A vanishing world.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One cold afternoon The Delhi Walla knocked at the door of Somini Sengupta, the former South Asia bureau chief of The New York Times. Ms Sengupta, 43, is working on a book and is – in her own words – “busy being a mom.” She shares her second floor apartment in Nizamuddin East, central Delhi, with her husband, Hans van de Weerd, and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nina.
Ms Sengupta’s library consists of about 400 books. “My husband’s collection is sparse,” she says, sitting on a footstool, the reading glasses perched on her nose. “I like to have books with me. I’ve carried them like a big heavy monkey on my back across three continents.” Before arriving in Delhi in early 2005, Ms Sengupta was based in Dakar, Senegal, covering West Africa for the Times. While a carpenter in Dakar made the library’s reading chair, the coffee-coloured wooden shelves were purchased in Delhi.
The books are arranged alphabetically, by the last name of the author: A to S is in the living room, the rest are in the hallway. The collection is eclectic. On one shelf, The Tale of Genji, an ancient Japanese novel, is stacked with Afro-American authors Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. On another, Delhi-based foreign policy analyst C. Rajamohan’s Crossing the Rubicon – The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy rests against a brass pot showpiece.
“This is just one half of the library. The rest is in Amsterdam where my husband works.” Ms Sengupta divides her time in Delhi and the Dutch capital. “The poetry is in Amsterdam. In Delhi, the collection is largely non-fiction.”
Beside books, Ms Sengupta’s shelves display other knickknacks of her life. Nina’s framed portrait faces the old issues of Granta magazine. A Bose Wave radio-CD player sits on a shelf stacked with books that include two paperbacks by historian William Dalrymple. A biography of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray is partially hidden by a small white bust of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the leader of India’s untouchables.
Ms Sengupta’s passion for reading was not inherited from her parents. As their only child till 11, she found company in books. Growing up at a bookless home in California, she depended on public libraries. At the high school in Los Angeles, when girls of her age were daydreaming about John Travolta, the book lover was preoccupied with Leo Tolstoy. She finished Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov “in one go.” “I was nerdy and embarrassed to tell my friends what I would be reading.” At the University of California, Berkeley, she read Karl Marx’s Capital more than once. “It’s an important part of our 20th century history.”
Like most collectors, Ms Sengupta hasn’t read all her books cover to cover. A few she re-reads frequently. “I’ve read Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families several times. It’s a terrific piece of non-fiction journalism. Sometimes I also go back to James Baldwin.” The Afro-American author’s black and white portrait is in the hallway.
A foreign correspondent, Ms Sengupta depended on a few Indian authors to gain a deeper insight into the country. “For my coverage on India, (historian) Ramachandra Guha has been a great guide… so has been (social theorist) Ashis Nandy.”
Books, however, are not the only passion of Ms Sengupta’s life. “I have a greater collection of shoes.”