The Bookseller

11 May

It is amazing how complete strangers can leave such an important impression on your life & thinking and become an integral part of your memories through a simple, maybe an everyday gesture for them, yet an unforgettable experience.

This happened way back in 1997. I had just started working and was absolutely new to a mad place called Mumbai. Having lived in small towns all my life, place was a culture shock. Hustle and bustle of that city can disconcert the most hardened person, even a regular sometimes, you can imagine my state of mind in that place. This combined with the daily train travel gave me jitters every morning at 8:17 and at 6:12 every evening. I could bear the mental trauma for a couple of days, till I finally decided this was beyond endurance for my gentle soul nurtured for the last 25 years by  gentle breeze and shades of lush trees of my childhood & youth. And I need to find a way to survive in this maddening city. Finally I discovered the sea of humanity that rushes towards railway station at 5:45 in the evening,turns into a snarling mouth of a river at 6:45 and by 9:30 it is kind a natural flowing river, still strong currents but one could somehow swim. Mornings there was no option but evenings one could avoid the madness.

My office used to get over around 6:30, question now was where to spend 3 hours and that too everyday. Once or twice a week I could catchup with friends and enjoy bacchanalian camaraderie but what about rest of the week. But the plan was ready and had to be executed. My office was in VT, so on the designated day, I left office and rather than taking the raod that lead to the station, I turned in the opposite direction and started walking towards nowhere. I walked without any direction and without any aim. I must have walked for an hour or so when a shop caught my “Strand”, ah a bookstore, with nothing else to do and  books always have a magnetic pull for me, I entered the shop. And I was like Alice in Wonderland. It was a small place but every space that was there was filled with books, of every size, shape,color,subject. It was a treasure trove. I doubt I would ever forget that smell. Smell of the written word.

I had finally found my destination. My escape from the madness.

From that day onwards, I would religiously go to that bookstore every evening. I got so very addicted to the place that I would wait for the day to get over so that I could just stand there amidst the books, rain, sun, summer, whatever the weather I would make my evening appointment without fail. I would buy a book maybe once in 10 days or so, but every day add to the list of books which i planned to buy. I think at that time my list ran to some 3 years, at book a week. I started calculating my expenditure where I could save so that I could buy the one next on the list. If I spent say 250 bucks on a drinking session and book was for say 750, I would skip next three drinking sessions, logically saved that money and that was immediately used to buy that book. Those were days of limited resources, one had to make the means by whatever means.

On one such day, I was going through the books, when this voice came from behind that said, you should read this book. I turned and saw this old gentleman standing behind me with a book in his hand. I knew who he was, after all he was person who was also there everyday like me, difference while I was a customer (not very profitable but a customer nevertheless),  he was the owner of that place. He was Mr. T.N. Shanbhag. So, I took the book from him, it was not on my list, but seemed interesting, it was hard bound, I turned the back to check the price and almost dropped the book, it was almost 30% of my monthly salary (it was not expensive, my salary was too low). So I politely returned the book back to him and said nice book but I would buy it some other time. He pushed the book right back in my hand and said take it today. And he added,do not look at the price, pay me Rs 100 and take the book. I do not want to gift you this book, buy it but buy at this price. Since he was so adamant, I paid the price and took the book. It was a wonderful book.

I kept on going to his shop and once in a while he would keep recommending me these expensive books and selling them to me at the same ridiculous prices. One day, it was raining heavily and shop was relatively empty, I overcame my shyness and asked him why did he give me so many books at such low prices. He said that he had this shop for the last 50 years and made enough money for him from many customers. But the reason he had opened this book shop so many years ago was  not to make money but to make books accessible to people and inculcate a habit of reading. He added that these days so few people enjoy reading that  it gave him more happiness to give books than probably the person to get books. He sad that books are meant to be shared, books are for knowledge, books are for enjoyment and not for making money. Money is incidental and a necessity to keep the idea floating.

I left Bombay at the end of 1998, but that shop and Mr. Shanbhag always stayed with me. In 2003 Mr. Shanbhag was   awarded with Padma Shri  for inculcating the habit of reading across generations. I have heard stories about people who used to come to this store as kids, still come there, now with their grand children. 

I doubt one can ever judge the value such a person brings to a society or even fathom the impact he must have made on hundreds like me over so many years. I as one of the beneficiary of his generosity  can only humbly bow and say thank you for everything. Thank for making me feel welcome to your shop everyday. Thank you for making me feel welcome even when I did not buy any book for weeks. Thank you for that little conversation. Thank you for all the books you gave me for nothing. I still keep them and  give them to whosoever asks for them, sometimes even to those who don’t. I agree with you that the best gift you can give to a child is a book. Thank you for making my life richer and more enjoyable, and giving the joy of reading lots of things i would not have discovered otherwise. And finally thank you for making my years in Mumbai enjoyable and happy. 

Mr. Shanbhag  passed away on Feb. 27, 2009. 

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3 Responses to “The Bookseller”

  1. Gauri May 14, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    i have heard of Mr Shanbag from someone.. just cant place where and from whom.. a nice tribute..

  2. John Doe May 21, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    All hail people like Shanbhag and Syed.

  3. John Doe May 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm #

    why do I read.

    Sometimes, I like to think that it is nature which has made me that way. An idle fancy, but so untrue. The truth is, I read because at the right time of my life, someone presented me with the right book.

    It is my theory that everyone can be a reader. Provided they have been introduced to this passion properly. (Lot of the resistance to books that you find can be attributed solely to the endeavours of mediocre teachers.)

    So people like Shanbhag who have dedicated their lives to introducing readers to books are priceless. They are the ones who keep this passion alive.

    I would like to pay personal respects to the Shanbhags in my life. Shankar and Mrs. Shankarnan, Mrs. Mukherji and Syed. Of course there are also countless others.

    Thanks.

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