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Books do furnish a city

Nilanjana S Roy | July 22, 2005

Somewhere on my bookshelves, there's a collection of modern verse that cost me Rs 15, three plates of papri chaat, one back massage and a paper on Jane Austen.

It's a thick volume, dense with marginalia in four different sets of handwriting. It started with Eliot and Yeats, which was where the English Literature syllabus of a decade ago stopped, and took us into what was then new, wildly exciting, uncharted territory with the poetry of Symborska, Brodsky, Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish.

image The four of us were regular visitors to the Sunday book bazaar held at Daryaganj: we were too broke to have more than a passing acquaintance with proper bookstores, but too hungry for books, in that, pre-liberalisati on era, to withstand the siren call of the pavement booksellers.

When our pockets were to let, we browsed hungrily and wistfully (and became extremely proficient speedreaders as a consequence). When we had the money, we greedily weighed the merits of Faulkner versus Nabokov, Faiz versus Ghalib, an Asimov compendium in tatters versus a single Arthur C Clarke novel in good condition.

We met friends doing the rounds; some only in search of calendar art pictures with which to decorate their rooms (now considered high kitsch art, but in our day they were just garish wallpaper), some in search of a Ludlum or Richard Bach, some penniless seekers after the truth according to Pinker or Chomsky.

We cultivated professors who might be induced to point us to rare finds and curiosities, most of these culled from the decaying libraries of the Raj.

There was usually enough left over for us to end the morning's outing with a visit to Old and Famous Jalebiwala or Parathewala Galli, relics of a pre-Barista age.

The compendium of verse was expensive, and we were Rs 10 short. R and J shrugged and suggested that we come back next week.

S and I argued that we'd spent the month's allowance anyway; next week we'd be even more broke. Then the bookseller, a dour man who had watched unmoved as we scrabbled for loose change, said gruffly, "Poetry ke liye discount hai (There is a discount for poetry)."

He took our money; we took the book and hitched a ride back home, because we had spent even the bus fare. It took me three months to buy out my co-owners, but it was a soft deal: we agreed they could borrow the book back at need.

J consulted it for love poetry he could crib and pass off as his own to impressionable girlfriends, R read the three poems by Rilke included in the collection and then saved up for four months until he could afford an entire Rilke compendium, S discovered a love of feminist poetry through Plath and others that eventually impelled her to apply to the US for further studies in feminist writings.

It's hard to convey what the Sunday book bazaar and the pavement booksellers in Connaught Place meant to us. There were no mass-market chains like Crossword or the Corner Bookstore; the Bookshop and the Bookworm were landmarks in a city that lacked quality bookshops, but were too expensive for us to patronise in those days.

Some of us had come from other cities -- Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), Bangalore. We knew the pavement booksellers there, whether 'there' was College Street or Flora Fountain.

Even today, when many markets in Delhi have at least one bookshop, and Café Coffee Day sells books along with its lattes and frappes, those pavement sellers are often a student's first lessons in paper-and-print love.

Last month, Mumbai's pavement booksellers were turfed out of the Flora Fountain area by an administration that sees no difference between them and illegal encroachers on public space.

They have since been relocated, but not in Flora Fountain itself. Then, Delhi's Sunday book bazaar came under threat. In both Delhi and Mumbai, the argument for throwing out the booksellers has been the one about 'public space'. The Sunday book bazaar was under threat of closure because a 'beautification drive' was in progress.

And I'm thinking, what better use of public space could you have than to use it as a vast and mobile library? Neither Mumbai nor Delhi has decent public libraries; Mumbai, for all its size, sprawl and energy, doesn't have the number of bookshops it needs to encourage a reading public.

A visit to a bookshop is a deliberate, planned affair; a stroll down sidewalks covered with books is serendipity at work. A book bazaar is for readers who might be too intimidated or too broke or too busy to step into a bookshop: it doesn't just belong in public space, it is in the best sense of the term, the public's very own space.

We shouldn't be reduced to defending pavement booksellers; we should be demanding more areas, in this mall-ridden city, where you can buy jalebis and hankies alongside ideas and excitement.

Sappho's lost ode: She wrote nine books of poetry, of which we have only a few fragments left to us -- so you can imagine the excitement when Michael Groenwald and Robert Daniel discovered more complete fragments of Sappho's poetry.

The poems were found in a papyrus used as packing in an Egyptian mummy case. Martin West has put together 'a restoration and translation' of a complete Sapphic ode, written 2,600 years ago and lost to us for almost 2,300 years.

Here it is:

"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:
[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark;
my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife."

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Number of User Comments: 4

Sub: yep!!

i have always been a huge book hunter (treasure hunting if u may call it).. moore market in chennai was not a place a 14 ...

Posted by sriharsha

Sub: books for bibliophiles

I was sad to know about the pavement book shops being thrown by the municipality in mumbai. I have also read many good books from ...

Posted by shoma

Sub: Books..

Kudos to you for a sensible and timely article on a timeless theme-the ineffable joy,fulfilling feeling and prophylactic power against the diseases and hollownesses of ...

Posted by Swarnendu Baksi

Sub: Its yesterday once more...

absolutely.. :) I totally agree with you. I myself being a patron of book places both in Delhi and Mumbai. Why cant the municipal corporation ...

Posted by Shruti


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