LOSE YOURSELF IN THE TOWERS OF BOOKS AT D.N. ROAD
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY GENESIA ALVES
The D.N. Road booksellers may be fewer in number, but the book towers they build are more elaborate.
The city is so starved of space we’re inured to the fact that it’s constantly grabbed from under our feet. Big People bring sheafs of legal papers and shout through the media that they must carve this park up, kill 2,000 trees, put a hunk of concrete in – “look, you’ll get a train station”. Small People come secretly in the early hours of the morning, furtively suspend the ubiquitous blue tarpaulin and set up home or shop underneath. Mostly, I put my Mumbai-proof headset on and refuse to engage with “what it all means”. But on some days news of large-scale public land-grabbing will paralyze me with deep despair. And because I must cede my right to walk safely on pavements to hawkers every day as I dodge rabid Mumbai traffic, I wish them and their tat all into the filthy damn sea. All except the guys who sell books.
Across the city – in Matunga, near Churchgate, at Flora Fountain – the expansive curves of the old, gracious footpaths are generous enough to be piled deep and high with management textbooks and materia medica, literary fiction and penny dreadfuls, the complete works of Abraham Lincoln and, “My goodness, when did Atul Gawande write all those books?”
After a few years of playing hide and seek with the authorities and their capricious attitude to keeping public spaces un-encroached upon, the D.N. Road booksellers are back. There seem to be fewer of them, but the towers and turrets they build out of books are more elaborate. You know, just by glancing at the titles, that you will find an amazing something you were not looking for.
Some of the books are second-hand treasures, names written in pencil, with a date… Some are still wrapped tightly in the plastic from the printing press.
The vendors are vague about where they get their stock. They’re quick to reassure you that these are not the pirated versions of bestsellers you get at signals, with blank pages in the centre or chapter one repeated over and over until it reaches the rough approximation of a book (I assume Chetan Bhagat readers wouldn’t know the difference). Some of the books are second-hand treasures, names written in pencil, with a date… Some are still wrapped tightly in the plastic from the printing press. There are old-fashioned books I imagine modern interior decorators buy by the running foot to fill the decorative bookshelves of their passionless clientele – sombre maroon hardcovers with gilt titling and volumes numbered in roman numerals. A little girl squeals. She’s found Asterix in Spain! Her mother, heartened by her daughter’s luck, asks the man in charge if he has a book on the architecture of South India. He walks into the stalagmites he has built that morning and picks a large volume out.
My husband, R – Mr. Tsundoku himself – had only yesterday announced boldly he was going to clear our exploding bookshelves. He emerged an hour later with all of eight books he was willing to part with. Now he looks at me slightly apologetically and dives into the rickety warren of spires the booksellers have built. I enter too, following the smell of agarbattis that burn with blithe disregard to the kindling they’re surrounded by, altars tinged blue by the tarpaulin above. I find Gillian Tindal’s City of Gold, a biography of Bombay, its first page marked by a certain Ms. Anees who bought it 1992. One of the vendors brings out a massive tome, a collection of Norman Rockwell magazine covers. There is no room in our bookshelf for this one, and we touch it gently and shake our heads. But there is a recipe book from London restaurant Moro that features recipes from the Muslim Mediterranean. We add to this two children’s books for my five year old’s school library. A young man walks up to R and says, “I have 25 minutes before I have to leave for the airport. Will I find something really amazing here? I’ve heard so much about this corner.” R does the literary equivalent of swooshing a cape in acquiescence – but to the casual observer it looks like a brisk nod and he leads this young fellow into the lit-fic section of one of the stalls.
There seem to be fewer of them, but the towers and turrets they build out of books are more elaborate. You know, just by glancing at the titles, that you will find an amazing something you were not looking for.
I chuckle to myself and look for the one thing that marks the roadside bookstall in Mumbai/India… Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I find it, piled into satisfying book-spine poetry, amongst vampire books, Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good and Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History.
As we walk away, I blame the heavy monsoon air for the sudden flash of intense connection I feel with this, my once-glorious, old, crumbling, space-starved, neglected, intrepid city. I make eye contact with Dadabhai Naoroji, the grand old man of India, thinker and intellectual, sitting on his chair, a book in his hand, as if he too just made an impulsive purchase from the stalls behind him. As if he also thinks that as long as there’s space on every pavement to build castles out of books, we can still hope that things will get better.
Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji Road, Near Flora Fountain, Fort, Mumbai 400 001