Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Tinkle tinkle little store

[A nostalgia piece I did for Kindle magazine's issue on book-stores and book spaces]

The first bookstore in my life – and the only one I can claim to feel really nostalgic about – had two wheels and a nasal voice that called out “Maga-zine! Maga-zine!” late in the evening. This was a thin man on a bicycle, bearing an improbably large selection of glossies tucked into a small space behind his seat. He would come to our house in south Delhi’s Panchshila Park each day – my mother being a compulsive renter of movie magazines – and it was through him that I discovered Amar Chitra Katha’s Tinkle comics. I was five years old; I know this because the oldest of the comics in my carefully maintained stack is dated July 1982.

Tinkle was a fortnightly then, and one could expect the latest issue to arrive anytime between 12 and 15 days after the previous one. I suspect my earliest understanding of the passage of time developed during those days. On most evenings I wasn’t too interested in the kitaab-wallah uncle’s comings and goings, but a little calendar in my head told me when nine or ten days had elapsed since the last Tinkle, and then the next few evenings were filled with anticipation. The sound of the bicycle bell, the dash to the door, the disappointment when I realised that today wasn’t the day, or the thrill when I saw the cover of a fresh issue for the first time (and quickly flipped through it to check if the final story was Kaalia the Crow, which I loved, or Shikari Shambhu, which I only mildly liked) – these things became a part of the daily routine. He sometimes played teasing games, claiming with a sad face that the latest issue was going to be delayed and then unveiling it just as I had turned away balefully.

It may seem like pushing things to designate this slender herald a “bookstore”, but I should stress that we bought every one of those Tinkles. I was just starting to learn that the books one found interesting were to be kept and hoarded and revisited and fussed over, not merely read once and returned (like the magazines that my mother exchanged every day). It’s a lesson I have never unlearnt; as I write this, a number of bookshelves, makeshift bookshelves, tables, racks, bed-boxes and bed surfaces in my house are creaking in confirmation.

It didn’t take me long to learn that Bicycle Uncle was the mobile arm of a tiny shop – more like a stall – in the nearby Malviya Nagar market. Today this market occupies a low-rung position in a south Delhi filled with mall complexes, but even back then it was mainly a muddy, winding maze of vegetable stalls, shops selling groceries and trinkets, artificial jewellery and countless packets of bindis – most of this of very little interest to the child that I was. However, at some point during our walk through the back-lanes, we turned a corner and there the book stall was with its egalitarian display: Amar Chitra Kathas sharing space with Archie comics and digests, Jataka tales in one corner, Jughead Jones in the other. I have no idea now what the stall was called, if it was called anything (quite possibly it was only informally referred to by the owner’s name) or if it still exists. But I recall many happy times spent there on cold winter evenings and on rainy days when one had to wade through slush to reach it.

The Malviya Nagar byways wouldn’t have done for the “proper” books, though – the sophisticated publications by Enid Blyton and suchlike. For these, one had to travel what seemed to my child-self a very long distance – a 20-minute drive to South Extension, the home of Teksons.

It feels strange now to think of how central Teksons was to my early life: the shop is still around, in the same location, but I haven’t been to it in years, or felt the slightest desire to do so. In the same way that one doesn’t get to choose one’s relatives or one’s earliest nursery-level friends, it became the bookstore of my childhood by default, only because my family so often went to South Extension. As a young adult my preferred haunt would be the Midlands in Aurobindo Market, mainly for its round-the-year, unadvertised 20 percent discount on all IBH prices and its efficient display. And there would be many other fortuitous encounters: locating a much-sought-after graphic novel in London’s Foyles, for example, and picking it up despite its price and weight only because I knew there was no hope of getting it in India. Or a clearing-up sale in a shabby Connaught Place store, where I chanced upon a rare film book that is still one of my most prized possessions: Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, a collection of warm and informed essays that had a huge influence on me as a writer and movie-watcher (and which, incidentally, is not available anywhere today, even online).

But it was in Teksons that I formed most of my early reading habits, moving over the years from Blytons to Agatha Christies, and thence to Maughams, Wodehouses and Hemingways. Each visit was an encounter with new possibilities and changing tastes: becoming aware of a world outside that of the Famous Five’s macaroon-and-scone picnics; working out what type of book to turn to next; reading descriptions on back jackets, flipping pages to see if a stray passage of text struck a chord or revealed an interesting conversation or idea. It was here that I bought my first Christie, Murder in Retrospect, which would chill the summer afternoons I spent in Ludhiana during a family trip. Here it was that I felt indescribably proud lugging a copy of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage to the cashier’s counter: it was such a bulky book with such a grown-up title, it was so much more respectable to be seen buying something like this rather than another in the Hardy Boys Case Files series (which I may also have smuggled across to the counter). It was at Teksons too that I bought my first proper dictionary, a pleasingly heavy Oxford publication that made me feel much empowered as a reader. (Today, in the Internet age, physical dictionaries seem laughably unnecessary – but that only makes the memory even more precious.)

All this said, I am not sentimental about book-stores as physical spaces. Certainly, I don’t fetishize them like some of my friends do. This might seem odd coming from someone who has been an eager reader since a young age, worked professionally on the literary beat for years, never used an electronic-reader to date, and been a late convert to online buying (my first Flipkart purchase was as recently as early 2011). But perhaps it has to do with the fact that for much of the past decade my job has entailed receiving unmanageable quantities of books, more than 90 percent of which I will never read. I can understand the attraction a good bookstore holds for a keen reader who doesn’t work professionally with books – and who perhaps only gets to indulge the reading habit for 20 minutes at the end of a tiring day – but take it from me: when one’s own room starts looking like a particularly messy publisher’s warehouse, some of the romanticism associated with entering a store and smelling thousands of new books (or thousands of old books in a second-hand store) wears away.

What doesn’t wear away is the memory of early discovery – of the browsing rituals that become a gateway to new knowledge about the world and about oneself. Or simply hearing the sound of a bicycle bell tinkling and knowing that 30 pages of fresh stories await a reader's immersion.


  1. Lovely post, Jai. Took me back to my own childhood. Dad was in the army, so we couldn't frequent bookstores as often as we pleased. But whenever we did go to town (literally), I would gaze at the Tinkles and Archies and ACKs and fantasize about being able to but them all! :)

  2. This brought back all the childhood memories of being unbearably excited walking into a bookstore....I have to confess that I conceal it better now,but the sense of expectation hasn't changed....
    Radhika, I remember the same feeling.Asterix and Tintin used to be horribly expensive,and my parents could only afford them occasionally.I would gaze at them so wistfully in the bookshop,that my mother bought an armfull one birthday.It sounds silly now ,but seriously, that moment was pure magic.

  3. Doesn't sound silly even today! Lucky you :)

  4. But perhaps it has to do with the fact that for much of the past decade my job has entailed receiving unmanageable quantities of books, more than 90 percent of which I will never read.

    This has tremendously reduced my guilt. :)

  5. Beautiful piece...Got hooked onto books rather late, and currently in its thrall...

  6. What a sweet post. Achha, who is responsible for the marvelous illustrations (books on bike, bike, books on crate)? I can't read the signature.

  7. thank you..:)...probably silly in the eyes of today's kids,who have to be persuaded to buy books,not the other way around....

  8. What, no Target magazine with the ubercool Detective Moochwala?

  9. Extremely well written and evocative. Every child of the 80s should be able to make a personal connect with what you've written. Thanks !

  10. Arunabha: thanks. Definitely not every child though - only the very tiny minority that was privileged enough to have basic education and encouraged by parents to read.

  11. dude Teksons!!!
    And just the other day I walked past it and despite the fact that it had been so many years, I felt no urge to walk in.