A SALUTE TO THE SECOND-HAND BOOKSTORE, The Hindu
 

In twenty years as a workaday writer, I have published several million words, of which only about a thousand have actually helped anyone other than myself. These were contained in an article published in a Delhi newspaper in 1992 after the city’s police commissioner summarily evicted the pavement book stalls in Daryaganj, holding them to be an ‘encroachment’ on public space. Allow me to quote excerpts from what I wrote in response:

Without holding a brief for other forms of encroachment on government land, one can only say that the Daryaganj bookshops are episodic, not permanent; that a weekly bazaar is one of the most charming and widely prevalent features of Indian life; and that in furthering the sale of old books the Daryaganj shops are a public service, rather than a nuisance…. Should the commissioner prevail, an institution as vital to the capital’s cultural life as the Siri Fort or Kamani auditoriums, will be lost forever. I shall feel the loss more keenly than most; since I was a schoolboy, a good proportion of my time, and most of my money, has been spent in second-hand book stalls.
… [F]or many of us, the prospect of Delhi without the Daryaganj bazaar will be too painful to contemplate. As a petty and philistine exercise of power, the police commissioner’s campaign can only be compared to Mrs Maneka Gandhi’s equally mindless drive against performing animals and their owners. That drive was undone by the ballot box, but it is unfortunately the case that bureaucratic ordinances are usually more permanent than ministerial fiats. Perhaps the only course is to remove oneself to Bombay, Calcutta or Ahmedabad.

My essay sparked a wider campaign to save the market, into which were drawn a former Cabinet Secretary who wrote novels and a high-ranking policeman who was also a poet. Thankfully, the order was rescinded, and the market returned. And thankfully, too, police commissioners in other parts of the country have not sought to emulate that act of (luckily redeemable) vandalism.

I grew up in Dehradun, which is a dusty, dirty North Indian town set in gorgeous surroundings. When I think of my boyhood, I think, of course, of pine forests and free flowing rivers, but also of the Kabadi bazaar in town, where miscelleaneous scooter parts and electric gadgets left behind by American missionaries would nestle cheek by jowl with Penguin novels, these usually without covers. My memories of other cities also always involve second-hand books. Ahmedabad for me means the Sunday Market below Ellis Bridge: Bombay the fabulously well-stocked pavement stalls near Flora Fountain; Madras the now dead bookstalls of the now burnt Moore Market; Gurgaon the capacious collection of out-of-print volumes held by Prabhu Booksellers, located deep in the town’s old market.

I live in Bangalore, where is located my favourite second-hand bookstore, Select. This was founded in the late forties by a kindly Kurnool lawyer named K. B. K. Rao. Select has had many locations in its fifty years; it was first in Church Street, then in Malleswaram, then on Mahatma Gandhi Road. It is now in a lane off Brigade Road. I have followed it around everywhere, entering the shop with an empty bag and going away with an empty wallet. In 1979 Mr Rao was joined by his son, K. K. S. Murthy, previously an aeronautical engineer: twenty years later, Mr Murthy was in turn joined by his son Sanjay, who originally trained as an accountant.

It was Mr Rao who first told me of a shop even older than his, the New Order Book Company in Ahmedabad. On my next trip to Ahmedabad I duly went to New Order, but was intimidated by the learning of its founder and owner, Dinkar bhai, and the prices of his books. He was very superior with me, as he needed to be, for he was accustomed to dealing with the Tatas and the Sarabhais. Feeling for my pride and—perhaps more crucially—for my wallet, I chose to patronize the Sunday Market the other side of Ellis Bridge.

Last year I was back in Ahmedabad and, a working man now, walked into New Order. Dinkar bhai was dead, but his work was carried on by his wife, Saroj behn, and her assistant, Leela behn. Judging by the dust and cobwebs I might have been the only visitor there in months. I was allowed to potter around. When I enquired about stuff on Gandhi, I was asked to come home to look at the books there: lunch was also offered. The two ladies gave me a lift, in an ancient Fiat driven by a more ancient driver. En route we made several stops, to allow Saroj behn to buy the roti and sabzi she needed for the unexpected guest.

Saroj behn was very pleased when I told her I owned a copy of New Order’s very good and very scarce reprint of the set of Gandhi’s journal, Young India; Dinkar bhai, she said, had planned also to reprint its successor, Harijan. In fact, some old issues of Harijan lay around the house. I demanded to see them and, when they came, bought them. The prices the lady charged made me deeply ashamed of what I had once felt about her husband.

Once, when we were on holiday in England, my wife expressed a desire to see a ‘typical’ English village. I took her to a place near the Welsh border, typical in its architecture—stone and thatch, untouched since the eighteenth century—and in its setting—by a winding stream with leafy banks, with high hills looking on. However, it was in one respect completely untypical: for this was Hay-on-Wye, the village where every other cottage has been converted into a second-hand bookstore. It was rather naughty of me to take my wife there, but, in the end, she enjoyed herself as much as I did.

It was also at Hay-on-Wye that a friend picked up and passed on to me a limited edition of this John Arlott poem:

A Second-hand Bookshop

The sunlight filters through the panes
Of book-shop windows, pockmarked grey
By years of grimy city rains,
And falls in mild, dust-laden ray
Across the stock, in shelf and stack,
Of this old bookshop-man who brought,
To a shabby shop in a cul-de-sac,
Three hundred years of print and thought.

Like a cloak hangs the bookshop smell,
Soothing, unique and reminding:
The book-collector knows its spell,
Subtle hints of books and binding—
In the fine, black bookshop dust
Paper, printer’s-ink and leather,
Binder’s-glue and paper-rust
And time, all mixed together.

‘Blake’s Poems, Sir—ah, yes, I know,
Bohn did it in the old black binding,
In ’83.’ Then shuffles slow
To scan his shelves, intent on finding
This book of songs he has not heard,
With that deaf searcher’s hopeful frown
Who knows the nightingale a bird
With feathers grey and reddish-brown.

This was written about a bookstore in a small Sussex or Hampshire town, but three lines seem to have been written especially for the Select Bookshop of K. B. K. Rao and K. K. S. Murthy:
‘This old bookshop-man who brought/
To a shabby shop in a cul-de-sac/
Three hundred years of print and thought’.

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