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.
Even 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.
For 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.
The 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.