By the Sea

The copyright on quaint bookstores and their eccentric or idiosyncratic owners rests firmly with the Brits. There’s no end to the stories, of some reader wanting to know about a book which mentioned the only citing of a butterfly in 1787; some fan of Richard Burton (not the actor who also doubled off and on as Ms Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth and/or sixth husband, but the daring explorer-cum-geographer-cum-orientalist and prolific writer who translated The Arabian Nights and wrote the extremely knowledgeable foot-notes on the esoteric and erotic practices of the Arabs) who is looking for the legendary paper that he’s supposed to have written about homosexuality in the Sind Province in the 19th century, or the extraordinarily formal yet intimate correspondence between some lady looking for a book and a lonely and reserved bookshop keeper which gets turned into a play and then into a movie.

While readers from major Indian cities are bound to have stories of old and second-hand bookshops where they found extraordinary books and ran into wonderful book-lovers, I’m afraid on the whole, Bombay is a desert when it comes to great bookstores. But until or turned up, we managed with what we had.

In the good old days when the whole family got dressed in their Sunday best to go to a movie, there was a cinema house at the southern end of Bombay called Strand.(I looked up ‘strand’ years later and discovered that it signified the shore of a sea, lake or a river.)The aptly named local Strand was a stone’s throw from the Arabian Sea or if one preferred to be grandiloquent, then on the shoulder of the Indian Ocean. Our colonial masters had brought the word with them and now that they had departed, they left it stranded on alien soil.

Like Metro, Eros, Regal and Excelsior, it showed only English films but unlike the rest of them, it had one rather odd feature. There was a tiny bookstall inside, which borrowed its name from the cinema house. A rather nondescript man stood at the stall, catering to the occasional cinema-goer who would stroll over before the film started or stepped out during the interval. I never got around to asking him if he stuck around till the intermission of the last show and whether business hours depended entirely on the timings of movies, or whether the stall opened even when the theatre did not.

“The chains like Crossword or Landmark may have introduced book launches and book readings but books are merely a pretext for CDs, DVDs, electronic gadgets and toys.”

By the time I went to college, it had moved out to a lane off Phirozeshah Mehta Road. The cinema theatre would close down time and again before being finally laid to rest. But the Strand Book Stall went on to become one of the most noteworthy institutions in the city. I’m inclined to think that as the years passed, the word stall retained a sentimental value and had nothing to do with the goodwill of the old name. Mr Shanbag, the lone salesman-cum-owner at the cinema began to wear a suit and a tie and turned portly and loquacious with his favourite customers. While all around in the downtown area, lackadaisical book shops like Tarporewalla, Thackers, and other sleepy bookshops with bored and uninterested salespeople were folding up, Strand was fast turning into the hub of the book business in the metropolis.

Sometime later, Strand would open a branch in Bangalore that occupied an entire floor but for some inexplicable reason, never moved from its crammed Bombay premises even as large bookchains entered the market in the nineties. On the face of it, it would appear that Mr Shanbag was fighting a lone heroic battle to preserve and spread the culture of reading in the city. He sold all the books in his shop at a twenty per cent discount. This was by no means an insubstantial price reduction, since it cut into the shop’s profits (though I would have personally preferred an additional eighty per cent knocked down from the price). In another move to keep ahead of the competition, Strand invented the annual sale where it offered discounts of up to forty percent. But Shanbag, who was awarded a Padmashree for his services to the culture of reading, was first and last a shrewd businessman. He kept a smattering of new books, but the greater part of the collection in the shop (I suspect over ninety percent) comprised remaindered books bought blindly in lots.

Let me not be ungrateful. This is where I chanced upon Halldór Laxness’ Fish Can Sing, James LeoHerlihy’sMidnight Cowboy, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Something Happened, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat, Oscar Lewis’s pioneering studies of The Culture of Poverty and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow books. Frankly, most of my extremely limited reading was provided by Strand. And yet I must confess Strand was not exactly my favourite bookstore. In a city starved of good books, Strand was certainly an oasis but it’s a crying shame that the so-called maximum city does not, to this day, have a world-class bookshop.

There were gems embedded from almost every discipline in the world, yet no section was remotely comprehensive. There was never any order or system at work. Stepping into the store was stepping into chaos. The salespeople were helpful but if you were looking for something specific, all you could do was go through a mere five or seven thousand books. If the gods of random schematics and helter-skelter were in good humour on that given day, you found it within a few minutes, an hour or in the next seven days of assiduous searches.

The chains like Crossword or Landmark may have introduced book launches and book readings but books are merely a pretext for CDs, DVDs, electronic gadgets and toys. Crossword proudly told its clientele recently to ‘Think beyond books’. Bombay has always been a little too puffed up and conscious of its reputation as the commercial capital of the country, but in the early post-independence years it also had some claims to being a centre of education and the arts. This was where the famous classical singers and other great musicians performed at the All India Radio auditorium. It had an extremely lively amateur Marathi theatre along with a booming commercial theatre. And believe it or not, the mother of page three and all the crass glitterati and celebrity gossip had in those days the Chief Editor of the paper, none other than Shyamlal who wrote often about Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and notable philosophers and their varying theories in the middles or op-ed section, as they came to be called. The same newspaper had a regular book page. Khushwant Singh at the Illustrated Weekly not only steered one of the liveliest magazines but encouraged writers from all over the country to contribute.

But like the political leadership in a country, we get the bookstores that we deserve. In case of Mumbai what we get is mostly airport reading. Shanbag’s death has left a permanent vacuum for those few who still like to read. Mumbai is now able to openly live its free market, capitalist dream. When you can make money hand over fist, when you can drop anywhere between five to fifteen thousand on a meal in a five-star hotel, when your noveau-riche tastes go beyond what was considered stratospherically obscene wealth, how, in God’s name is there going to be any money left over for something as irrelevant as books?

Even I am aware that my nostalgia and ranting are singularly misplaced. It’s close to six hundred years since Gutenberg printed the first book. I have no idea when the first bookstore came into existence and where. Five to six hundred years is a fairly long time for books to have been around. We all know that reading is a highly endangered species. Plus sooner rather than later Kindle, the I-pad and other electronic readers will make the word ‘book’ itself obsolete. Within another twenty or thirty years, perhaps even earlier, our children are going to ask us the meaning of the word bookstore.

After all, obsolescence is the ruling principle of life. As Keynes so pithily pointed out ‘In the long run we are all dead.’

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