Unknown Bestsellers








Supermodel Padmalakshmi is in Chennai. The host of the popular television show Top Chef, now a cookbook writer, was visiting her grandmother South India’s oldest newspaper reported. I too am visiting my hometown, but I plan to stay clear of relatives.

There is little for me to do here. Most things I liked in my neighborhood are gone: the cannon ball tree in the courtyard of a small temple, the store that sells peanuts in newspaper cones, and the open-air market for flowers and fruits in a narrow lane off the bazaar. But the place which made a reader — I wonder if  it is still standing. As soon as the thought occurs to me — my feet head in that direction. They don’t wait for instructions.

In my childhood, when the city was called Madras, I borrowed books from a lending library where cobalt-blue bookshelves ran from floor to ceiling. Our school library kept classics and encyclopedias locked up in glass-fronted cabinets. My parents didn’t see why students should read anything other than textbooks. So this place — though it didn’t know it — was the only hope for would-be readers like me.

The owner was a former waste-paper dealer. Apparently, wealthy discarded books and magazines along with their monthly stack of newspapers — by the kilo. And the man set aside the discarded books and magazines. Soon, his clients who couldn’t afford to buy novels and magazines began renting titles from that pile. The chance inventory clamored for a new home. Past the stores that sold bridal saris, he set up shop nearly five decades ago. He stands behind the register, chats with customers, and keeps an eye on everything around him. I don’t believe he reads books — not even the Tamil magazines. He is no longer in the waste-paper business but that remains his primary source when he has to bolster his stock of pulp fiction. Till the books fall apart he keeps renting them out.

When I had visited this library for the first, I was a schoolgirl in pigtails. Along with my friends, I’d squatted right by the bookshelves to sample the fare. The staff clearly had instructions to shoo away lingerers, but we had to see what was on offer before we would put down our membership deposits. My friends and I decided to exchange books to maximize returns. By the time we finished high school, some of us became compulsive, if indiscriminate, readers.  Then, we all went our separate ways.

And now I was back. On that busy commercial street, I strolled past multi-storied sari shops, all air-conditioned, with attractive window displays. My feet took me to the storefront with the cobalt-blue shelves. The owner was behind the counter. He had aged the way characters age in a school play: he wore outsize glasses and had some grey in a full head of hair. He didn’t seem to recognize me. Hesitantly, I began to browse. Then, I remembered. I had not claimed the refundable membership deposit of Rs.10 — roughly a quarter — so technically I still belong.

Once, an uncle of mine had shuddered seeing me read one of these books. He mimed a borrower scratching his backside as he flipped though a magazine. In its heyday, this place served an assortment of members: men and women, young and old, those who read in the vernacular and those who read in English. It had fulfilled its purpose. Now, there were mousetraps on the floor. Maybe, it had always been a dump and I had just never noticed the mustiness, the nth-hand books, and, yes, the clunky mousetraps.

“Any particular title you want, Madam?” asked a voice, cutting into my reverie. It was the owner, with whom I’d haggled over the rental of a book many a time. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Manohar Malgoankar’s The Devil’s Wind and asked for other books by that author of princely sagas. “But this is his best book, Madam,” he said indignantly. A lit major with a dissertation on Malgoankar’s works couldn’t have sounded more convincing. Such titles used to be housed in a separate wing before, so I turn my head towards the flight of stairs. “Upstairs, sold Madam,” he said woefully.

We used to access that wing, unconnected to the main entrance, through a tricky staircase. Stray cats took shelter from the relentless sun, right by the landing. The staff shadowed us to make sure we didn’t make off with books without stopping at the front desk. Past the tailors’ stores, they followed us as if they had just remembered an important errand in the bazaar below. Occasionally, they caught a pilferer. “A person, who goes to school, should know better than to steal,” the owner would tell the offender.

The owner’s sons are educated and won’t inherit the business. So unlike the competition, he hasn’t computerized operations. “Nobody reads anymore Madam,” he tells me with a shrug. Why does he bother to run the place at all, I wonder. The age of e-readers is upon us anyway. Just then a patron wanders in to ask for the latest issue of some magazine. Someone has checked it out. She doesn’t seem to particularly care. She sets down her grocery bags, and begins chatting with the owner about this and that. Moving to the topic of grown children, they bemoan the habits of this generation at some length. Maybe, this is reason the place is still open — it allows the owner to socialize.

Dusk is falling fast. In this newly prosperous city, traffic gets impossibly chaotic during rush hour. I have a feeling the library won’t be there the next time I visit — some textile retailer would annex the space. This is Chennai’s Saks Fifth Avenue after all. Near the exit I see a shelf with the label “Unknown Bestsellers.” What does that mean? Bestsellers which are not as well known as they should be in these parts? Who told the owner about them? But I cannot linger to find out more. The crush of evening shoppers will descend on the main road any minute now.

Hailing a passing auto-rickshaw, I head home. En route is Nalli’s, where Padmalakshmi supposedly buys bolts of silk. Does she actually shop with the masses or is just the kind of thing you tell a reporter? I don’t see her that evening — a supermodel is easy enough to spot even in those throngs. Not that it matters, but I do hope no relative of mine has spotted me  either in this gossipy old town.

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