The Unsung Heroes Of DN Road Champion Reading

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THE UNSUNG HEROES OF DN ROAD CHAMPION READING

WORDS BY YAKUTA HAJI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Bablu Chakraborty knows the value of both Jane Austen and Dan Brown and can help you find the perfect book at his DN Road book stall.

From BSE to Bollywood, posh nightclubs to shady bars, regional politics to boardroom bloodshed, whether you call it the city of dreams or the doom of the dreamers, Mumbai is a little bit of everything. And in the midst of all these contrasts, you will find comforting stories; stories of people who are nothing like you or I, yet every bit “us”.

Like the stories of Mumbai’s unexpected literati; not some elite book club discussing the printed word while sipping on expensive coffees, but a very modest bunch of bookish persons who line the cobblestone footpaths from Fountain to Fort. You’ll find these booksellers stationed at almost every turn of every street, amongst books piled high, eyeing the undecided craning their necks like Sherlock looking for clues, or watching bargain aficionados pretending to walk away real slow, silently hoping to be hailed back.

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But, don’t let their rustic demeanours or faltering accents fool you. They will rummage through the paperbacks to bring you Austens and Atwoods, Tolkiens and Tolstoys, Bertrands and Bradburys, Wildes and Woolfs. They may even recommend books, authors and genres just by seeing what you’ve picked. They know they’re losing business to online portals about whom they will snarkily say, “Pirate books bechte hain. Agar bithakar puchenge toh poetry aur patanjali mein fark nahi bata payenge.” (They sell pirated books. If you try to have a conversation on books, they won’t be able to tell Poetry from Patanjali).

I first came across Bablu Chakraborty on a book-hunting stroll. Deeply engrossed in what he is reading, he only moves occasionally to swat a fly or adjust his old-fashioned metal frames, sitting right on the edge of his nose. A closer look reveals he’s not leafing through the day’s regional newspaper but a management book on the Six Sigma business model. As I approach the nearest stall to browse, he stands up to attend to me.

Bablu ran away from home in Calcutta when he was very young. He came to Mumbai with nothing but a thirst for knowledge. Out of the many wayward options to earn a living, Bablu chose books.

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He talks to us in semi-fluent English, his preferred language for reading. I pick a dilapidated edition of The Second-Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and put it back. He carefully asks me if I know it’s a philosophical book and not cheap erotica. I am a bit taken aback, but I assure him I know. I encourage him to go on. He’s surprised at my interest in his opinion, but continues, “Some ignorant people read the title and think it is pornography. They don’t know it is philosophy, a history of women. They don’t understand.” His words, not mine.

For Bablu, there are two kinds of books. He points at the exhaustive list of bestseller fiction from the worlds of Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown and the Twilight Sagas, saying, “I’m not fond of these, but it makes 80% of my income. It feeds my stomach.” He then picks up the battered copy of the Second Sex, Orwell’s 1984 and Russell’s The Conquest Of Happiness from a semi-hidden pile and gives me a hearty smile, “These books; they feed my brains and my soul.”

It is my turn to be surprised.

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After our conversation about books and our common love for them, there’s a spring in Bablu’s step and a smile on his face as he packs our books. I recognise in it the universal camaraderie of the book-lover. He then picks up reading from right where he left off.

As a kid, I never understood why my mother, who wasn’t a big fan of walking, stopped at this particular street and had us go through the piles of paperbacks. But maybe she was getting us acquainted with the way wisdom smells, the safety of stories, the magic of the written word. Maybe she hoped or dreamed someday, we’d find our way back here to the gigantic book forts of her childhood.

Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji Road, Near Flora Fountain, Fort, Mumbai 400 001

 

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