A.A. Husain & Co has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. It was there that my father bought me my first Noddy books, even before I knew how to read. I still remember the bright, splashy colours of their covers: Noddy book #1 was red, #2 was sky blue, #3 was lemon yellow, and so on. The numbers and their corresponding colours became imprinted in my mind, so that when I later learned to count, every number had its own special colour, and as a result arithmetic classes were, for me, as enjoyable as art classes – games of playing with colours to arrive at delightfully unexpected combinations. In fact, I still use that basic colour code system to remember phone numbers. Which is something I suppose I ultimately have to thank A.A. Husain & Co for.

I was always intrigued by the ‘& Co’ at the end of the shop’s name: a quaint, dignified little flourish that seemed too grand for such a small shop. Like one of those Hyderabadi gentlemen of that generation who would insist on wearing a sherwani, however threadbare, before stepping out of the house. The shop stood on Abid Road, along with the city’s other famous shops of that era: P. Venkataswamy’s stationery shop; John & Co, the bakery; Jalal & Sons’ watch shop; C.L. Mudaliyar & Sons, the tobacconists; F.D. Khan’s textile store; Abdul Razak’s pharmacy; and Aziz Company, legendary for its curry puffs.

All text, no pictures

One of my earliest intellectual challenges in life was those books with no pictures, only printed words, which my big cousins, aged 7 and 8, used to read. To a reader of Noddy books like myself, these looked terrifying, with their incomprehensible phalanxes of tight black text marching on, page after page, unrelieved by pictures, and I feared that I would never ever be smart enough to read one of those.

Then one day I hesitantly picked up one of those fat, daunting, picture-less books belonging to my cousin Arif – purchased from A.A. Husain & Co, as usual – and attempted to decipher the first page:

F-I-V-E  O-N  A  T-R-E-A-S-U-R-E  I-S-L-A-N-D
B-Y  E-N-I-D  B-L-Y-T-O-N

it said. I persevered, with determination. And before I knew it, I was sucked into the adventures of the Famous Five as they hunted for buried treasure. My reading career had begun in earnest.

Soon, I was going through two and three of those Enid Blytons a week, and it was becoming an expensive proposition for my parents. So one day, my father took me to A.A. Husain & Co and taught me my first lesson in economics.

He told me that I would henceforth get a pocket money of a princely Rs 12 a month to buy books – but the catch was I couldn’t ask for anything more. With my Rs 12 I could either get two Famous Fives (or Five Find-outers, or William books) at Rs 6 each, or I could buy thirteen Dell comics at 90p each, or some other combination thereof. In other words, I had to learn how to derive maximum consumer satisfaction within my budget.

In time I became a reasonably discriminating maker of economic choices, examining the books at length before buying, and even counting the number of pages and dividing them by the price, in order to determine their relative consumer satisfaction (and thereby anticipating by at least 10 years what Prof Narayanan would one day teach me in his economics class).

The 'hot' parts

From Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton I graduated directly to Sherlock Holmes (skipping the Biggles and Billy Bunter phase that other boys of my generation usually went through). And then one day at A.A. Husain & Co, aged 12, I saw a book that would change my life forever.

It had a dull yellow dust jacket, I remember, with the image of a palm print on it. Seeing that palm print, I deduced that it was a detective novel and began to leaf through it. But Riazath Husain, the proprietor, spotting me with the book, walked up and took it away, saying, “No, this book is too grown-up for you”. All my senses were immediately alerted by this: THIS MUST BE IT, I said to myself – this must be one of those adult books that I had heard rumours about, which were all about something called SEX.

I surreptitiously picked up the book when Riazath Husain wasn’t looking, carried it to an unseen corner of the shop, and began to flick through it expertly looking for the “hot” parts.

I was unsuccessful in locating them the first time, so I started all over again, this time, more diligently.

Again, I failed.

I could not give up. So near, and yet so far.

So I came back a couple of days later, and read the book, from end to end, beginning with the words:
The sea is high again, with the thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl till mid-day, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes. I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child….

It was, of course, Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, one of the great books of the 20th century, and its imagery and cadences thrilled and hypnotised me. I have since read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet many, many times, and each time I get a different shade of meaning from it. And for that I have to thank Riazath Husain, who took that book away from me that day, saying “No, this is too grown-up for you”.

At A.A. Husain & Co I subsequently discovered other books that reached out and changed something inside me, like Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea and Catch-22 and Fahrenheit 451 and The Wasteland and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Foreseeable storyline

Then I left Hyderabad and went away to make my life elsewhere. I came back only many years later. By then the city’s geography had changed, and Abid Road and A.A. Husain & Co lay along a completely different axis from my own.

Whenever I went to that part of town on some errand, though, I tried to make a small detour, for a quick browse at A.A. Husain & Co and a masala dosa and coffee at the old Taj Mahal hotel (“We have no branches”).

By now, Riazath Khan and his son, Shoukat Khan, were both dead, and the young grandson, Asif, had taken charge of the family business. It was evidently an accelerated growing-up experience for the young man, because a bookseller friend from Mumbai once phoned me to say please could I meet up with Asif and give him business advice. But I felt myself unequal to the task: what do you say to someone who runs a small standalone bookshop, on the wrong side of town, in a society where bookshops are shutting down, one by one, or being converted into toy-and-bauble shops?

Last week I was passing by Abid Road, and I stopped by at A.A. Husain & Co, as usual, and I was told that the inevitable has happened. That the shop is shutting down after 65 years, and that a mall – what else? – is coming up in its place.

And I remembered a business meeting I had not long ago with a businessman who was developing a glitzy new mall. He told me proudly about all the features it would offer: a multiplex, fast food joints, shopping. It would be designed to cater to every member of the family, he said: it would even have a bookshop.

A bookshop?

Oh yes, he said. For the grandparents, you know. They like to read. Religious books and such-like.

And I thought to myself, welcome to the planet of the apes.

But I was wrong. The world changes; technology changes; habits change; societies change. And if you do not change along with them, you are the one who gets extinct. That’s the way civilisations evolve. It is not always a pretty process.

Pass me the Kindle, please.