There is a universe in which the words “speed dating for bibliophiles” signify a casual low-stakes outing that’s fun for everyone involved. I am a cautious and risk-averse dater and don’t like words that end in “-phile.” Still, it was a Sunday afternoon, I had washed my hair for the first time in days, and my editor had asked me to expand my horizons. Like Philip Marlowe, what I needed was a vacation and a lot of life insurance, but what I had was a coat, a hat and a gun – in my case, a powder-blue dress and a Marilynne Robinson novel – so I put those on and went out.
For the last year, an organisation called Sip & Swap has been organising meetings for book lovers, mostly in Mumbai. Participants buy a ticket and turn up at the venue with a copy of their favourite book. They get five minutes to talk to another stranger with a book about their reading material. If both want to swap books, an exchange is effected. If not, they unmatch when the bell rings and move to the next person.
This past Sunday, I was at a Sip & Swap organised event at Hoppipolla, a bar in Khar I was not previously aware permitted entry to persons above the age of 30. The canny marketer behind the book swap parties, a 24-year-old named Priyesh Thakkar, was throwing this one as part of the launch of 19 Till I Die, a novel about college life by the “chick literature” (her words) author Anjali Kirpalani. The price of entry included the cost of the book. The drink was cutting chai. The master of ceremonies, Thakkar himself, was in a slim-cut jacket and plastic bow-tie made by his sister, a fashion designer.
Under the impression that the only other people at the event would be young women, I felt serene and in control. As a rule, women in their twenties are good listeners; they have no hang-ups about enjoying other women’s conversation. I expected to see many copies of The Secret. At the swivelling door of Hoppipolla, I saw myself as a maiden aunt, with a maiden-aunt book – a 12-year-old paperback of Gilead that I was pleased to set free in the world, since a generous friend had recently found me a pristine first-edition copy.
But no sooner had I taken a seat at a table, waiting for the merry-go-round to begin, than I was floored by the first people I met, three 22-year old men from Bhayander. They were eager to swap books and return home in time for the Chelsea game. One came with To Kill A Mockingbird, also, like Gilead, about a white man coming to grips with American racism, and also, like mine, a spare copy. The other two came with spin-offs of The Secret, which is now a syndicate like the Nancy Drew enterprise, unlocking mystery after mystery of the heart under the name of Rhonda Byrne.
With easy unselfconsciousness, they told me about their friendship (ancient), their professional ambitions (abundant), and their opinion of Manchester City (unsavoury). I heard the word “lit” spoken for the first time in my life (as in, “The beatboxing scene in Pune isn’t as lit”). I learned a lot about their workout routines and diets, which appealed profoundly to the yoga bore in me. The last time I really talked to a man this age had been a chance encounter at a concert last year. He had explained the roots of political rebellion in Vidarbha to me, then pulled out his fake ID to show me how he fooled barmen. “Oh, we don’t drink,” these dimpled apparitions told me. “Can’t drink beer when you’re on keto, you know,” one added.
I was bewitched, although I could not have felt flirty or romantic about the whole exchange any less had they been my own children. In any case, the atmosphere was not one of flirtation. The “dating” in this speed dating event was a gentle irony. Singles in the greater Bandra area are so self-conscious and narcissistic that, like the Zumba instructor I once had, we’re all at our best blowing kisses to ourselves in the mirror.
Kirpalani soon launched into a conversation about her book, and I was separated from my new friends. I last saw one of the trio trying to convince someone of the genius of another book he had brought to swap, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now. “A treasure beyond words,” he was saying.
Having stumbled into a different situation than the one I expected to be in, I couldn’t stop. Kirpalani and Thakker had gone hands-off after the book was launched, and we were left to make friends with each other. All around me were the girls I had expected to be pitching Gilead to, but they were now engrossed with each other. One, with breathtaking confidence, had flouted the rules (“only fiction and non-fiction books, please”) and brought a copy of a magazine called Smart Manager.
Contrary to my expectations, however, there were a sizeable number of men, all pinballing restlessly about through the room. One offered me All-American Girl by Meg Cabot. I know her work well. I asked him what he liked about it. “I haven’t read it,” he said. “I just brought a bunch of books and I’ve swapped all the others already.”
Few people, I realised, had the luxury or desire to bring their best beloved book at all. A Graham Greene fan with dashing flecks of silver in his beard had brought a brand-new copy of Our Man In Havana. “I haven’t read it yet,” he said. “But I really think I want to go home with it.” He vanished soon after, holding onto his own book. Graham Greene would have smiled. A young aspiring filmmaker wrung a copy of The White Tiger in his hands. “It’s about a man who kills his boss,” he offered – a strong opening statement – but his heart wasn’t in it. He was obsessed with the fantasy series Malazan: Book Of The Fallen by Steven Erikson, but it had ten volumes – a labour-intensive giveaway.
A criminal lawyer who gloomily predicted the end of the constitutional republic in 2019 had brought two or three books with him. He had managed to get several people interested in Things Fall Apart, he said, but wasn’t all that interested in Paulo Coelho or whatever “mainstream” books were offered him. He showed me another book – an English translation of Tagore’s Naukadubi in a second-hand paperback, falling apart from what must have been at least two generations of rough handling. It was fittingly titled The Wreck and had come from a bookstall in Virudhanagar, Madras.
My heart bounded, betraying my resistance to -philing any biblios. In working days consumed by metaphorically tearing through books to devour their substances, I was suddenly struck to see and touch a real one, an old one, an object that had survived the length of at least one human life. To read someone else’s name on the endpaper, to see the micro-tears and finger stains left behind by other readers – it was like being introduced to a friend’s friend after months of distracted swiping on Tinder. I had entered this party a writer determined to cherrypick data for a story. An old book made me a character in someone else’s tale.
I put away The Wreck, but I swapped Gilead with a young woman for another old book – a cloth-bound sea green edition of the Marie Corelli novel Innocence: Her Fancy & His Fact, exactly the sort of Victorian melodrama to which I have entrusted several good years of my life. Inside, the book was stamped with the mark of Excelsior Book Stall from back when it was still on Hornby Road (now DN Road). Someone had gifted it: “To Nargis B Choksi, 1956.” Goodbye, I said to the sweethearts from Bhayander, the gloomy litigator, and the man who hoped to win a Palme d’Or someday, and slipped out. I had found the person I had come to meet.