“Cannot really forget him ever,” writes my brother Vivek from Bethesda, the first person I mail on hearing that Anil Arora of The Bookworm has died. Tens of years before, Vivek introduced me to two unusual bookshop owners, and Anil was one of them.

I had just started to work at the ad agency HTA (now JWT) and had money of my own for the first time, the sole ambition in those days being to earn to buy books. Coincidentally, a friend and I won a silly award that year at work, and the not-so-silly prize amounted to Rs 15,000 in Bookworm book vouchers. We had been anointed billionaires and Anil was the grinning Master of Ceremonies.

Soon I moved to Target, the children’s magazine from the India Today group, and The Bookworm became the other regular post-work watering hole where it was always happy hours. Anil, among other things, told me that the owner of India Today, Aroon Purie, was a relative (I never quite figured out how) and he wouldn’t need to give me a discount now as I must be earning crazy money in that company. Not.

Anil not only ended up giving me countless discounts over the next decade and more, but also asked me to take along books I couldn’t afford, saying I could pay later. And so I joined that densely populated band of people forever indebted to Anil.

Image credit: Mayank Austen Soofi / thedelhiwalla.com
Image credit: Mayank Austen Soofi / thedelhiwalla.com

His store flashes clearly in my head. The front of the bookshop, the spinner rack of bestsellers as you entered, the shelves on either side of the table-space on which the coffee-table books and a few bargains lay expectantly, leading to where Anil sat, doing stuff on his desktop – and the music, always the music, brushstroking the picture. A tiny place, with its neatly categorised shelves, the intimacy of bumping bums and minds with stranger-bookfriends, and the many tourists usually hanging around the Religion and Philosophy shelves, the assistant (a niece, she said) who knew exactly where each book was.

I remember my one-sided love affair with Japanese writers and Anil’s avuncular “Chehh! Rubbish!” He had an opinion on his books, and many of them were utter “rubbish”. If they are so bad, why have you kept them here? I would laugh, squeezing up the narrow wooden stairs to the upper floor, where sandwiched tightly between floor and ceiling, there were, among others, Poetry, Music and Children’s Books – my special interest.

You could see they had been handpicked. Anil was, everyone knows, more than a bookshop owner; he was a curator. Sometimes part of that was “rubbish” for people like me, and then he could get whatever precious book you wanted from any corner of the world – or sometimes, just from Variety, the distributor down the Middle Circle – and you could pay later. As my brother’s mail goes, “Anil wanted every customer to leave his store happy.”

Image credit: Mayank Austen Soofi / thedelhiwalla.com
Image credit: Mayank Austen Soofi / thedelhiwalla.com

Once or twice when I went with this same brother, I found Anil irritated, hunched over some glitch in his computer. When my brother, being nifty with machines, set it right, Anil beamed and chatted away, as we often did. His daughter was in Thailand, he went for a month or so every year, and I wanted to buy his store, or at least work in it, but hahaha, I was earning lakhs already, working for Aroon Purie’s company, so he wouldn’t hire me.

During the last few years, when he was coming to the decision to pack up, I avoided the store. It was going to shut down. That was going to hurt. It was my first close encounter with the death of the indie bookshop and I didn’t understand at that time how it portended an era of such obituaries.

And one day, much later, when I stopped that way, the store was gone.

And with it yes, him and his music. My brother had once asked him about western classical music and Anil handed over a cassette (yeah, we are both that old now) – The Planets by Gustav Holst – and asked him to try to understand the instruments and how they combined in an orchestra to produce the overpowering music. My brother listens to western classical music nearly daily since, but Anil doesn’t know that. As one gets older, every day is marked by “wish I had done that”s and “wish I had told them”s.

But I look around me now and it’s okay for me to not try to cobble together more memories of him.

My bookshelves are alive with Anil Arora.

Cannot really forget him ever.

Vatsala Kaul Banerjee is publisher, children’s and reference books, Hachette India.