by Malobi Dasgupta
I grew up with a series of hardbound books from Life. The books were on Iraq, the USSR, South Africa, East Germany and Afghanistan.
I loved them because they served a dual purpose. They were sources of beautiful pictures as well as reliable support for tents that my brother and I would build to sleep in.
The books were from my father's world tour as a lad. He had stories about every country. But the most interesting ones were about Iran and Lebanon. Our bedtime stories would mostly be true accounts. How beautiful the women in Iran were, how musical the Persian language was, how wonderful the underwater bar at Beirut was, or how a perfectly good day in Lebanon would be interrupted by a bomb and then everyone would resume their chores as if nothing was wrong.
The books are still in perfect condition. My father preserves books, stamps and photographs. He has sepia-toned pictures of an Air-India plane with art-deco interiors and an air-hostess who looks like Sharmila Tagore complete with a bouffant and a paisley-printed sari - a garment whose demise might well coincide with Air-India's.
He also has photographs of people smoking in a plane to Paris (c'est normal), a dog standing on all fours on a tin-can, the first-ever concert of Mehdi Hassan in India and the streets of Tehran during the days of the Shah.
The world has thirty-four new countries since the books were published. I often read the books because the description of the beauty of Baghdad, in the present tense, is soothing. It leaves me with the feeling that all is well with the world. The captions that run under the pictures of Iraqi women are definitive - "Women in Baghdad are proud and independent" or under a street shot, "Wide tree-lined avenues of modern Baghdad".
In the book, USSR still exists. There are Chechens, but they are not bleeding. Instead they are drinking tea against a very blue sky, laughing, unaware and unconcerned about the future.
There is no country called Namibia yet. So no movie stars are adopting kids from there.
In Afghanistan, the Bamian statues of the Buddha are still towering over the caves. Afghan fruit-sellers are sauntering around India with their wares: large walnuts, almonds and figs. The Taliban does not exist yet and the pollution levels in China are still very low.