Along a busy pavement of Gariahat Road, a more-shops-than-residences street in south Kolkata, is a bundle of tiny second-hand stores stacked with nostalgia. Brimming with books, the pavement stalls spill over one another. A sheet of blue tarpaulin over them adds a cool glow to the narrow corridor left for pedestrians. When preoccupied customers unintentionally block the way, passers-by mutter “Dada, ektu side,” guiltily, trying to get on their way.
“Oh sorry.” They step aside to make way and continue browsing. Sadly, the frequency of these interruptions has dropped drastically over the past two decades.
In the 1990s, my mother brought me here regularly to buy books. She found the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street too expensive. Collections of The Faraway Tree series were soon followed by those of The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. Gradually, titles such as Black Beauty, Little Women, Rip Van Winkle, Panchatantra, Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, and everything by Roald Dahl made the journey from those rickety shelves to the bookracks at home.
All of these books were what is now called pre-owned, though “second-hand” was the respectably accepted term back then. Some were tattered, with pages the colour of autumn. Some had library card holders glued to the inner back cover, with ancient dates stamped on them. Others had the cursive signatures of their owners, or messages written on them to signal they were gifts. In Gariahat, I could buy five old books for the price of a new one. Even today, I can buy five old books for the price of a new one. And that is precisely why the existence of these bookstores might soon wither like the ink on the books they stack.
In a royal blue T-shirt, his teeth half-broken, and his hair fancily grown long only from the centre of his head and flowing back, 48-year-old Mohan Das sits cross-legged at his stall. Smoking a beedi while wistfully passing the lazy Thursday morning hours, he yearns for customers. About thirty years ago, when Das opened his stall, he took in Rs 500 a day only by lending books to readers. That was a lot of money at that time. Today, Das does not even hit the Rs 100 mark daily, and that too only if he sells a book. “The tradition of borrowing doesn’t exist anymore, nobody wants to read,” he says.
Das complains that people who once used to turn up with cartons full of books to either donate or to sell now come by with only a handful. And the number of these people has shrunk drastically. He now depends on his small network of suppliers who may or may not have the books he wants to sell. Experience has taught him to choose his books wisely.
Das studied English as a third language in school and college. He says it took him about four months to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he considers Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities among his favourites. He fell in love with Antonio’s wit and cleverness while reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “The court scene is my favourite...Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh...” he dramatically breaks into Portia’s words.
When he is not attending to a customer, or having a conversation with fellow booksellers, he keeps himself busy reading. “When I was younger, I only wanted to spend my time reading classic novels because they’re challenging and they tell great stories. Nowadays, 90% of teenagers only want to read Chetan Bhagat.” Das says he swore never to read another book written by Bhagat after Five Point Someone. He also could not get past more than two pages of Durjoy Dutta’s When Only Love Remains.
Another veteran bookseller, Deep Saha, 70, who has been here for the past fifty years, says he is adjusting to his circumstances and making a daily effort to come to terms with his reality. “Most of my customers want comics,” he says. “Not the popular comics, they come looking for lesser-known titles, and I don’t even know where to get them.”
Chandan, a middle-aged man who has been a customer for about thirty years, wants to buy a copy of Pharaoh by Wilbur Smith. He finds one in good condition. Das asks him for Rs 100 but Chandan has only Rs 50 on him. Chandan asks him to keep Rs 50 and reserve the book, but Das doesn’t feel like doing that. A frustrated Chandan leaves, and Das lets go of what might have been his only sale in the entire day.
He then dreamily states that he would love to eat meat for dinner with his family instead of the daily daal-bhaat...
Apart from two of the stores that look hallway permanent, the rest of the hawkers lay their books on the pavement. Das packs up all of his books, covers them with sheets of tarpaulin and then binds the whole thing with ropes. Anybody can steal these, but nobody does.
Kiosks selling clothes on this stretch have nearly doubled in number but the thirty-odd West Bengal bookstalls which have been here for close on half a century have remained unchanged in number. Operation Sunshine, which was carried out by the CPI(M) government in 1996 to reclaim many of Kolkata’s pavements for pedestrians made many roadside traders lose their business.
Das – and some others like him – ran temporary services for six months, showing up every day with a small stock of books, packing them and making off whenever the police were on view. Several sold their businesses. The handful who survived on the strength of protests at that time have been struggling to thrive ever since. All the shopkeepers agree that the future looks bleak.
Das’s 14-year-old daughter, Sukanya, wants a career in medicine, but he cannot afford it. He is encouraging her to become a teacher instead – he believes there is nothing more noble than spreading knowledge. Either way, she won’t be sitting at the bookstore trying to revive her father’s dying business.
Middle-aged Mrinal Mondal, another hawker, has two young school-going children, and does not want them to look after his store once they grow up. He says he was forced to take over after his father died at an early age.
A third bookseller, who sells academic books, has no family. He doesn’t know what will happen after he’s gone. “Who cares about what happens when I’m not there,” he says. “I won’t be alive to see it anyway! Here, why don’t you enjoy a cup off doodh cha instead?” He offers me a tiny cup of tea and asks his tea-seller friend to put it on his tab.
Lost in fleeting childhood memories, I sit on the pavement sipping on my cup of summer tea.
Das interrupts my wavering thoughts from a distance to ask me what I’m going to write. I tell him that I don’t know, and ask him what he wants me to write.
“Oh, there is not much left of this place. Come, I will show you something.” He takes out a few books and shows me the back pages filled with text in Bangla. I cannot read the language too well, so I ask him what it is.
“This is about life. This one about love, and this one about beedis,” he tells me as he flips the pages.
Das’s interest in reading has led him to write poetry. Below his verse, he signs off as “Mani Mohan”. Mani is his wife’s nickname.
“I love my wife so much that I’ve attached her name to mine,” he says with a blush. He says he has also written about fictional characters such as Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada, but those poems are in his diary at home.
These days he is investing his time on reading the Oxford dictionary. He doesn’t want to sell it until he has consumed the entire dictionary at least once.
“If I can’t be rich, at least I must be knowledgeable,” Das smiles.
All photographs by Chandni Daulatramani.
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