IN the 1960s, Dehra Dun's Paltan Bazaar was as throbbing a slice of life as one could ever wish for. Cycling downhill from the clock tower, a schoolboy could weave nonchalantly through the crowd, past shops selling imitation Bata shoes, Tip-Top cold drinks, school uniforms and everything else that the most demanding household could possibly need. Dark brown, delicious gulab-jamuns floated in gargantuan containers, crisp alloo tikkis were fried at the corner, peanuts and chikki sold in the light of paraffin lamps, a row of paan shops provided convenient mirrors for young men to comb their hair in the latest Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Biswajeet style and an appetising fragrance of freshly baked bread provided the magic. Enchanting, but not exactly the kind of place where one would expect to find an education in classical English Literature.
In a by-lane
But one day this schoolboy took a by-lane. Cycling past a row of ladies tailors, he reached some wooden shacks, selling school notebooks, HB pencils, scented erasers and the now-extinct Sulekha ink. In one of these sat a genial old man, his visage amazingly like P.G. Wodehouse, his smile hiding delightful secrets. He pushed aside a curtain and showed me what was to prove my key to literature: a huge bundle of the Classics Illustrated, and I somehow cannot make myself call them comics. Initially only four were purchased, for four annas each. And then a generous father stepped in, bitten by the bug himself. The classics began to gather — Silas Marner, Julius Ceaser, Cleopatra, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea... until everything that the Wodehouse look-alike could procure was bought and handed over to another one of the wooden stores, to be bound in batches of four. I have little embarrassment in admitting that so deep was the impact of those fine images that one never felt the need to read many of the books in full. What could match the poignant visage of Sydney Carton on the last page, as he looks up at the sky and says, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done."... or the anguish of Caesar as he looks over his shoulder and mutters, " Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look... " ... or the heartbreak of Cyrano de Bergerac reciting poetry below his cousin's balcony.
Paltan Bazaar is now a horribly crowded alley, my smiling benefactor has passed on, and his wooden shack has gone the way of much else that belonged to a lost world, but those volumes of second-hand Classics Illustrated with their spines of red cloth lie as a family treasure, to be read by the young of another generation in the curtained rooms of the summers of their youth...
Since then I have never resisted the ineluctable charm of any shop that sells second hand books, a charm distilled from an alchemy of the ageless smell of yellowing pages, the tenderness of an inscription to a loved one on the fly leaf, a trenchant comment pencilled in the margin. Added to that is the uniqueness of the experience — of knowing that one will meet neither revolving shelves containing the selection of the week nor authors organised in alphabetical order. Just about anything may be tucked in anywhere; it is all in the luck of the draw. And once the deed is done, nobody else will get the book with that angled handwriting of the first owner, or that decades-old forgotten bookmark, or sometimes even a stranger's photograph.
From Paltan Bazaar to Paris... . Hoofing around the city in the fall of 1983, I rummaged through some cartons full of old books outside a shop and came out victorious with Scribner versions of Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise with their broad pages, comfortable font and that cover which is neither paperback nor hardback. The cartons had been put outside by George Whitman, another aging kindly soul who set up the world famous bookshop, "Shakespeare and Co.", in 1951 on the left bank of the Seine. I have since wandered through that shop on every visit to Paris — even during a six hour transit halt on a drizzly afternoon — searching up and down its three floors crammed with books, through cubby-hole rooms with rugs and comfortable chairs, right up to a kitchen where one can make coffee and a bed in which many a struggling writer has spent a night free of charge. Be not inhospitable to strangers, Whitman believes, lest they be angels in disguise. And one should believe that all the more of struggling writers.
As many bookshops as there have been cities... and the evidence is scattered at random on the bookshelves. A burgundy leather copy of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, received in Dharamsala, Punjab by a certain Robert Percy Thatcher in November 1895 picked up in a little shop in the hills. A hardcover copy of The Essential Hemingway brings to mind a big hall in an unlikely building in Fort, Bombay. A Wodehouse in Italian was pocketed for a rupee on a chaotic pavement outside the old GPO at Flora Fountain. A marvellous leather bound copy of Keats that somebody bought in Valparaiso, wherever that is, came to hand in Bookworm, a haven for the lover of English books in francophone Geneva. A picture of Keats' grave is pasted in the book, with the epigraph, written by the poet himself on his deathbed, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
Bookworm, which one reached after negotiating streets where mini-skirted ladies of the night stood smoking at corners, haggard and drawn in the morning light, always yielded some treasure including my best copy of Three Men in a Boat and a leather-bound Shakespeare, gifted by one friend to another in memory of a happy birthday spent together in 1936. Two more Scribner Fitzgeralds — The Beautiful and the Damned and The Last Tycoon have drifted in from Blossom in Bangalore to give company to their Parisian sisters.
An old sketch of Persepolis recalls the treasure trove that was Second Story in downtown Washington DC. D. H. Lawrence's The Complete Short Stories will remind me forever of a wintry windy day in the old square of The Hague. And the excitement of a first visit to Islamabad reached fever pitch when I found the shop that has yielded so many photographs of 19th century Lahore and a wealth of old Hemingways and Joseph Conrads. But the last time I was there, the shopkeeper said, somewhat sheepishly,"Your books are now upstairs, Sir." And there they were, a mere shelf load; the rest of the shop was full of new books, bic pens, and school tiffin boxes.
Why are all good things doomed to go away?