books and shops

Calcutta, my once and always city of books

'My personal history of Calcutta is a history of books. Browsing, buying, being.'

Twenty-two years after I left Calcutta for good, I suspect some of my memories of the city are planted. I keep the ones I like. And so I am six years old, my fingers held vice-like by my uncle the spectacularly unsuccessful middle-class poet, being taken along to Ashok Book Centre to be bought a book or two. This is a reward for the literary maturity I have displayed a couple of hours ago by referring to a bust of the Buddha as Buddhadeva Bose, a writer whose novels I will go on to translate about forty years later.

At the shop, the kindly, bespectacled, salesman pulls out picture books, ignoring my uncle's instructions to produce fiction suitable for ten-year-olds. I'm eyeing the shiny new volumes of Elinor M. Brent Dyer's Chalet School novels, the world’s most marvellous school because it doesn't even stay in the same place, moving around Europe from one year to the next. When the man behind the counter thrusts his choice beneath my nose, I look upwards at him and say, "Show me the books that my uncle asked you for."

My personal history of Calcutta is a history of books. Browsing, buying, being. And, therefore, of bookshops. Calcutta, to me, is its bookshops. These are my memories as I time-travel through this Calcutta. I remember nothing but books and bookshops.

The accidental bookshop

I don't know it at the age of six, but Ashok Book Hall and all its three siblings on the same pavement ‒ Gyan Sanchayan (Knowledge Storehouse), Sri Chaitanya Library, and Book & Photo Store ‒ will shut down eventually as even Calcutta stops buying books. But it is 1982, and I have deserted their racks stacked with Bengali fiction, schoolbooks, and some English classics, for the temptress across the road followed by a left turn. Walking past the improbably named Frigid Corporation every day, I turn into Modern Book Emporiam (I Empori, therefore I am) ‒ a space of about 250 square feet opposite the local police station, the shelves on the left lined with the finest books that a student of English literature could dream of.

The room is poorly lit. No matter which of the three Tiwari brothers who own the shop is behind the counter, which runs down the right hand side, no one can help me locate a book. The family opened what became south Calcutta's best-stocked bookshop in the 1980s and the early 1990s quite accidentally. Having moved to Calcutta from Bihar in search of an income, they were told that there was an opportunity in picking up books from printers and delivering them to bookstores. The courier service soon became a distribution network, as publishers began to rely on them to keep bookshops stocked with their titles. But the Tiwaris had little idea about just what it is they were delivering, besides knowing that thousands of people liked reading books. The youngest and most inquisitive of the brothers asks me one day, 'Why do you buy so many books?'

As they came into close contact with booksellers, they discovered that there seemed to be more money in actually selling books than in distributing them. So, without having been to Business School, they forward integrated into starting not one but two bookshops, the second being a row of shelves set up against the external wall of a house, secured in place with a modicum of permanence. The Tiwaris were the kindest bookshop-owners I ever met, but largely clueless about the literary value packed into their shelves.

But now, in 1985, after three years of regular visits, I have the contents of each shelf memorised. I can tell friends that the Modern Library edition of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel that they're looking for is on the third shelf in the middle section, the seventh or eighth book from the left. Or that there are two near-identical Penguin Modern Classic editions of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum in Ralph Mannheim's translation, but one of them has a concave spine while the other one is in mint condition. Or rather, there were. For in a fit of jealous rage, I buy both copies one day, intent on being the only one among my friends to own the book. (The impulse will have strange repercussions on the rest of my life - over the next three decades I can never stop myself from buying any edition of The Tin Drum that I do not possess already. I now have 13 different hardcover and paperback versions.)

One evening, the lights go out as I'm looking at the new line of white-spines Picadors. After Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982, the Tiwaris have been wise enough to try to stock his books. All the Picadors look similar, they confess to me afterwards, so they have picked up the whole lot. Which is how, o frabjous day, I am drowning myself in the sight of not just Marquez but also of Italo Calvino, Knut Hamsun, Bruno Schulz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Robert Musil. I have never known white to be so attractive, so full of promise.

On the brothers' request, I go to the shop early one Sunday to rearrange the shelves. I sort the books by country, but slip the poetry volumes into spaces that emerge between countries. Pleased by my own symbolism, I buy half the poetry volumes. Including three of Pablo Neruda’s and one of Federico Garcia Lorca’s that are entirely in Spanish. Why are they even here?

Buying textbooks for pleasure

One Saturday morning, there is a violent rattling at the front gate of the house I live in. The door to my room leads out to a driveway ending at that gate. An old woman in rags stands there, beckoning to me. I wake up against my wishes, assuming she's one of the hundreds who routinely ask for "help", meaning money. But she fishes out a crumpled piece of paper and hands it to me. "This is my grandson's booklist. He's the only one in the family who's ever gone to school. Now he's in Class Seven, and I cannot afford to buy his books. You have to buy them for him."

It's an assured statement of fact, not a demand or a plea. I accept the truth without demur, and we walk 20 minutes to get to one of the three bookshops I used to be taken to a child. She accepts the books, I buy her a cheap bag to put them in, and she leaves after refusing my offer to pay her bus fare home. Over the next five years, she comes back every March. I see her grandson through to Class Eleven. And then she vanishes. I never get to know what happened to the boy's education. But I know I will never forget those five book-buying occasions.

Books beneath a low roof

I am 18 and leaving home. I'm not sure where I will live, how I will survive, how I will pay my way through college, even though the fees are laughable. But I cannot start a new life unless I have a book for a constant companion. For those without money in Calcutta, there are the Communist Party bookshops selling books published in the USSR ‒ obviously without author royalties, since there is no such thing as private property ‒ at ridiculously low prices. So, in the spring of 1981, I buy a hardback copy of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for Rs 3. To put the price in perspective, you could buy 12 bus tickets for journeys of up to 7 kilometres at the same price. Unknowingly, I have begun phase two of my book-buying life in Calcutta ‒ using my own money.

A year later, I have given up an unhappy, uneasy relationship with a four-year-course in Electrical Engineering and decided to start again with English Literature. To support myself, I coach school students in their homes, devoting three hours every evening to my bread-earning activities. On the first of the month, I get my salaries of Rs 150 from each of my students. Out of the Rs 450 I earn, Rs 300 is spent at bookshops every month.

My first stop is the splendid mezzanine floor bookshop named Bookmark, located in a building that houses a number of offices, just off the glitzy boulevard ‒ or so it seems then, when Calcutta is the entire world ‒ named Park Street, dotted with restaurants, bars and pastry shops completely out of my peer group's financial reach. The shop is a long, low-ceilinged space presided over by the elegant figure of Mrs Chopra, who flashes a delighted smile when I, often with friends in tow, make a beeline for the rows of Penguin Modern Classics and science-fiction books lined up on three shelves running beneath the windows on the left hand wall looking out on the busy, congested and noisy Free School Street below.

These shelves are the ones I raid to build my collection of the fiction of J.P. Donleavy - who can resist novels with titles like The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B or The Saddest Summer of Samuel S - Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, and other stalwarts of modern European literature. None of the books costs more than 99 pence, which, at the exchange rate of the time, amounts to just about Rs 16. So, between 10 and 15 books a month are an easy buy.

The Bookmark is a happy shop, but a sense of foreboding hangs over it. I can see the empty spaces between books growing, which means stocks are not being replenished. In a few months, the shop is transformed into a skeleton, the flesh taken away by readers like me and the bone-shelves sticking out. It comes as a no surprise when it closes down a few months later, leaving us with our cheaply-bought cache, slightly shabby from years of standing in those shelves, their pages already a little yellowed.

By the middle of the month, I have run through both my budget and the books bought. Fortunately, a booklover in Calcutta always has the opportunity for free dalliance with books. About three hundred yards south of the Tiwaris' bookshop, a cluster of ramshackle kiosks are ranged outside the wall of a house on a corner, each of them stuffed with books whose handedness range from second to nth. Tattered and mint, coverless and hardback, annotated and virgin, mouldy and crisp, they will bring me endless delight in the languishing glances and passionate touches I will bestow on them. Atlases and thrillers, textbooks and manuals (self-help books have not yet been invented, glory be), modern literature and pulp fiction, they're all there in wanton disorganisation, caring nothing for order and logic.

This is where I spend an hour every evening during the second fortnight of the month. In what I suspect to be yet another example of a planted memory, a friend says that as we were passing this little den of intellectual promiscuity one afternoon, I shouldered him aside suddenly and jumped out of the bus. Obviously, he followed me out, and saw me swoop down on a copy of the impossible-to-get Ascent of Man, by J. Bronowski, a gloriously illustrated edition with a slightly stained cover. It is a story I have accepted. I like to think that I did this.

It is here that, one December morning, I find a copy of Graham Green's Our Man in Havana, the one title that has eluded me from the bigger bookshops. I forget the passion my closest friend in college has for Greene. When he sees the book, he fixes a beady eye on me and says, "I don't have this book. Where did you get it?" Naturally, I gift it to him. The rarest of books on my shelves today were all picked up from second-hand stores.

The rarest of the rare, as they say in courtrooms, is T.H. White's The Once and Future King ‒ the extraordinary retelling of the Arthurian legend in which Merlin the magician travels backward through time from the 20th Century to the Middle ages. Its disintegrating spine held together with glue and brown paper. I find it in a foul-smelling tin-roofed shed next to the municipality fish and vegetables market, its rotting wooden shelves stacked with thrillers, romances, pulp and mild pornography. The sales clerk tells a young woman earnestly, pointing to a pile of Mills & Boon love novels, "These are new, these are popular, these are hot." He doesn't know it yet, but he has invented buzzfeed.com.

Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin

There is life beyond storybooks in Calcutta. To be a true-blue member of the book aristocracy, you must also buy and read Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin. They are the Kafka-Camus-Sartre of analytical reading. Also, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Claude Levi-Strauss, E.H. Carr and, above all, E.J. Hobsbawm. Years later, I can confess reading some of their works, understanding fewer, and retaining even less. But read alongside the finest contemporary literature, they offer an insight that no classroom lecture can match.

But these books must be owned, not borrowed, because they have to be referred to frequently. And so I am gliding through the crowds on the pavement beneath the first floor balcony of the Grand Hotel, Calcutta's most pedigreed luxury hotel. Here, amidst shoe shops and clothing stores, is tucked in a tiny cubicle with a signboard proclaiming it as the Foreign Publishers Agency. The word agency holds the key, for it does not publish, but only sells, the best books on literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, semiotics, and other subjects that have exclusive academic departments devoted to them at universities.

The books are piled in shelves inside and outside, and on a table spilling out on the pavement. Behind the little counter sits Tapan, the man with a receding hairline and burgeoning knowledge of the finest critical literature in the English language. He not only tells me whom I should read, but also whom I should avoid (Lacan). And he tells me to read about modern physics and mathematics in books by Paul Davies and Roger Penrose. I can hardly afford the books he sells. But I scrounge and buy one or two. Mostly, I drool, while thanking my stars that the books are too expensive for me.

Years later, I will hear that Tapan's brother has staged a palace coup and ousted him from the shop. But that is in the future. For now, I am on my way back from Foreign Publishers, trudging disconsolately along the pavement lining the outer wall of the Indian Museum. On the pavement I suddenly discover a thick pile of slim large format books, each with reproductions of the works of, and an excellent essay on, one of the masters of western art. Oh. My. God. Each book costs only Rs 10.

How did these extraordinary books ever get here? I am to find out the story twenty years later, during a nostalgic visit to the Tiwari brothers' shop. The eldest brother tells me it was his son who discovered that a ship had berthed in Bombay, carrying, literally, thousands and thousands of copies of the Great Masters series, the original publisher having decided to pulp them, after which some enterprising trader had chosen to export them to India instead. Here Tiwari Junior bought several thousands of copies at a wholesale price, and proceeded to distribute the books across bookstores, book-kiosks, and book-sheets ‒ books sold from sheets spread out on pavements ‒across Calcutta.

The Book Mall

I am dreaming. It is 2016 and I am back in Calcutta. I go to the famous bookshop neighbourhood on and around College Street, on which both the venerable Calcutta University and the very young Presidency University, née Presidency College, are situated. There are both bookshops and pavement kiosks here, selling every Bengali book in circulation, along with every textbook ever. Except there are no bookshops here anymore. Not one. Someone points me to a large, ugly building just up the road. "The Book Mall," he says. I look at him uncomprehendingly. "All the shops and pavement stalls," he explains. "Shifted in there." As I am about to enter, I wake up sweating. I cannot make up my mind whether it is a dream or a nightmare.

Democracy of reading

It is January. Any January in the 1980s. I shall not visit bookshops this month. Because January is when the Calcutta Book Fair will open, the world's biggest celebration and festival of books. Every publisher and distributor and several booksellers from all over the country will be here in full force. All books will be sold at a 10 per cent discount. The longest queue will be at the British Council pavilion, where they are giving away free pens. (Thirty years later, every tenth Indian who knows ‒ and every single Indian who thinks he knows ‒ English will be a writer, outnumbering readers 100:1.)

And I, I will buy the shiny new Penguin Modern Classics and Picadors and Modern Library hardbacks. Also, maybe, some Arden Shakespeare, because their covers are so beautiful. I have saved Rs 600 for my purchases. I need Rs 800. I am heartbroken. But I cheer up thinking of the sheer number of books I shall be carrying home. At least thirty.

~~~


It is 1992. Goodbye, Calcutta. If you must exile me, burn my eyes before you go, wrote a poet. If you must exile me, I tell my city, let me carry all the books you gave me. In my head if not in my suitcase.

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