It was the open brick wall that beckoned her to the ‘Old Curiosity Shop’. A pale green board flapped insignificantly in the midday breeze. The clouds were gently gathering stead as a loud, grey sky settled quietly upon the Mount Road traffic. “Hello” said Mr. Latif with a smile. “How can I help you?”

“Ugh.. I just came here to look around.” replied Aamara. She rummaged through her purse to count the notes in her wallet. She thanked her stars for the emergency 100 rupees that she kept hidden in one of those tiny compartments. “Petrol budget gaali” she thought to herself.

Full. The niche clientele that chose to visit this shop often used the word ‘full’ to describe the space that was once modelled on Gertrude Stein’s parlour.

Thimbles, type writers, prints, Persian rugs and pens regaled the walls of this cramped store. Subtle dispositions of the 1900s seemed to have flooded all nooks and corners. There was a certain aesthetic appeal that only large gramophones and Westminster chimes could capture. Aamara however, was slightly put off by a large number of Russian dolls in the centre. “Is this some form of drishti?” she asked. The man ignored her question as he busily looked at accounts.

“The shop is named after a book by Dickens, isn’t it?”

“Yes. The idea of an ambigram for a title came from 1800s, infact.”

She peered deeply into the pale green board and found that the calligraphic letters were arranged in a neat sequence. Any answer was indication of conversation.

“The original script was stolen, wasn’t it? Dickens rewrote the novel from memory in order to pay his rent before The Great Expectations became a hit. Critics wrote it off as ‘pulp fiction’ before the readers had the opportunity understand its profundity” she rambled.

“I’m surprised you know of this. This information was not privy to the public because the publishers at Orient Longman didn’t want fake ‘originals’ floating around. How do you know?”

“No no. I study literature and I know useless trivia”

He laughed.

Mr. Latif seemed like a fifty year old man with a kind face. He spoke fondly of the times his father established the first ever ‘Collectible’ store in Tamil Nadu after the ice was broken.

Aamara listened to the stories of Mowbray road, the poramboku, Kannagi’s fury and the Napier bridge’s view. They spoke of bankers and colonels who inhabited the very road they stood on.

“Madras was beautiful in black and white. My photographer friend and I had wet prints of important streets that we converted into photos. A lot of foreigners come to understand the history of the city. Connemera, Spencers and Mount Road are usually the biggest names. I can show you around the shop, if you’d like.”

Aamara was cautious not to touch the curios but went through several interesting pieces of paper. She looked at The New York Time’s collection of cartoons and Times of India’s annual magazine from 1953. She touched and felt the ivory stained sheets of a different time. The rustle and smell skipped a little bit of a heartbeat.

Mr. Latif who took over the shop after his father’s long reign began collecting other interesting material. His folder of advertisements from the 1960s was offered millions in the black market. He managed to keep a hold of them though.

“I don’t do it for the money. When I’m in the shop, I’m lost in another time.”

“You remind me of one of my favourite movies. It’s about a man who travels back and forth in time as he attempts to complete a book about a nostalgia shop. Maybe we can make a ‘Midnight in Madras’ based on your life.”

Horses neighed in the background and carriages hobbled along. Signals were missing, people disappeared and the Royapettah clock tower chimed loudly enough to keep the neighbouring streets on its toes. Aamara was evidently puzzled. She turned to an enigmatic Mr. Latif.

“Welcome to Curios-City”, he said. “What if the movie was true?”

Picture courtesy: Kumar Nav.

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