Sunday, August 22, 2010
THE OLD BOOK SHOP
I like the old book shop. I have always liked its unassuming façade. Situated a little off the road, obscured by more fashionable stores, inside one of the gullies, it sits like a dollop of history. The flurry and fracas of frenzied movements and activities around it, is like a sudden jolt back to the present. There’s nothing in the shop’s unpretentious demeanour to attract attention or customer. The old man who owns it, sits quietly in a corner of its half lit interior, fanning his naked, sweaty chest with a hand made fan, the ones which you get in the local market, very reasonably priced.
Its cool inside - the high ceilinged room is part of a sprawling mansion, now in shambles, out of poor or nil maintenance, the expense being unaffordable. The ceiling fan, almost in its dotage, once switched on, creaks in protest irritatingly, somehow reminding me of my old aunt who used to while most part of sleepless nights whimpering of arthritic joint pains. The red tiled floor had, once upon a time, seen better days. It still boasts of the fading sheen of a steadily eroding era. The once whitewashed walls smell of seepage and are cold to touch – as cold as the frozen carcasses bedded with clinical care in a morgue. But the most attractive artifact in the whole room are the glass and teak almirahs filled with old, musty, yellow paged, a few moth eaten, books standing erect or slightly inclined in their leather and gold jackets, mute witnesses to history.
I call the old man kaku (uncle). I am his fortunate neighbour – fortunate to have discovered this abode of peace, a known and beloved zone of ink and quill, wherein I can trespass on my own whim and fancy, without being accused of infringing on privacy. There’s a high backed chair, which must have once gleamed with polish and care, but now lies in utter disgrace, with a broken arm and split seams. I love to doze in that chair and listen to kaku’s infrequent litany in a mild soporific state. There’s an odd kind of tranquility in that one-roomed shop – a “Havisham”ish surreality of stilled time like a crystalline droplet captured in the crook of leafy palm.
Sometimes, I rummage through the rows and rows of books – antiquated editions of Shakespeare, Elliot, Dickens, Shelly, Tennyson and many more, haphazardly stacked, reeking of ancient fragrance and flavour of the immortal by-gone. A few, as I ruffle their pages, shrivel into crumbs. Its not that nobody needs or reads them anymore! But in an age driven by eye-catching, mind-grabbing, media backed marketing and packaging syndrome and above all the electronic intervention, this shop lacks heavily in charisma, innovation and hype. It is settled in its own cocoon, fully conscious of its pricelessness marred merely by an acute detest to cumulate its glory by commodification.
An old gentleman often comes to visit kaku from Russle Street. It is then that I enjoy the privilege of being privy to an animated discussion of modern, medieval and ancient literature. Kaku sounds like a heritage encyclopedia from where tumbles out letters, words, phrases, metaphors, idioms, verses and prose, which may have put the modern literati to shame of blissful ignorance, had they cared to be the audience of such invaluable discourse.
At other times, he sits quietly lost in thought. He had a son whom he lost sometime in the year 1962. His wife departed to eternity soon after. I often hear him saying that he is just biding his time. His silence speaks more than words. His sighs of listless surrender to fate wander in that shop like a pall of smoke hovering over an evening sky. Sometimes he is in a talkative mood and muses aloud mostly of those days when the charcoaled streets echoed the clatter of horses’ hooves, the air reverberated with the arrogant and contemptuous commands of the rulers - the successors of the East India Company and the meek servility of a nation for two centuries giving way to a unique clash between the all powerful and an indomitable spirit.
At other times, he speaks of those roads and alleys awashed crimson with the vengeance of the youth smothered ruthlessly by dictatorial clasps under the garb of fragile democracy. But mostly he keeps quiet as the seasons pass by. In summers, the shop is a haven of cool rapture. In autumn the pale sun peeks through the open door with a slight smile of cognizance of a passer-by. In the winter, there is a suffuse of warmth and coziness inside. In spring, the street outside is flanked by green sentries in velvet uniforms shining in new-found vigour and virility. But I like the rainy season the most, accompanied by a mad, rustic wind, invariably brooming the counter and parts of the red floor with a wet brush. I inhale deeply both in unison – the intoxicant of the rain-soaked mud mash effortlessly mingling with the musty, rusty fumes of the fossilized past.
One morning a group of giggly teenagers walks in looking for some text books. Kaku welcomes with his toothless smile but disappoints them with,”Maa! Aami toh shey shaub boi raakhi naa!” (Child! I don’t keep such books!). The monotony of the afternoons are broken by the grunts and grumbles of the trams lumbering by – recalcitrant dinosaurs parading the earth absentminded of the clock ticking by fast ahead of their times. The evenings are quieter and the nights are the quietest when all noises are subdued by the deep silence of slumber. Sometimes, one or two antique collectors walk in and haggle for a volume or two. Kaku somehow seems hesitant to part with his possessions, but does so reluctantly, invariably succumbing to the dictates of the buyer. The diktats of survival rule over the passions of a collector, this being the only source of modest subsistence.
One day a stranger walks in and has a prolonged conversation in whispered tones by the end of which kaku seems highly agitated and the stranger consistently perseverant! I, merged in the background, can only pick bits and pieces of the conversation He talks of a plot of land and hassle-fee transactions. Kaku shakes his head vehemently and pleads with folded hands for the stranger to leave. A stranger with a dark, broad, satanic face and shrewd conniving eyes behind thick lensed glasses! A stranger with coils of gold chains around his neck which look more like the handcuffs on the wrists of jailbirds than adornments! A stranger with an equally strange smile which doesn’t reach up to his eyes, a gold tooth winking in the sun as he parts his lips to speak and a formidable frown depressing his forehead, as he leaves the shop grim faced - a foreboding of something foul in the offing.
We are afloat on the waves of time. But time has its own priorities. One day kaku is no more. The question of inheritance crops up but no distinct, direct or indirect succession is traceable to be bothered to take over the ruins. The Authorities, in whose hands ultimately the shop is vested, repeatedly comb the domain inch by inch, in search of some evidence of an heir apparent. A crumpled note is found at last bookmarked in one of the dog-eared volumes of Milton's “Paradise Lost”. It reads:” I have lost my son to the soil, I leave behind his memories to the toil of the learned who have laboured in silence to earn the Eternal Truth - the ever-elusive mirage much sought after but lost inevitably to destiny!”
Thereafter, I lose track as I move from city to city following my father’s transferable job. Decades later, I appear at the same spot, now an unrecognizable and irrevocably altered piece of landscape, marauded ruthlessly by monstrous machines and men. Concrete rubbles lie here and there. A half complete monolith raises its metallic tentacles towards the sky in an imperious stance. Half starved, bare chest labourers work ceaselessly atop the construct. Their rib cages, poorly silhouetted by a diaphanous sheath of perspiring skin, undulate with the movement of their limbs. Pot bellied, men with receding hair line in super-fine, snow-white fabrics, shout orders to harassed engineers, striving hard to strike a balance between the enormity of task and pre-fixed deadlines.
I look around and try to recall the exact location of the old shop the leather bound tomes, the mournful lifelessness of lost grandeur and the old man torn in the transition of time. Somewhere under the debris lie buried the relics of the past silenced by the madness of the present and impatience of the future, hurriedly losing identity to hasty mediocrity and machismo of mechanics and money. The old man and his bookshop, is coffined somewhere deep underneath, to be reminisced over in nostalgic moments of quiet musings.