What I did not know was how diverse and reasonable it was to be for books. I turned a lane and up came SKOOB (Books spelled the other way round, perfect for a basement bookshop which had a piano, affordable first editions and the casual disarray of a second hand exchange store).
This was Bloomsbury, London’s legendary publishing district, where a daily walk to college meant passing signboards – which elsewhere might have said a version of Wait or Do not Cross, – varied between Charles Dickens lived here and Virginia Woolf’s home. College was no less a tease, when I realised that my esteemed institution was part housed in a building where TS Eliot creaked up and down the wooden staircase as Editor.
Faber & Fabering me softly with their finds.
The other end of the road from my student lodging led to the British Library. Where, after a student discounted session with Seamus Heaney, I asked him, “Sir, will you please take a short walk with me and tell me which poet and poetic work speaks to you of a significant experience of our time?”
He did. Among a few suggestions, Omeros by Derek Walcott.
Emboldened, I did nearly the same to Ruth Padel in another subsidised British Library event, a poetess, also of Darwinian lineage and a-I-didn’t-know Indian connection. A later invite to her smoky café gave me a long-list of contemporary British poetic voices I knew nothing about. The cumulative effect: it made anthologies drop off my reading curve. Much like returning to music albums we grew up on, beyond the fickle top ten.
Poetry began splashing at me gently. I simply dunked. In walks by the Thames with more poets. In a stunning Don Paterson reading at a castle. I strayed into a very friendly gay bookshop to read the then National Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and had her words read out to me passionately by the store owner.
An email introduction from a kind Indian friend led to a chat with Amarjit Chandan, who, under a dangling portrait of Dadabhai Naoroji at a pre-Independence Indian restaurant, offered me Indian mutton, real roti, Cobra beer and a peek into a unique multi-culti Punjabi poetic vintage.
A completely ordinary moment of asking for directions from an old lady turned into an amiable non-stiff-upper-lip-chat as we walked along together. When the road curved, she told me to cross and take bus number x. Then, as if in fond departure, said, “Let us go then, you and I” with me, almost on cue, completing the line, turning to go and crossing the road, only to find she had been waiting to see me off with a smile. What measure, what spoon, I thought in gratitude.
A line from a funny book (bought from a two-pound bookstore) could have described my academic situation, “Because he was pining to take the academic vows – poverty, bibliography and jargon.” Instead, alongside classes, I just long-walked around my kitaabi neighbourhood endlessly.
Antiquarian loveliness came in the shape of Jarndyce Booksellers, with a suitably creaking floor, a range of books called the Bizarre Collection and greeting cards made out of 100-year-old book covers. I bought one which said How to be happy though married.
An occult bookshop was never far when I wanted to run away from smoke alarms. Wafting past a West Asia-centric bookstore, another focussed on philosophy. And an entire one on neglected writings, if you please. Never forgetting to ask the bookshop owners who were usually heavy readers themselves, for book recommendations. And never ceasing to exchange a trial and error read.
Far away from the regular bookshop chains were these next door entries for every mood. GOSH, which specialised in graphic novels, where it struck me for the first time, what an amazing genre this could be, combining the cinematic with the literary.
The London Review Bookshop was where I stumbled onto a wonderful series of Nobel Prize winning author chats live. I chose paying to listen to them over any holiday plans. Even chains like Foyles were fairly independent booksellers, starting off as a lending library after WW2. All in all, I had picked many a discounted book, an occasional coffee and my eyes became a Used Bookstore pro.
When one saw the artwork, or read the publisher's note with zero blurbs, no pressure of categories yet upon them, I began to relish the anachronistic beauty of first editions. For instance, when I saw Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring, first edition version, I realised she had hoped that some investigative journalist would tally the realities of missing birdsong.
When nobody did, she was compelled to write the book, which was a spark for the environmental movement in the US. High street book fairs brought the touch and feel of another pleasure – book binding and engravings. When the scenery became thick with autumnal colours, the parks beckoned with the book loot. For as a student, I had the most priceless thing of all – time.
To sit for hours and read. Take long walks after. This also included sitting inside the relatively faraway National Theatre bookshop, where books were not cheap (my own neighbourhood having spoilt me entirely), or yak with a stranger who had just finished a book I had enjoyed as well. A semi-literary fantasy and festival unto oneself.
To soak in the world of ideas, stories, translations, discovering authors (my first Bolano and Fuentes, fuelling a Latin American literary love) at prices which, at their highest, touched £15 and at their least, started with small change (yes, I converted the prices mentally in rupees). Main fallout: I returned to India with eighty kilos of books, carted in instalments, by a trail of kind friends and friends of friends.
(Gets up to pull out a still unread book from her library, from this time.)
What it all was: The pleasures of returning to student life, at the cusp of turning 40, in a city that loved the literary word dearly and offered several kinds of cheap. A London far away from touristy buses, from characterless Oxford Street, from overexposed kabootars of Trafalgar Square who no longer co-exist, just a yearlong tryst with two bylanes, and what the word “bookseller” could mean and the pleasures of aimless browsing.