Lucky enough not to enter a classroom until I was eleven and having lived in a place where the nearest neighbour was a kilometre away, comics and books were an important part of my early years. I can recall books read and exchanged right from six onwards – many of them making me recoil that I actually enjoyed reading, like about some pilot and his sidekick bombing the shit out of natives from his Spitfire. But then, I also clandestinely read Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and Anais Nin to know more about sex, and discovered modern literature instead.
I still remember my school library, like I can recall the exact moment almost, when I discovered that as much as books were important, girls were too, and much nicer than football and motor cycles. I remember my first kiss vividly and the smell of her talcum powder, but here’s the funny part: I can’t think of a bookshop entering my life at all until I was in my early twenties and a year out of college.
So I was in Goa when I got this invitation to write about a bookshop that mattered to me. I didn’t hesitate – it was just like a ‘word association’ test, instinctive, immediate… bookshop – Pune – Manney’s…
As luck would have it, a few days later I’m in a bus heading to Pune.
The bus is air-conditioned, closed, and almost claustrophobic. The seat next to me, the seats in front and behind me, and the two across the aisle, are occupied by a group of guys who work for some call centre in Pune, and who’ve just had a wild weekend in Goa. They are loud, noisy, and boisterous as they reminisce about a particularly wild party at Baga and, as if still under that spell, pass a laced bottle of cola around; the guy next to me contentedly rubs his paunch and adds to the cloying fumes of whisky with an occasional belch that brings up a strong whiff of partially digested methi.
“The relationship took a new dimension just before his bookshop left my life.”
Not that long back, on this same road, you could slide the window open, rest your head on the safety bars and breathe in fresh air that was cold enough to numb your face at night, as the bus took to the first Ghats out of Goa’s northern borders. These days, seats are designed for short persons with big butts and no knees. You get to see your own disgruntled face reflected in plate glass coming from roof down to the waist, a screen showing some Bollywood film or another and the guys next to you partying like they were in a sleazy bar.
I do the next best thing – pull my sheet over my head and peel back time.
Dreaming of Manney’s bookshop in Pune is sad to begin with, and if I could tell the end of the story as I begin, then it was killed twice.
The Manney’s bookshop I knew in the early 70s was housed in a tiled colonial structure with white pillars. On top, there was a lodge where rich students from Iran and Thailand stayed. In the same large compound, touching intersections of the Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar Roads, was also the West End cinema hall where you sat in large cane chairs in the balcony, and ran the risk of being bitten by some vicious bed-bugs; and where, in the stalls below, some forty or so years earlier, my father, who studied in a boarding school close by, paid 6 paisa to watch Nelson Eddie croon with Jeanette MacDonald.
Sometime in the mid-80s, before the Cantonment Board had framed any norms or regulations for building, a few entrepreneurs pulled everything down. In the place of this tranquil if not iconic compound, that almost touched the edge of the road, they put up a towering hotel and several high-rise buildings – none of which you would want to be inside of, in case of a fire breaking out. Manney’s, thankfully, came back in almost the same place.
But it was never the same. It was as if an old turtle had taken off his shell and put on a fiberglass mould. It may also have had to do with the fact that in the early 70s, running away from Goa’s undergraduate climate— not far removed from the middle ages— the old Manney’s was just waiting for me. Maybe it was because I didn’t have enough money to buy books and shamelessly used it as a library. The proprietor then was a tall, fair, skinny guy in his thirties with a huge handlebar mustache you’d associate with a wing commander in the air force. He had piercing eyes, a smile that came on for a split second before it being withdrawn and a furrowed brow taking its place…and yes, perfect enunciation, so perfect you could cut through it with a knife.
It was probably a sign of my own turmoil, but I was deep into existentialism and poetry. This went with the fact that I was teaching at a night school and earning seventy-five rupees a month, eating one meal a day. I’d walk around, take out books, smell them, read a few pages, put them back. Once or twice the guy with the moustache followed me, but kept his distance. Once he came to see if I had put the book back exactly where it was and straightened the books. He nodded in approval. I’d find my way to Camus, Gide, and Sartre, grab a stool and read for about an hour, then walk to the bargain section and guiltily look for a thriller that cost a couple of rupees.
If you do this often enough, I guess you earn the status of a regular. It wasn’t long before I would walk in and the guy with the moustache would keep his smile on just that bit longer. Once he asked me whether I was a poet. No chance I told him, I’m a broke teacher. Same thing he replied, getting back to straightening his books.
The relationship took a new dimension just before his bookshop left my life.
In 1973, if you asked a librarian in a university, let alone a bookshop owner whether they had a book by Chinua Achebe, they’d stare at you blankly. This guy was cool. He twirled the end of his moustache, said, ah yes, you mean Things Fall Apart, um, let me see, yes, yes, I think it’s there on that shelf, fourth row from the bottom, sixth or seventh book from the right. It was.
So that became a bit of a game for me, and he got them all, and had them all on the shelves, all the names I wanted to know about…Beauvoir, Dos Passos, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Neruda, Yevtushenko…and he’d be there, right through that year I spent in Pune, smile on his face, almost gleefully waiting for me to throw names at him. I’d find the books, grab a stool, sit down and read. We never spoke beyond that.
I did go back to the new Manney’s bookshop in the late 80s, but the guy in the moustache was never there.
I reach Pune in a good mood. My fellow passengers, the call centre employees nurse huge hangovers and disembark bleary eyed and groggy. Pune at 6.30 in the morning before the traffic builds, and the sun climbs and the heat mounts is almost pleasant. I plan a trip the next day to Manney’s for old times’ sake.
When I tell this to Ujwala the next day, she laughs bitterly. It’s sold, she tells me. Nonsense I reply, it can’t be sold. Google it, she says. I do, and she’s so right. At the end of January 2012 they had a clearance sale. There are two features on this, both bald, full on fact, but far short of the pathos this tragedy warrants.
I find out that Manney’s was named after Mani, a Sindhi gentleman who opened the shop after partition, well after opening the London Book Company in Rawalpindi in 1928 and expanding his operations by 1939 to include 11 bookshops all the way to Peshawar.
The present owner, his son, is 68 years old. He says he’s tired; he’s been running the bookshop for 48 year without a break and wants to spend time with his children and grandchildren. I call up a friend and find out that the guy with the moustache was his elder brother, who died of cancer. She tried to meet his wife and young son, but they went back to Kolkata, where the wife hailed from.
Manney’s third avatar, keeping up with contemporary aspirations, will be a clothes shop. “I have no regrets,” the present owner told one of the papers, “I know I would be the one to cry the most when that happens.”
I’m not so sure about that.