On the Friday that rain and a traffic jam brought Delhi to a
standstill, I was crouching between bookshelves in Priya Market digging out
several J. M. Coetzees that I hadn’t been able to find online. The bookshop was
Fact and Fiction, whose impending closure had been recently announced. That day
was August 7. It eventually closed on August 23.
Coincidentally, Fact and Fiction was the first bookshop I ever visited in Delhi. I had just joined a television news channel yet to be launched, and reporters were being sent out on trial stories. I had accompanied a trainee who was doing a feature on tattoo parlours, and while my colleague filmed a woman who was getting a rose, or it may have been a butterfly, or a heart, inked on her shoulder, I wandered around until the green doors of Fact and Fiction beckoned. I walked away several thousand rupees shorter, and seven books richer. The handwritten bill said just that–“7 books”.
Eight years later, I made my last visit to the shop. I had moved out of Delhi, and my visits to the city had dwindled to about once a year. The bookshop did not look like it was in its final days. A group of people whose clothes, bearing, and conversation indicated they were from the nearby JNU, were looking through the non-fiction section. Someone whose knees occasionally brushed my shoulder was pulling out collections of poetry.
From the counter, where the owner Ajitvikram Singh and his brother sat, I could hear murmurs of a conversation that sounded like a condolence call. “Why did this have to happen, sir? a visitor was saying, as he sipped his coffee. “Kya karen,” the owner said, with a mirthless laugh, “Times are such.” I searched the V. S. Naipaul collection for one of my favourites—A Bend in the River, a book I had tried and failed to find in several bookshops, as well as online.
Hesitantly, I approached the counter.
“Sir, do you happen to have A Bend in the River?” I asked.
Ajitvikram Singh thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. But it will be here tomorrow.” He turned to his brother, “Likho, V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River.”
I was lost for a moment, savouring the texture of one of my favourite words—the onomatopoeic “pang”. To a bookshop junkie, there’s nothing more tender than someone ordering a book just for you. A symphony of memories washed over me—of the owner at Connaught Place’s New Book Depot, Rakesh Chandra, telling me, as I was kneeling on the chessboard floor of his shop on my day off, “I got you that book you wanted last week; Amen, was it? I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t vouch for its quality”; of a store assistant at Waterstones in Covent Garden, who would grin at me every time I went in after we had jointly lamented the unavailability of the not-yet-ubiquitous Haruki Murakami’s books, in the early years of the millennium when you could walk the length of a store without tripping over his work, an absence creating a bond in an unfamiliar space stocked with unfamiliar names; of an Anglo-Indian whose name I never found out, in charge of the books section at Landmark Apex Plaza, who called me every time a book my brothers or I had ordered arrived, with, “Hi, I’m callin’ from Landmark; the books y’all wanted are here. Come get ’em. See ya!” On my farewell visit to Apex Plaza, I pretended not to see him emptying the shelves and packing the books into cartons.
When, during the weekends and summer holidays in college, I squatted among those shelves, he had often slid a wooden stool my way, saying, “Sitten read, ma’am.”
Once, the founder of Landmark, Hemu Ramaiah, passed by and said, “Tell me if you know any literature graduate who wants a job. Good ones, uh? I’m looking for readers.”
“Readers?” I’d asked.
“Yeah, we need to order in books every quarter. So advance readers.”
It had sounded like the most delicious job in the world. By the time I was qualified to apply, Landmark had changed hands. The corner bookstore had become a corporate entity.
t seems that the corner bookshop only has two ways to go. It can bleed until there’s nothing left, and then close, as so many have done–shops with endearingly presumptuous names like The Bookshop and The Bookstore. One passes those spaces every now and again, staring resentfully at the shop fronts of the stores that have replaced them: a fast food joint, a shop that sells helmets, a travel agent, whose façades have grown respectably old in the decade since they ate up those beloved wooden shelves. Or, the corner bookstore can turn into multi-purpose chain stores, one-stop entertainment for the average family—books for the reader, toys for the children, music and movies and magazines with varying target audiences.
When we watched Landmark grow, we didn’t realise we were watching a bookshop die. But when the gifts section and the toys section and the gadgets-and-games section began to encroach into the floor space for books, we should have known that the readers had become less important than the families who terrorised everyone for hours at a time, but made up with their credit cards.
One cannot visit these chains without having a child or three ram into one’s knees every so often, as their parents watch with pride, defiance, or belligerence, customised to your reaction. They’re usually staffed by people who are more clueless than the visitors. It’s bad enough to find Dom Moraes under World Literature and Tahmima Anam—or for that matter, Alaa al-Aswany—under Indian Writing, but I even chanced upon Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom under Children’s Books. I suppose someone who lives in a vacuum could be fooled by the title. I felt a twinge of malicious pleasure thinking of the trauma any of the anarchists screaming as they tore down the aisles and treating my feet like a bouncing castle would face if they were to read that book.
I’ve also suffered the ignominy of conversation with a store assistant who insisted that Anuradha Roy had written God of Small Things.
“I said Anuradha Roy, not Arundhati Roy.”
She looked at me smugly, and pointed at the author’s name for good measure. “Anuradha Roy only, ma’am.”
Even if you brave the ill-informed staff and delve into the poorly-organised sections, chances are that you won’t find the book for which you’re searching, because of the miserable distribution network in India. After the initial hysteria over a bestseller, the book all but disappears. Every time a famous author comes out with a new book, his earlier work is brought down from the attic, and then returned to the matrix of unsold books.
Perhaps the big stores don’t feel the need to keep books in stock. This, after all, is draining the pockets of the little stores. A book is deemed a hit in India when it sells 5,000 copies and a bestseller when it sells 10,000 copies. We don’t buy books. We borrow, or steal.
he idea of owning books was bequeathed to me, with the books themselves, by an ancient built-in cupboard in my grandmother’s house. It was filled with books from the Sixties and Seventies, when my mother and her siblings had won prizes in school and college. The generous bindings held paper so thick it crusted when I, in the idiocy of childhood, made dog-ears for bookmarks. The pages were punctuated by illustrations that evoked the English countryside.
And so I also inherited the notion that books were won not bought. I looked forward to the beginning of the new academic year, when prizes were distributed for the achievements of the last. I always won the prize for English and, if I was lucky, maths, and an all-rounder. My school gave us Higginbotham’s vouchers worth ₹25 for each prize, and two of these were just enough to buy a Wordsworth Classic.
Looking back, I find that the annoying precociousness of my teenage years, when I spoke gloomily of “nihilism” before I could pronounce it correctly, was tempered by the guilty indulgence of reading books more suited to my age. When I was 12, I found The Chalet School in Exile, and bought it because I liked the brown-and-white uniforms, and because the French-sounding name appealed to my admittedly pretentious taste.
Looking forward to this mini-payday, I would spend many afternoons browsing the bookstores, picking out books that to buy next July, futilely “reserving” them by hiding them behind others as we did in the school library, where we had a quota of books that could be borrowed at once. I would look yearningly at the graphic novels, so far beyond my purse. One of the reasons I started working early was to be able to own the books I coveted.
My passion for owning books is at least partially owed to my
dislike of sharing them. Unlike most bibliophiles, I’ve loathed libraries for
most of my life, visiting them only because books were not otherwise accessible
to me. I hate the smell of used books, the sight of the scribbles people leave
in the corners, as if their opinions were so invaluable they must be indelible,
the pages ruined by folding, the spines bent by people I wish were illiterate.
I hate coming across the name of a former owner on the first page of books that
have since been given away for use by anyone who can pay a few rupees. They
remind me of pets abandoned at shelters by capricious owners who decided to
move cities. Maybe the former owners of the books had the best intentions.
Maybe they had no descendants, or none who cared to read. But the least one
could do, in my opinion, is to ensure that a treasured book has a good home,
not one where it is traded for money every week.
Even more than libraries I abhorred DTP centres where the literature departments of various colleges essentially pirated books, paying 25 paise a page for the mass production of spiral bound volumes, for distribution to aspiring nuns and aspiring housewives, the core population of a literature programme.
I would save up my birthday money to spend on the reading list for each semester, and—to the wrath of my classmates, and chagrin of my teachers—refuse to lend my copies to the DTP centre for piracy.
here are those who say the damage to book sales in corner bookstores by libraries and piracy is far less than that wrought by e-commerce. Often I’m accused of being maudlin by others of my generation who have switched to digital books, or who prefer online portals to bookshops.
For the longest time, I resisted the discounts on Flipkart
and Amazon, not because of lofty ideals about saving bookshops with my little
contributions, but for a pragmatic reason—I cannot read books with the tiniest
flaw in appearance: a dog-ear, a folded page, a bent cover, a broken spine; so
minutes comparing all the copies a bookshop has of a particular title, to choose the most pristine. I didn’t trust e-commerce websites to do that job. A friend assured me, however, that books arrive undamaged, and can be exchanged failing that. This is mostly true.
But there was a more whimsical reason for avoiding online purchase. The process seems so cold, so bereft of sight and smell. I was never one to buy books solely on the recommendation of reviews and the names of authors. I don’t read reviews until I’ve finished a book. With a quarter century of reading behind me, I do know which authors I like. Yet I treasure the surprise of being drawn to a book by its aura, its cover and title. I remember the thrill of discovering authors for the first time by reading a few pages into their books.
I remember the embarrassment of finding out later that some of them were Nobel Prize winners. When I was 15, I bought One Hundred Years of Solitude because of the image of a tonsured, white-clad woman levitating, in a corner of the cover, and because I liked the name “Aureliano Buendía”. I bought My Name is Red for the miniature art on the cover. I bought The Famished Road for the image it evoked, a maleficent road tripping up the innocent joy of the red-clothed boy.
How, on the Internet, would I hear the susurrus of fresh pages, and savour the elusive scent of newsprint and porous paper and something else, something I came to understand as the smell of writing? How would I look into the eyes of the author in the photograph on the dust jacket, and decide whether this was someone I wanted to read?
Perhaps it was in these bookshops that I found my calling,
that I realised my life would always be contained among these shelves.
Higginbotham’s, where I would stock up on Amar Chitra Katha while my
mother lost herself in the Medical Books section; Landmark, where the shelves
shrank from twice my height to just below my shoulder over 20 years; Discovery,
where my brothers would buy The Hardy Boys mysteries and shun Nancy Drew, only
for me to tell them they were probably written by the same person; Giggles,
where it seemed a pile of books could fell you by crashing down on your head at
When my first book was published, I made discreet trips to
these stores, stealing photographs of my baby on the bookshelf. When I began to
attend literature festivals, and meet authors I had first encountered as names
on covers, I would experience the magic of watching a loved character emerge
from books. Visits to bookshops became a quest to relive those moments. I would
linger at the shelves that contained the work of idols-turned-friends; I would
look for the books of friends, and friends of friends, who had recently been
published, knowing how much they would treasure that illicit in-store photograph. I remember how the writers who now greet me by name, and sometimes sign my copies of their books with only their first names, and a personal message, seemed so far away when I first sat by these shelves.
hom do we blame, I thought, as I walked among those shelves one weekend carting baskets filled with books to my car. I had spent three hours at the Spencer Plaza Landmark, which was selling books at a 90 per cent discount. I made several trips between counter and car park. I tried to feel good about giving the four gigantic bagfuls of books a happy home. I almost welled up, though, as I looked at the quotes on the iconic carry bags I cannot buy again. I remembered the book launches where people crowded into every crevice, waiting for autographs from Ruskin Bond, Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith.
It didn’t have to be this way, I thought. Why was Landmark shutting down? Why had Oxford given up? Why had Crossword downsized? Whom, really, do we blame?
It has become rather trendy to romanticise bookshops, and blame ourselves for killing them by choosing to order online. This is only partly true. Yes, e-commerce websites slash prices, but their discounts are usually annulled by the ridiculous delivery charges. Worse, some books are only available in imported editions, three times the price of the Indian ones. The distributors are letting down Amazon and Flipkart the same way they let down the corner bookshops.
In cities like Delhi, a large part of the blame lies with the cost of rental space, which seems to increase exponentially every year. When even large chains are forced to cut corners, how can a little bookshop meet the overheads?
The onus is back on the customer, then. It is not about buying online versus buying in little stores. It is about the decision to buy, rather than borrow. It is about the decision to read a book rather than watch a movie based on it. It is about wondering whether carrying the four books you may read on holiday is actually such a deadweight that you would rather replace them with a tablet and its unlimited capacity for books, though there’s little chance of your reading 10,000 books in a lifetime, let alone on holiday.
The thing about bookshops is that they are so much more than quaint little collections of books, striving to exist in a world gone digital. They build communities around themselves. They allow people to find homes. They foster moments of friendship, seemingly ephemeral exchanges about books that will be suddenly replayed in one’s mind, years down the line. They turn people into institutions. There is no reader in Delhi who is not familiar with Mithilesh-ji of Bahrisons, who recognises visitors when they drop by after years, who climbs up to seemingly unreachable shelves and instantly produces books for which one had been searching in vain for the better part of an hour.
Of course, bookshops are not without their horrific customers. It is they who made me give up my dream of opening a bookshop. They walk in with coffee and ice cream and wraps. They flip through books carelessly, or cough into them. They are the kind of people who say they like books to “look read”, and borrow books from friends, only to lend them to others without asking.
The only positive thing about their existence is the moments of camaraderie they unwittingly create. Your heart lurches as someone drops a book, you glance warily as someone opens a book to the middle page; you find a friend when you encounter your own cross face mirrored on the countenance of someone else, glaring at the offender over another bookshelf. Both of you silently condemn the vandal to being recycled as toilet paper in a future birth.
here are times when I think so many of us relate to the idea of living among books that bookshops cannot possibly die. So many of us have built our homes with books. So many of us have arrived in new cities with two suitcases, which have spilled into five rooms. There are so many of us who, in trying to repack those five rooms, find most of the additions are books. So many of us who own enough books to start libraries. So many of us who wake up with four or five books around our pillows. So many of us who get annoyed when visitors to our homes make straight for the bookshelf in an effort to impress us. So many of us who know we have found a lifelong friend when someone follows the proper private library etiquette and asks permission to look through our books. So many of us who must come in, glowing after afternoons in bookshops, so that someone is bound to say, “Either you’ve fallen in love, or you’ve been buying books.”
There are so many of us writing as well, with varying degrees of success, and varying degrees of skill, the two not always directly proportional.
Surely, then, corner bookshops will survive? Surely ours can’t be the last generation that knows what a corner bookshop is?
In my moments of rage, I curse us all, and the bookshops that have sold out to “market trends”. We brought this upon ourselves, I think, and so did the bookshops.
But my heart breaks at the thought that there will be no place where someone can be lost for hours at a time, finding soul mates between the covers of a book, travelling the world without moving an inch, absorbed in the adventures of people who don’t exist in the conventional sense. My heart breaks at the thought that there will be no place from which one will return home with an armful of books, and surrender to temporary dismay upon being confronted with its spatial realities. My heart breaks at the thought that I won’t stare, arms akimbo, at my overflowing bookshelf, and then get to work, dragging out clothes and dumping them on sofas so that I can claim another shelf of another cupboard for my books.