If as a book collector you wanted to choose a particular collecting focus, you couldn’t pick a more difficult and expensive one than the one passionately pursued and nurtured by Bengaluru book collector V R Ferose: acquiring signed material from world leaders.
The first person I thought of when I heard of Dr Abdul Kalam’s demise was this ardent collector whom I knew had many books signed and inscribed to him by our late, former president.
“At the time of Dr Kalam’s passing away,” said Ferose when I wrote asking for his account of getting the President’s autograph, “my relationship with him had gone well past that of an autograph seeker to an admirer of a leader I looked up to for counsel. I had met him on several occasions, the most being the times he graciously agreed to speak at my workplace when I invited him; and the last time I saw him was at his residence. He was unable to come and speak to us, but agreed to a recorded message. I had never seen Dr Kalam so frail, and I felt guilty for making him speak. However, his sheer determination to keep his commitment showed why he was so special. There was never a moment when the thought crossed our mind that he would be no more.”
A senior vice president at a multinational software company, Ferose has another collecting focus, one that could be paired up with the one described: collecting material autographed by Nobel Prize winners. Though it is relatively inexpensive and easy to gather signed books from contemporary Nobel Prize winners, it gets pricey and hard to get hold of autographed material from older and legendary Nobel laureates.
“One of my prized possessions is an autographed photo by Tagore, something that always travels with me like a talisman. And yes, it was expensive and hard to find, but I persisted. Yes, again, acquiring signed material by famous Nobel laureates has been a challenge — financially and bibliographically. But I believe I’ve done well here, and my most recent conquests have been literary laureates... Pablo Neruda, Hermann Hesse, G B Shaw and T S Eliot.”
How did this mania for collecting books signed by presidents, prime ministers, statesmen, world leaders and Nobel winners start?
Like most people, I have a deep interest in Gandhi and my admiration for him translated into collecting things related to him. What I most wanted when I started out is something signed by Gandhi. I was never able to realise this wish until recently, when I finally had the resources and the opportunity to buy a book once signed by the Mahatma. In the years I was hunting for an affordable Gandhi-signed copy, I began looking around for signed material from leaders whose autographs I could afford.
And it isn’t just a matter of affordability, but also availability — where can you find such precious and rare signed material? Perhaps what kicked it off was finding a copy of a book on Gandhi signed by S Radhakrishnan. Once I had this in my possession, there was no stopping me from assiduously looking for other high-end signed books, and I got very lucky in finding some exciting things for attractive prices... books signed by J Krishnamurti, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu... to name just a few.
What has been your recent find here?
It has to be getting hold of an autograph difficult to come by, at least the genuine article: a material signed by John F Kennedy, with an authentic signature.
In the process of pursuing material signed by US presidents, I learnt
something interesting. That, in many cases a book with a president’s signature could be by an autopen — signed mechanically — because a US president presumably doesn’t have the time to personally sign using his own hand! I don’t think our prime ministers and presidents have resorted to autopen yet — at least, I hope not!
What about some fantastic signed material that you wish you had, the kind of thing that collectors fantasise about discovering?
Absolutely. I have a list called ‘Books I Wish I Had’, and the top book in that is something like the following: among the many books on Gandhi I have — quite a few in their first editions — are those by his prolific personal secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar. Now imagine having a book signed by him and Gandhi. What a desirable association copy that would make! It’s this obsessive hunting for a unique copy of a book and not settling for anything less that makes V R Ferose a collector embedded in the best tradition, someone who collects valuable editions and is not just an accumulator of books. A collector in the true sense.