She’s been called an aristocrat amongst booksellers.
For the last 40-odd years, Nalini Chettur has presided over an empire of the imagination in a tiny corner of the iconic Connemara Hotel at Chennai. The owner of Giggles, often described as the “biggest little bookshop” in the country, Chettur has exercised a patrician hold over her subjects. Writers, researchers, reporters, and, more often, readers trot across from all across the world for an incomparable afternoon of chai and chatter with Nalini, as she is known amongst friends.
“I think it is a form of seduction,” confesses Chettur. “Or you could call it addiction. I love what I am doing, meeting people and sharing their stories about books, about literature, about life, with them.”
Like Lady Connemara, Chettur has reigned over the palm-tree-lined corridors of the hotel stamping her brand all over it, despite many revolutions in the book trade.
The only place that mattered
Lady Connemara, wife of the Governor of Madras, was embroiled in a sensational case of marital infidelity in the late nineteenth century when she took refuge in a hotel far away from the official residence of the Governor. She not only left her name on the hotel but also bequeathed her legacy as a memsahib.
Owned by the Spencer group, another venerable old name in South India, for many years, the Connemara was the “Koi Hai?” destination of the British planters and colonials stationed in remote reaches of the South. Christmas at the Connemara was an annual event.
“It was for a long time the only proper place for celebrities and crowned heads to stay when visiting the city,” recalls Chettur. She does a wonderful imitation of meeting Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister at the time of the Suez crisis and, afterwards, full-time chairman of Macmillan’s, the publishing house. “He came to my shop and said: “Good morning!” in that clipped British way. He looked very sprightly, like an uncle out of Bertie Wooster’s family. I looked up and thought to myself, my goodness, that’s Harold Macmillan. So I too said: “Good morning Mr Macmillan.”
How it all began
It was at a tea-planter’s annual jamboree at Ooty, known as UPASI, that Chettur realised that she could make a career out of selling books to people.
“I had been working as a sales promotion manager at Higginbotham’s,” she recollects. “It was the premier bookshop in Chennai, started as you know to promote Christian literature.” It had been bought by the conglomerate known as Amalgamations in 1945. She was the first lady officer to join the male dominated establishment.
They did not know what to make of Chettur. She had exotic notions. For instance, she wanted to introduce stationery items from Chimanlals in Mumbai and greeting cards and maybe even postcards advertising scenes from Tamil Nadu’s historic hotspots. They were almost relieved when she had the idea of taking to the hills and setting up a bookstall.
“It was such a success, the response that I had from the visitors at UPASI. I thought to myself: why not I do this on my own? It almost started as a dare. I had one thousand rupees saved up as my initial capital. When I mentioned this to my father – RN Chettur, then the managing director of the State Bank of India – he was dismissive of the idea. Women just did not get into business in those days.”
She laughs. “I had read Sai Baba’s words in a book: Play the game, play the game of life. I have made that my philosophy, play the game whatever comes your way and enjoy the moment.” It’s a high-pitched whiplash of laughter that in its time could be heard down the corridors of the Connemara.
Maybe that’s why when the new management of the Taj Group of Hotels took over, they politely suggested that she move her shop out of the main building and into the far end of a newly built wing in 1984.
These days Chettur sits perched on a hard uncomfortable wooden seat outside her miniscule shop. She rearranges her stock of favorites on a mat spread on the floor like a Tarot card reader, waiting for her clients.
The original 110 square feet of shop space is crammed with books from floor to ceiling so nobody can get in. The verandah is located in a distant corridor of the Taj Vivanta hotel, as the Connemara is now called. One side faces the car park.
Newer visitors are appalled that Chennai’s celebrated bookshop owner should be accorded such shabby treatment. In fact, even this tiny corner of Chettur’s former kingdom is about to vanish. It’s partly on account of the disastrous floods that devastated parts of Chennai in last December. The water from the nearby Cooum River swept into the open verandah and entered a portion of her shop, along with other parts of the Connemara Hotel. The management has had no choice but to close down the damaged areas and start the lengthy process of renovation and restoration.
“Yes, some of my best coffee table books did suffer damage. I put them for sale at a discount with a sign saying: ‘The Cooum’s Choice – come and take your pick.’”
A bookseller like no other
Chettur’s signature style of functioning, which led her to create her own brand of specialised book-selling, has never been in synch with the image of a premier hotel’s own brand. You will not find multiple editions of the Kama Sutra for instance, nor self-help books, manuals devoted to creating better kitchen windows, and committing the perfect murder in a Scandinavian country.
“I’ve survived so many general managers that I have lost count of them,” she admits. “Though I will never forget one lady GM of the Connemara, who threatened to throw out all my books.”
Chettur has not only survived different management styles, but her bookshop has also out-lasted the arrival of the late 1980s’ and 1990s’ assault mounted by bookstore chains.
Sometimes I imagine Chettur to be the intellectual equivalent of a tea-taster. Or even a butterfly flitting quickly from one freshly open book to another, just dipping and sipping to get a flavor of the book.
Of course, she reads all the reviews in advance, listens carefully when her scholarly friends come to her with fresh advice on which author to read and maybe to promote, and has a creative engagement with her publishers. As Chettur says, she’s never reneged on making a payment to her book suppliers. Eventually, even her banker father had to concede that in his daughter he had at last come across an astute businesswoman besides a book-lover.
“The first time we met, you came to Higginbotham’s and asked me for a copy of All About H Hatterr, by GV Desani,” she reminds me. Part of Chettur’s charm is that she finds ways to connect each one of her readers with their literary DNA.
“It’s not my trick alone, I learnt it by watching TN Shanbag of Strand bookshop in Mumbai. He would wait for a crucial moment when a customer was standing in front of a shelf of books, wondering whether to pull out a wallet, and then pounce. He had a sixth sense as to what might enthuse a customer and then offer a slight discount. It was always an offer that could not be refused.” In those distant times, Chettur points out, many independent bookshops flourished on the remaindered book trade.
“It’s quite easy to identify an author,” she explains. “Most authors are really very shy creatures, or at least they used to be. They only look to see if their books are on display, so I know at once who the person might be.”
When the famous film maker Satyajit Ray appeared at Giggles, she could not stop herself from asking: “Satyajit Ray, I presume?” To which he replied, “Why presume? I am Satyajit Ray!”
In the early days, she had hoped to be the subject of a book like Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, and to go to New York to meet some of the best-known names in fiction-writing of the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, what happened was that as more and more North Americans checked in at the Connemara and gravitated to Giggles, she was able to enthuse them about new Indian writing and writers. That perhaps has been her most valuable contribution to the dialogue that ensues when words, ideas and thoughts take wing and find expression in books.
She received an award in 2003 for her “service and knowledge about books” from the The Booksellers’ and Publishers’ Association of South India. A fellow recipient that year for his contribution as a writer was Ramachandra Guha, a devoted customer of Giggles when he visits Chennai.
“I cannot let Giggles die,” she says as the news of its imminent demise at the Connemara Hotel disturbs the warm air outside the verandah.
As we sit there, the white petalled flowers from a frangipani tree drop at her feet.