Tag Archives: memories

Travelling in Time and Blossoming Books

I go bananas in Bangalore bookshops and recapitulate my reading life; I’m drawn to many strange new worlds but hardly know this land of wonders.

On my final weekends in Bangalore I went big game hunting for books, including some rare out-of-print species from an anthology I bought at Easter, Travellers’ Tales: India.  Thanks to 83% literacy (second only to Mumbai) and a large student population, Bangalore has the best concentration of bookstores within a few blocks I’ve seen (they say Kolkata is better).  I was most heartened to discover that parcel postage home is cheap.   (The header image shows some of my purchases .)

In Gangarams Book Bureau I found a 2011 series of collected essays giving a “literary walkthrough” of India’s most historical cities.  10% discount for the full set of Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata – I’ve been to the first four!  And I heard a long lost sound: the clicking a of dot-matrix printer spitting out A4 size book receipts and taking me back to my childhood computing days.  In The Bookworm I tracked down Hindi language Amar Chitra Katha comics.  They’ve printed over 400 titles since 1967, teaching Indian history and mythology to several generations of school students.  Almost, slowly, readable for me.  I picked out a dozen featuring characters I recognised, with cover pictures of gods and gurus sitting in sedate meditation, or emperors and revolutionaries wielding swords from charging stallions.

amar-chitra-katha-comicsEven on Auckland streets, Hare Krishnas hawk the Bhagavad-Gita, best loved of Hindu scriptures, and now I found The Gita and the Art of Successful Management.  Flavoured with some local spice, inspirational broth from abroad is selling big here too.  I found Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul and A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul.  There’s a Chicken Soup for the Indian Working Woman’s Soul, the Indian Mother’s Soul, the Indian Father’s Soul, the Indian Teenager’s Soul and the Indian College Student’s Soul; for the Indian Bride’s Soul, the Indian Single’s Soul, the Indian Romantic Soul and the Indian Couple’s Soul.  Various professions are here too: Chicken Soup for the Indian Doctor’s Soul, the Indian Teacher’s Soul and the Indian Armed Forces’ Soul, and, if you’re retired, check out Chicken Soup for the Indian Golden Soul.  Stuffed with subcontinental poultry, almost cock-a-doodle-dooed-to-death, I rejoiced to find a more refined Antarctic bird.  In the Penguin Book Store I noted a line from Chekhov that echoes the biblical philosopher Ecclesiastes: “You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind”.

Best is Blossom Book House, founded in 2001 by a former electrical engineer, though I don’t recall finding it in 2007.  With 200,000 volumes, it’s now India’s biggest second-hand bookshop.  Three storeys; narrow passages between shelving; waist-high piles on the ground.  The order seemed random until I realised novels were sorted by the author’s first name.  No space is wasted – when I stretched up to extract a tantalising top title from a tight stack, bracing myself for a cascade of books, my fingers were inches below spinning fan blades.  They give out free cups of chai or sweetened milk if you strike the right time.

chicken-soup-for-indian-soulFor a life-long bibliophile, Blossoms offers the almost mystical experience of recalling one’s whole reading life.  Childhood nostalgia in rows of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five; or The Hardy Boys, Nancey Drew and The Three Investigators – favorite young detectives that I accompanied on many adventures in primary school.  Hey!  Here is good old Biggles – my copies were from Dad’s boyhood – and Dr Seuss – the colourful chaos of Holi (see here) was like stepping into its pages – and Tintin and Asterix and American Superhero comics.  The Victorian classics I discovered in high school – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and pulp Westerns, sci-fi, Mills & Boon.  Classic self-help authors like Norman Vincent Peale or Dale Carnegie.  Reprints of Toffler’s Future Shock from the obsolete past, next to Steve Jobs biographies, 2012’s hottest business gurus, atheist Christopher Hitchings and Top Gear comic Clarkson.  I recalled my student days among shelves of science and math texts and thick programming manuals – this is India’s IT capital.  From Greeks to Germans, there were the great philosophers I’ve dabbled in the last few years.

All this is why the Kindle e-reader has been a white elephant.  I was foxed by online salvation stories from book-starved travellers in China or Peru, shores unreached by the blessings of bonnie England.  I confess to secretly Luddite inclinations when it comes to reading.  Especially when browsing a place like Blossoms with a deep breath of ecstasy, I tend to concur with book crazy author Ray Bradbury (whom I reviewed here) when asked what he thought of e-readers:

There are two perfumes to a book.  If a book is new, it smells great.  If a book is old, it smells even better.  It smells like ancient Egypt.  A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it.  You put it in your pocket and you walk with it.  And it stays with you forever.  But the computer doesn’t do that for you.  I’m sorry.

Blossoms is like the time travelling Tardis of Dr Who, concealing the history of the universe within its narrow walls.  For a lover of learning it’s a shop that both delights and humbles.  From such enchanting reunions with old friends, I’d turn a corner: row upon row of Islamic studies, Hindu scriptures, Buddhist philosophy; commentaries on commentaries, translations of translations, millennia of history and literature and thought from civilisations as old as ours.  Parallel worlds that I’ve scarcely entered.  The Cloud of Unknowing.

bookshop-bangalore-2The experience suggests India itself.  I’m starting to know a bit, and sometimes I kid myself that I know a lot, that I understand the place, that I’m in control: but then I turn a corner, and strangeness slaps me in the face.  Mark Twain felt much the same as he tried to categorise India, to name and tame its diversity in his mind:

So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his round. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing over looked. Always, when you think you have come to the end of her tremendous specialties and have finished hanging tags upon her as the Land of the Thug, the Land of the Plague, the Land of Famine, the Land of Giant Illusions, the Land of Stupendous Mountains, and so forth, another specialty crops up and another tag is required. I have been overlooking the fact that India is by an unapproachable supremacy—the Land of Murderous Wild Creatures. Perhaps it will be simplest to throw away the tags and generalize her with one all-comprehensive name, as the Land of Wonders.

The owner of Blossoms says his favourite book is Animal Farm.  On my literary safari through his wonderland I spotted one of the first titles I remember reading (I wrote about my first books here), which surely describes this untamed land: Where the Wild Things Are.

See another ecstatic blogger on Blossoms, an interview with the owner, or Blossom Book House online.

Bangalore Memories and Beastly Mortalities

I revisit memories of Bangalore and reflect on what has changed, travel back to colonial times and encounter fatal hazards.

Over Easter I stayed at the church guesthouse where I’d been in 2007.  This time the verse on my wall was God’s promise to the Israelites wandering in the desert – and to me as I perambulate this wild land: “My presence will go with you.” (Exodus 33:14)

It’s been good to reacquaint myself with Bangalore five years after my first visit (see my reports on that trip here).  Here was KFC and McDonald’s where I ate my first meals when I was new to India and paranoid about getting sick.  Ullas Vegetarian Restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended so I felt safe – now its breezy balcony was closed.  K C Das, the first eatery I proudly discovered on my own for pooris so hot off the pan they burned my fingers as I dipped them into tasty samba.

Brigade Road is still full of pedestrian-threatening traffic and punchy police signs.  Mahatma Gandhi Road is still full of tourist-trapping hawkers – with the same sunglasses and maps, small wooden chess sets and toy helicopters.  Sellers of bamboo pipes were still playing Titanic.  They all seemed less persistent than I remembered – maybe I’m inured, or now less obviously gullible and green.  The biggest change I’ve seen runs over their heads: at long last the first stage of the Metro is going.

I re-located my favourite stores.  The Bookworm’s sign looked as if it hadn’t been painted since I perused its shelves in 2007.  One bookshop seemed to have recently closed, with clearance sale posters in the window.  Another I couldn’t find at all.  I remembered chatting to its owner about the pirated books spread out on the pavement.  These photocopied bestsellers seemed to have disappeared too, but I saw them after a few days, more surreptitious now.

It was all like meeting an old friend.  I sat on a shady bench in Cubbon Park and reflected.  How has the city changed since we last met?  And what has changed for me?  I’m now a little older.  I’m a little more confident at navigating this vast and fascinating country.  And I’m a little sadder, though hopefully wiser, because I’ve travelled through the valley of my father’s dying since then.  A Bangalore paper had an article on ageing.  It had a line from the Persian poet Rumi that made me think of Dad:

Why is it that the lion’s strength weakens to nothing?  The wrestler who could hold anyone down is led out with two people supporting him, their shoulders under his arms?

bangalore-holy-trinity-churchDad had the British stiff upper lip and was a true scholar and gentleman.  Down the road from my hotel, the 1852 Holy Trinity Church had many such memories from colonial times.  The neoclassical portico is painted brown and cream.  In the lobby I found a page from the Bangalore Mirror: “Churchill Prayed Here”.  He also left an unpaid 13 pound debt at the Bangalore Club.  I went inside, where deflated balloons and dangling ribbons suggested a recent wedding.

The front-left seat still has a plaque, “The Hon’bl Resident”.  Behind are rows reserved for “Commanding Officers” and QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, est. 1902), while front right seats are earmarked for the chaplain and GOC (General Officer Commanding).  On the whitewashed walls are relief sculptures of soldiers and banners and swords, with inscriptions that recall an age of sudden death.

bangalore-holy-trinity-church-plaque-2Some were taken by disease, like the four who died of cholera on the march in 1852.  Sailing was perilous: a Major General was “drowned by the foundering of the steamer Cheduba in a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal” on 16 May 1869; his wife then died at sea between Malta and Gibralta on 28 May 1869.  Lionel Bridge, Captain Royal Artillery, perished “on his homeward journey from Madras, 1866, aged 38 years”.  He caught my attention because, after a Burma expedition, he participated in “the suppression of the Indian Mutiny 1857, & for his services at the relief of Lucknow, he received a Brevet Majority” – only two months ago I saw the bullet holes in the Lucknow Residency myself (see here).

bangalore-holy-trinity-church-plaqueSome soldiers even survived other hazards to die in action.  In 1858, “George King Newbery, captain of the 8th Madras Light Cavalry… fell leading a charge of his men in the attack of Shorapore”.  But I gave first prize to “George Staple Dobbie, Esquire, Mysore Revenue Survey, who died from the effects of wounds inflicted by a tiger near Shemoga, May 6th 1875.  Aged 30 years.”

Mark Twain visited India in 1896 and noted the statistics.  Over the last six years, on average, 45 people had been killed by elephants, 100 by bears, 230 by leopards, 700 by wolves, and 800 by tigers.  Even combined these hardly counted: 17,000 people per year had met their end through encounters with snakes.