hidden between hefty Maths books.

Eventually, it was the combined influence of her beloved English writer and “the sophisticated and stylish Shefali ma‘am,” an English teacher in her school, that hurled Ms Saluja towards literature.

Considering the strained circumstances at her parents’ home, our Janeite was plain lucky that her beloved novelist was one of the few English authors available in cheap editions in Delhi. “Otherwise, I would read the great foreign authors in Hindi translations, which were far cheaper,” she says, adding that Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was among the many western classics she first encountered in Hindi.

“Even today, I’m discovering most north European writers through Hindi translations,” she reveals to us, “as the English translations are not always available in India.”

As we probe her further, Ms Saluja half-guiltily confesses that she hasn’t touched any Austen novel apart from Pride for five years. That might change soon. “I have an aching desire to read All Austens again”, she says.

Maybe in Hindi this time?

First Published: Feb 01, 2018 10:22 IST