Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Far From The Mall-ing Crowd

A Professor of Philosophy and an acquaintance had called us for a rendezvous at his residence in Malleshwaram. A man of two parts (actually, many more), as he described himself, he was a writer by ‘vritti’ (practice) and a Hindustani classical vocalist by ‘pravritti’ (proclivity).  And yet it was his self-confessed academic interest in Kenya/Africa and Goa that served as the perfect bridge for us to meet. The fact that we had spent three-and-a-half years in Kenya and are currently stationed in Goa made this a coincidental, almost pre-destined meeting. Over a traditional Melkote meal prepared by the Professor himself we discussed Kenya and books on Africa. That is when he mentioned John Gunther’s ‘Inside Africa’ which set off a chain of meetings and events that made for a special Bengaluru day and experience, indeed.

During our stint in Kenya, we had avidly devoured - browsed, read, collected - all manner of literature on Africa, but to our surprise the aforementioned compendium, a 1955 vintage, had eluded us. That is when the Professor, in a gesture of magnanimity, called up his source – a friend and book-collector of rare books, to ask if he had or could procure another copy of Gunther’s Africa. A copy was available - just for us - we were told.  The Professor proposed the next date, at a central location from where he would take us to his oft-patronized rare and second-hand bookstop. He, thus, opened up yet another window of discovery.

We find ourselves in the heart of South Bangalore at a busy marketplace with its honking rickshaws and scurrying traffic. Away from the urban chaos, tucked in a quiet cul de sac is a modest dwelling housing an unlikely bookshop. The open terrace leads into an extension room which is brimming with books.  Used books and second-hand bookshops often wear a distinctly disdainful and devil-may-care look (the owner is the culprit, of course) almost as though proclaiming that they are worth their titles, not their appearance. But not this one; here most of the tomes are neatly laminated and certainly look well-tended. If mere volumes were a measure of a book-shop’s merit than this would be a roadside eatery. But soon we discover that this is getting to be a fine dining experience. A bespectacled man in his 70s in crisp white shirt and grey trousers is its humble proprietor.

Like a jeweller unravelling his collection of rare gems, this gentleman (who shall remain unnamed on his request) pulls out diamonds. He thumbs the six-volume first edition of Winston Churchill’s rendering of World War II which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Entire works, such as Radhakrishnan’s treatise on Hindu Philosophy and translation of Rig Vedas by a Western scholar, grace the shelves. Other eclectic titles vie with each other for eyeballs - Edmund Hillary’s ‘High Adventure’ and Charles Darwin’s ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ (Books that have changed Man's thinking), among them. I spot the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers’ which awakens a distant memory. Having seen the book in Wellington’s Staff College library, I had looked for it high and low, made widespread enquiries, to no avail. Finally, I got my second-hand copy through a friend based in London who put up a request on UK Command and Staff College library intranet. The copy here is in a better condition and being offered at third the price at which I got mine a decade ago! And that brings me back to the “Shanbag” of this nameless bookshop.

Like any true-blue book-lover, Mr. M collected books to an untenable degree, but unlike most book-lovers he took his passion a notch higher and brought it to an altruistic conclusion. By ‘recycling’ his amassed wealth he is, in a way, spreading his love of books.  But his method of doing this is very subtle. You’ll not find any board outside his house (“because I do not want to disturb my neighbours”) nor any advertisements or promotions to announce his presence. For nearly 15 years, he has sustained his business through word-of-mouth publicity or as he puts it, “through good wishes of friends and acquaintances like the Professor”. At once he pleads that we buy books from him in future, and in the same breath insists that we do not spread the word indiscriminately as he doesn’t wish to handle regular customer traffic. Our surmise is that it is a ploy to sieve in genuine book lovers.  Mr. M admits that it has been an avenue for income post-retirement, but it is evident that he is not in it for profit. His old-world values disallow him from making financial gains from what is a labour of love. He covers the books with dust-proof jackets, meticulously, all by himself. “This space itself was a gift from Swami Raghvendra (saint-philosopher, much revered in Karnataka and Andhra). When I had no money to buy a house, a Good Samaritan offered me this at an affordable rate. Recently, I was offered 2 crores of rupees for this house. But I will never part with it. This house is 130 years old,” he gets voluble.

I come away with my “Inside Africa”, a gift from the Professor, and a compendium on Indian Climbers and Shrubs, a 1954 BNHS edition, for a meagre sum, among others.  I part ways with Mr. M assured in the thought that some of my books now have a refuge too if and when I seek to declutter my home library.  And that they will fall into deserving hands.

We take leave of Mr. M and as we are sauntering around in the neighbourhood, another old house, patina of peeling wall-paint and all, catches my attention.  Bimba Art Hut has a magnetic pull on me and I am drawn into its courtyard and modest rooms as though in a temple sanctum sanctorum. The frayed fa├žade is embellished by terracotta murals on the walls and the window bears a trellis shaped to a peacock with its train. The stone floor and solid wood doors lend an antiquarian and rustic charm to the boutique which showcases assorted works of art. The hut, itself, is one big exhibit. Terracotta lanterns and even jewellery, textiles, votive, coffee tables, lacquer-ware accessories, and bric-a-brac are artfully window dressed throughout. I learn that this “art ashram” is the inspiration of founder-artist Deepa Dorai. She is not at home but the evening’s experience has been so satiating that we seek to further satiate ourselves – our hunger cravings, this time - in a salutary gesture.

The Professor leads us to the legendary Vidyarthi Bhavan, a roadside eatery, nondescript like the bookshop, but with a humungous reputation. Established pre-independence – in 1943 – it is a wonder that this place, famous for its masala dosa, even exists today in the face of fashion food fads. Even at 7 in the evening the ‘tiffin room” is packed and our wait only helps in whetting our appetite. When the 6-inch dosa finally arrives it is piping hot and utterly buttery divine. The filter coffee helps round up the mini meal. In the company of great Kannada litterateurs and artistes peering over us out of amateur sketches on the wall, we skim the Kannada cultural scene and dissect Bangalore city – then and now, with the Professor. For less than Rs. 500, we have had a priceless experience untouched by the mall culture.

As we finally step out of the portals of past and present, we land smack into the flower market. A whiff of mallige (jasmine) assails our senses. The intoxicating scent mingles gently with that of incense. Somewhere, a temple bell rings, or maybe I am imagining it.