Of Combing Over Browsing

There is a very popular school of thought that our school/college years were the best ones of our lives. One is unfettered by the unyielding burdens of work, the deadlines are replaced by exams, the desperate scramble to ‘get away from it all’ is replaced by school vacations, the longing to reach our goals is replaced by the blissful mists of an unknown, yet full of possibilities, future, and so on and on and on.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to this nostalgic hysteria, I do miss having all the free reading time that ignoring studies used to create. Another thing I miss is foraging for the material to read. While most kids my age used to wait for summer vacations so that they could have hours of play time, my longings for summer vacations existed for a different reason (though, I did look forward to the play time too). Usually, getting average marks consistently meant that I would rarely be able to buy new books during school time — at least not as many as I would have liked to buy. While that did not deter me from reading — I would end up rereading a lot of stuff — it did result in a scarcity of new reading material. And so, summer vacations served to break this drought as I got to visit my favorite place in Mumbai — Flora Fountain.

The famous ‘book market’ in Flora Fountain (Image courtesy: http://smg.photobucket.com/user/autoemotive/media/secondhand_bookpeople.jpg.html)

Any book lover in Mumbai who’s ever been into buying secondhand books will have heard of this place. Located in one extremity of the famous Mumbai Western Railway — Churchgate — this was a place abuzz with book lovers all days of the week, come heat, cold, or rain. During its heydays, the booksellers were not limited to the area around Flora Fountain. I can still picture emerging from the poorly lit Churchgate subway into bright sunlight and a line of booksellers spreading out their wares. The queue would start right outside the subway, opposite to Eros theater, and stretch all the way to the Flora Fountain — on both sides of the road.

It took some time, but I soon realized that the best time to visit the place was early morning. The booksellers were just about finished setting up shop and were looking for their first customers. ‘Bohni’ as it is called in Hindi, is an important ritual for most people in sales/commercial sector. While the main intention is to get the full and proper payment for the first sale of the day, if there is enough competition, it becomes easier as a customer to get good discounts. This is also where I realized that I did have some hitherto unseen bargaining skills provided I knew the commodity that I was bargaining over (still can’t bargain on anything remotely related to clothing). As I moved on in my academic career, visiting the place with friends almost became a biannual ritual. While they weren't often pleased at the prospect of spending hours hunting down books, they never did complain much. Besides, we reached an unspoken compromise when I started accompanying them to the adjacent Fashion Street — a clothing equivalent of the book market — to help them in their quest to buy clothes, an activity that I hated; still do actually.

Few years back, I moved to Bangalore to become yet another statistic in the ever increasing task force of IT workers. One of the my most dreaded nightmares — apart from moving away from friends and family — was that I might not be able to find anything similar to the Fountain (by then, the frequency of my visits to the Fountain had gone up to twice a month, interspersed with visits to the British library). While the pangs of staying away from family and friends still surface every now and then (especially when I miss the important event), the longing for Fountain took about two weeks to subside.

A friend of mine introduced me to Blossom Book House. Housed in a three-storey building, this is supposed to be largest secondhand bookstore in India. And their collection is truly mind-boggling. What the store lacks in space, it makes up in the variety of books that it keeps. For a stranger in a city that was an antonym of Mumbai, this was the one place that bred familiarity. Of course, over time I came to love Bangalore for more things than just Blossom. But, at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with the city, it was a great calming influence.

The insides of Blossom Book House. (Image courtesy: http://thisisexpatindia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Blossom-book-house.jpg)
Which brings me to the incident that spurred this long, long chain of thoughts.

Over the last few years, we have seen the likes of Flipkart and Amazon taking over the retail arena. Both these giants began their journey with selling books online. With the services that they offer, it has become very convenient to get the exact books that we want and on the exact day that we want them. Also, emergence of eBooks, and the plethora of features that they offer, have further deepened the chasm between readers and bookstores. The facility to get the exact book that you want means that the old art of combing through piles of books to find a good one is somewhat lost. While, both Amazon and Flipkart nowadays do offer the ‘read sample’ feature, it still does not compare to the actual ritual.

In all honesty, even I haven’t been immune to this epidemic. I own a Kindle Paperwhite and have installed the Kindle app on my Android phone. I sync my reading progress across both the devices so that I can start reading seamlessly whenever I want.

In fact, I cannot even remember when I last read a paperback. And the last time I visited Blossom before recently was to sell some books and not to buy them. What prompted my last visit to Blossom was not any guilt trip over having ignored one of my favorite places in Bangalore. It was the tardiness of a few of my friends.

The plan was to meet near the famous MG Road. However, my friends’ tardiness and the ever efficient Bangalore traffic ensured that I had about a couple of hours to kill. With my phone battery running low and my Kindle back home, I was left with but one choice: visit my old haunt. As I entered the seemingly claustrophobic aisles of the bookstore, the familiar feeling of coziness started to take over. Slowly, but familiarly, the brain started hunting down titles that looked interesting, synopsis that promised better things, and poems that enthralled.

The next couple of hours seemed to float by, and I was actually disappointed when my friends made it to Church Street. It was only the decent part of me that forced me to keep my appointment. While there have been only a couple of visits more to Blossom since then, it still feels good that I can go back and pick up at least one of the better habits that I had long forsaken.

The experience, while a blip in the otherwise flat line of daily humdrum, served as a reminder as to what I had given up in the last couple of years. It was my version of being reminded to stop and smell the roses.

P. S. — I did pick out a few books. And read a couple in the bookstore itself.

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