Sep 3, 2015

"...ageing pages, a slower time"

Pia of recently wrote of an area of Calcutta from her past where "secondhand bookshops created a strip that smelled of ageing pages, a slower time". Her piece was luminous, as usual and ended with a prod to the readers to share their memories.

I'm certain that every Calcuttan can name their own personal favorite from the time before cable TV and internet broke-up the long and innately Bengali marriage of reading and 'adda'. The picture that flashed before MY eyes was of the boulevard between Gol Park and Gariahat in South Calcutta. The once grassy median trapped between bi-directional traffic on arterial Gariahat road, used to be crowded with rickety stores selling everything from second hand books to clothes.

This was where my uncle or dad would bring us kids in moods of indulgence. The official book shopping trips to stores in Gariahat or Park Street were stilted, oppressive events when every proposed purchase inevitably incurred a micro-examination. A careful appraisal of whether or not the full-price purchase was justified included key questions like: was it literary entertainment? informative/educational? re-readable and thus worthy of shelf space at home? Well bound to last mishandling and sustain a long life? etc. Not unlike the strategy I employ with my son now, come to think of it.

But at Gol Park, with its throw-away prices, frivolity was the order of the day. There was also a lot of distraction and delicious opportunities to slip one over protective parents. For instance, at age 14, my dad inadvertently bought me 3 trashy Eric Segal novels (I'd just been floored by 'Love Story') though he had barred me from all bestsellers and romance. He was too immersed in the thick Robert Ludlum novels he'd just picked up himself to spare more than a passing glance at the stack I held out to him. I had been careful to place on the very top a book deceptively titled 'Doctors' and to pipe up at the key moment, '15 rupees for them all, Bapi!'

In later years as my tastes improved, I remember buying my first Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez  from those stalls. The pages were worn thin and the spines held together with callous-like layers of yellowed cellotape, testament to their re-reading value. The books lasted just long enough to unlock the magic of really good writing before disintegrating and being fed to the 'oonun' (clay, fire burning stove) that my grandmother still maintained in our family kitchen. No matter though...a love of yellowing marked-up pages was already deeply entrenched by then, helped along by my grandfathers carefully preserved collections of P.G. Wodehouse and Country Western Novels in our home. The smell and feel of dated, often worm-holed pages still makes me head to used book stores rather than chain book retailers. I especially love the ones with margin and foot notes. In my youth, the connection was to my family but in the wide world, the connection to unknown others is as immeasurable as it is electric. It's a grounded feeling, that other hands have touched the pages, other minds have stirred in ways perhaps similar to mine at these words....that we are all connected, no matter what we might think.

That strip of stores on Calcutta's Gol Park holds another memory for me.

It would have been the beginning of my second year at Loreto College, Calcutta. I had seen a measure of success in drama and singing in my first year, winning a few medals and cups in contests. A play I had directed and acted in (in a college play contest) had received some accolades too. (I believe it won 'Best Play' and I won 'Best supporting actress' and '2nd best director')
        Having been schooled in a relatively non-competitive British system, shiny awards were new to me and had me suitably awed. They seemed to emanate gravitas and a kind of dignity that made me breathless with pride and disbelief, humbled by gratitude. The glow lasted a good few months, in the course of which, among other things, I was elected President of the college Dramatic Society. One of my new duties was to arrange an inter-college play competition and procure the trophies and plaques for the winners. (In the same period, my dad quietly disappeared from our lives. It was a massive heart attack.)

I made inquiries of the ex-DramSoc Presi, Chaitali (nurturing though she'd graduated) then found myself visiting that old familiar 'strip' on Gol Park. The shack was within view of the corner shop where years ago, I'd hoodwinked Bapi into supplying me with sappy novels. It gave me frissons of delight, that the naive girl with poor literary taste of years ago should be shopping with such authority and consequence today. My smile and grown-up glow lasted all of the 2 minutes it took for the shopkeeper to dive into the cartons under his table. On the scratched and worn wood of the makeshift counter before me, he unceremoniously tipped out a few sample trophies and medals.

They were almost identical to the ones I'd won the past year.

He then slapped down 3 different base options for the trophy cups, rattling off their respective prices in an indifferent monotone. As he ran through the costs of inscribing names on the plaques, the scales fell a few more notches and I gazed with horrified eyes at the hitherto revered symbols of my success, glowing cheaply against the dull wood.

I had never thought of their existence before collegiate validation transformed them into benedictions. Baseless, nameless pieces of metal churned out in hundreds, for sale for a few rupees. It struck me that Chaitali would have stood in the same spot as I a year ago, haggling over prices to stretch the limited DramSoc funds, and eventually bagging the trinkets that were to be cloaked in honor later on. Now others would come after me.

My shine of importance and consequence vanished with a sigh and the responsibility and agency I'd felt only moments ago, turned gently into dust and settled on my weary shoulders.

As the shopkeeper wrapped up my purchases in newspaper, I counted out the money and stole a glance at the bookseller on the corner where I'd bought my contraband just a few years ago. People were browsing, as they always are. I remember wishing I was one of them again, breathing in old pages, devouring inky footnotes and exulting in thumbing authority, instead of being it.

All these years later, that strip is barren, covered by a flyover that eases traffic congestion. The shops are all but gone, a few surviving book vendors still huddled outside brick and mortar shops on the road. But that's just the passage of time for you...leaves nothing untouched,

Fair enough. After all, I also don't creak anymore under loneliness, groan under responsibilities the way I did in my early-twenties. I try to bend with them, exhale mindfully (when I can) and reach out to touch what matters, discard what doesn't. If a sense of desolation visits me now and again, I can identify and name it as a transient experience. Because I've seen them come and go before.

The things that last are faded, footnoted pages in beloved books, old pictures of hard earned trophies and the bittersweet memories of moments that yanked us into adulthood. These are the good things that, at an older age, I'm sure I will recall "smelled of ageing pages, a slower time" (in Pia's words).

As nasal irrigation washes out very little phlegm.....
Me: Yay! I think this means your'e coming to the end of this viral infection!
O: Aw! I'm going to miss this virus! Even though it hurt my nose when I out-haled.
Me: It also gave you a nasty fever and you're still coughing!
O: But it also let me watch shows at home for 2 days! There's always good and bad, Mummum. You've got to look at the good side. That's what I say.


  1. We do speak of the same strip, Chandreyee. And there's more in common there. Certainly the early, bad taste in literary choices (let's call it rite of passage, shall we?), the freedom that came with low prices, the keep-the-best-book-on-top (and the Sidney Sheldon at the very bottom, in one instance). Loved reading this!

    PS: Oyon has a wise head on his young shoulders.

    1. Glad I wasn't the only one to use those dastardly ploys. :-)

      We should write more about the pleasures of used books too.There's an ancient Agatha Christie novel on my bedside that I can never read past page 7 because those first few pages are full of blue biro footnotes....word definitions in Italian! I keep getting lost in the imagined life of that reader who translated 'greens' (meaning vegetable side dish in that context) as 'verde' it must have skewed the meaning of that sentence as they tried to parse out meaning. I wonder if they gave up on page 7 and whether they ever tried to read in English again. In a Flash Fiction group I used to run, one of my writing prompts was 'a stain on page 67'. I wrote of a coffee ring that blotted out key words in an instruction manual but you should have seen how many directions the other writers took. Fascinating, no?

  2. It took me back too, of course those shops were newer to us old folks compared to the ones in College Square. But I shopped there too. But what was that---they sold medals and cups too?

    The tail piece is great---Oyon does spell it out.

    1. Polkadot: the stalls there were pretty diverse though I guess you had to know about them. I think it was mostly books though, or at least book lovers were drawn there and discovered the other wares. I'm not very familiar with College Street stalls (we lived in South cal so Gol Park was more accessible, then in college, moved to Park st so the Freeschool street stalls became familiar). Frankly, i fond College St intimidating....all the text books and political themes overshadowed any fiction that might lurk there (and that I was usually after). Did you live closer to College St? What are your 2nd hand book store memories?