The biggest, little bookstore that has a H-U-G-E place in my heart
Old-timers from Chennai (nee, Madras) might know of Giggles — the biggest, little bookstore located in the Taj Connemara compound run by septuagenarian, Miss Nalini Chettur (affectionately called Nalini Ma’am/ Nalini Aunty/ Nalini Ma by patrons). The bookstore was featured as a must-see place on Lonely Planet’s guide to Chennai. Giggles recently turned 42 and is unfortunately being booted out of the Taj premises.
I met Nalini Ma a month or two ago when I was volunteering at TEDx Chennai, where she was running the bookstall. I had the privilege of interacting with her for an entire evening. We talked books, politics and a whole range of topics, munching on sandwiches and brownies, long after the TEDx event was wrapped up and the organisers had left home. Our quick friendship and bond reminded me instantly of my maternal grandmother and I tried my hardest to not get teary-eyed as I bid goodbye to her that evening. She is perhaps one of the only people from the book industry who has had the distinction of reading each and every book that is sold in her shop. I had promised to visit her at the bookstore, but like a lot of things in life, this one too was gradually falling through the cracks.
And then, on Friday morning, this post on Facebook came as a rude shock to me.
I felt a slight pang of guilt. A lump in my throat, the feeling that you get when someone you know, has gone away all too soon. I knew I had to be there, for Nalini Ma, for Giggles and for the community of bibliophiles.
The last time I perhaps felt a similar sense, but a lot less distraught about a bookstore was when I was at Waterstones in Piccadilly and I failed to get myself a title from the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Giggles, for those of you who haven’t been there before, resembles Doctor Who’s Tardis with a cream-coloured door. It takes an incredible amount of physical fitness and agility to wedge yourself in the narrow gap between the books and the door. And once you’re in, just like in the Tardis, you are taken to an altogether different world. You are surrounded by books and the heavenly aroma of print, sandwiches and tea. The slightest of movement could upset a pile of books and a human would be buried deep in books, nowhere to be found, yet Nalini Ma in an age-defying manner that would put me to shame knew her way intimately around each and every nook and cranny of the bookstore.
I gingerly stepped in, careful not to upset the piles of books and picked out books from my wishlist.
We live in tough times. Demonetization. Gah. A move that has prevented me from picking up more books. A fellow bibliophile was kind enough to let me buy these books on credit. It was a wonderful evening, Nalini Ma perched on her favourite chair outside the store, discussing books with a bunch of fellow bibliophiles, munching on sandwiches and sipping tea from the tiniest cups one could perhaps find. The weather, as if paying tribute to the solemn occasion was mellow, the setting sun making it the perfect evening.
As I headed back in my Uber, I experienced a strange mixture of feelings. I was elated to have spent a few precious hours with Nalini Ma , but I was sad to see Giggles go. As I walked the last 200 meters to my flat, I cried.
For those of you who are from Chennai and are reading this and wish to experience the warmth and wealth of knowledge that Nalini Ma has to offer, Giggles will still stay open at its current location for the next two weeks or so. Giggles will continue to live on in some form or the other, you can perhaps follow Giggles on their Facebook page to know more. I also have another appeal to everyone who is reading this post. I buy a lot of books online (Not too long ago, it was almost one-two books a week), or visit larger chains (Odyssey, StarMark, Landmark, Crossword etc.), but once in a while, I do go out-of-my-way and visit the friendly neighbourhood bookstore. Sure, they might not offer as many, mouth-watering discounts, or the glitz, lights and glam factor of a chain store, but they offer an unmatched charm and warmth. I urge you to do the same. With this, I shall sign-off and draw myself into my cocoon and mope for the loss of a legacy that now has a H-U-G-E place in my heart.