Once in a while, a minor tweak in my medication by our family veterinarian appears to work so well that even the crow sounds like the Malabar whistling thrush. That’s when I get an inflated sense of my pain threshold and visit a bookshop.
My go-to place is a neighbourhood store that has bucked the trend of turning into a Zumba studio-cum-massage parlour and continues to trade in books. Part of it could be because of its name. One that baffled us all for a bit before we got it: Shakes & Spears.
In the course of my three books, there have been times when I have made it only halfway down the gloomy, airless staircase that leads to this basement shop, guessed what the latest verdict on my book would be, courtesy Gupta Saab, the owner/cashier/name-giver of Shakes & Spears, decided to cut my losses, turned around and gone to the pharmacy next door to get a month’s supply of my happy pills.
This time I had a good feeling.
Gupta Saab pretended he didn’t see me. Like he always did. I couldn’t blame him. Who wants to see a writer? I did my bit, too. It was all part of our ritual. I smiled at random people, picked up books I had absolutely no intention of buying, riffled through their pages, tilted my head sideways, tapped my chin with my forefinger as if on the verge of a decision, said an unnecessarily loud “nah” to no one in particular, and put the book back in its place. Over and over. While Gupta Saab watched my method-acting interpretation of a prospective book buyer on his comp via images provided by his CCTV cameras.
Ten minutes later, armed with a spiral-bound scribbling pad that would set me back by Rs 45, I leaned casually against the counter.
“So, Gupta Saab,” I said, “how’s it going?”
“Good and bad,” he said.
“Bad? How so?” I said.
“Why all that now? Let’s talk of the good,” he said, placing a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Do you have any film connections?”
“No, not really,” I said. I did know the parking lot attendant at Sathyam Cinemas but something told me not to reveal all my cards.
“No cousin, brother-in-law, former colleague, ex-wife, no one?” he said. “In some cinematic capacity?”
I did date a girl once who was arrested for stalking Shakti Kapoor. But that was a long time ago.
“No, Gupta Saab, nothing comes to mind.”
“Then why are you writing, man?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Who sang the national anthem at that recent big do?”
“Amitabh Bachchan?” I said.
“Who decides which car you drive, which insurance you take, what cornflakes you eat or which chaddis you wear?”
“My wife?” I said, which reminded me that the one I was wearing now was from a batch bought when the DMK was in power.
“Don’t be daft,” he said. “I’m talking in general. Who dominates cricket stadiums, Parliament or business conclaves? Cricketers, politicians, businessmen?”
“Amitabh Bachchan?” I said.
“Partially, yes,” he said. “But what I mean is film folk. Whatever the field, everything is films, okay?”
“Why do you think it’s any different with books and literature?”
“What are you saying?”
“Do you know what my top sellers are?” he said. “Number One is that Smt Twinklebones. I just re-ordered hundred copies of her book. You know Number Two?”
“Yes,” I said. Who didn’t?
“Chhi, not that,” he said. “Number Two, Number Three, up to Number Ten in sales – full, only Bollywood! Books by Karan Johar’s gynaecologist, Aamir Khan’s lift operator, Alia Bhatt’s babysitter, Hrithik Roshan’s numerologist, Bappi Lahiri’s jeweller… all bestsellers.”
“So what about my book?” I said.
“Who cares, pa,” he said, looking at his comp. “I’ve sold two copies of your book so far. One to your wife and the other to your sister.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” I said. Those idiot pills with their artificial flavouring of hope!
“Can you cook?” he said.
“You’re useless, man. How can you be a bestselling writer if you can’t cook? Golden opportunity. See, Kamal-ji is looking for a cook, okay? His driver’s brother ran off with my isthri-wallah’s wife. Why do you think my shirt is crumpled? So he owes me one. I could have got you in. Two months later, you could have written your book.”
“Anything else?” I said.
“How is your marriage?” he said.
“Quite good, Gupta Saab,” I said. I was being truthful. She had sanctioned the new train set in my playroom, after all. “Why?”
‘Remember that Jaya Bindu?’ he said.
I nod-shook my head. I had absolutely no idea.
“Retired Telugu actress, pa, she used to do ‘cabaret numbers’ in the ’70s,” said Gupta Saab doing a series of disturbingly titillating moves with his chest so as to leave me in do doubt about Ms Jaya Bindu’s area of expertise. “...with Sivaji, Jaishankar, NTR, ANR and all, don’t you remember her?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Anyway, she came here, the other day,” he said. “To buy some books on home remedies for gout and arthritis. So we got talking.”
“So nothing. One thing led to another and she said she was looking to marry again.”
“Good for her. I’m all for it. But what does any of it have to do with my book?”
“Ille, pa,” he said. “Good opportunity. Why don’t I... you know... propose your name? Marry her... just a little... and write a book about her life in the film industry. Guaranteed bestseller in the south. Nostalgia, gossip. Super, I tell you. I’m sure your wife won’t mind. After all, it is for your career.”
“Let me check with her and get back,” I said.
“Better tell me by tomorrow, pa,” he said.
“Why, what’s the hurry? Are there a large number of suitors?”
“Not that. Just heard she was put on ventilator.”
I turned around to leave.
“There may be another way, you know,” said Gupta Saab.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Just heard that a big publisher has commissioned Dhanno’s tell-all biography,” he said. Gupta Saab certainly had an ear to the ground.
“Who is Dhanno?” I said.
“You are hopeless, pa,” he said. “Dhanno! Basanti’s horse in Sholay. Imagine the stuff it would have seen. Provisional title: Wild Oats from the Horse’s Mouth, I hear. Next bestseller.”
“Goodbye, Gupta Saab,” I said.
As I walked slowly up the staircase, I heard Gupta Saab bellowing.
“Last chance. Listen to me. Do a memoir of Tuffy from Hum Aapke Hain Koun. I will pre-order two hundred copies...”
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is the author of How To Be A Literary Sensation: A Quick Guide to Exploiting Friends, Family & Facebook for Financial Gain. He aspires to be Amitabh Bachchan’s great-grandchild in his next birth.