Four years ago, we moved lock, stock and barrel to Maximum City, and in spite of dreams of owning a window with a “sea-view” out onto the Worli Sea Face, were pushed to the outer fringes of the greater suburban nightmare to start all over again. My new found neighbour in the new suburban neighbourhood was the only quantum of solace in the entire madness.
My neighbour, a small bookshop, a small store of a large chain of bookstores, quaint and cosy, was tucked away between two banks, a block away from my street. And its presence had taken away all the reasons I should have had to complain about the new city and everything that we had faced in those three months of honeymoon with Mumbai. It was the only lifeline that I had in my middle class existence in the otherwise cold, upmarket suburbia. Please understand that I had also just made a transition back home from a desert city in the Middle East. And in those days of our exile in the desert city, we had been deprived of a “good” bookstore apart from the kiosks set up at the airport and the malls, by international bookstore giants that essentially sold magazines and “motivational” books.
The desperation to find solace in the written word saw us pay heavily for extra luggage every time we returned from our trips and then explain to the irate customs officer that the “mysterious, rectangular” shapes that showed up on his scanner were nothing more than books. The way we had started to hoard books in our desert home (while other friends hoarded crystals, gold, khanjars and other silver antiques) was as if books were to go out of fashion soon. To such “book-starved” desert nomads, who had descended upon a chaos called Maximum City, a friendly, neighbourhood bookstore in the new city was, well, rewarding.
Now, my mind stretches back to the many gray monsoon days, golden autumn afternoons and the near absent winter evenings when I paid visits to the bookshop, most often with a reason, sometimes on a whim and at times without a purpose more than lazy book-browsing. And to make matters a little more complex, the store had a few leather upholstered couches in cheerful colours, placed strategically between rows and rows of books. And an in-house cafe added the twist in the tale. But I had been a good girl all those years and had never given in to neither the lure of the couch no to the call of the coffee, lest I lost my way sense of time and idled there, in the company of written words that came between myriad cosy, colourful covers.
But today, on this muggy, rainless Mumbai evening, I regret for not having given in to the lure, for not finding reasons to visit the store more often, or just dropping in more frequently without a reason and for all those afternoons that I had kept myself confined in a virtual world instead of lounging in those inviting couches nestled among rows of books.
On Sunday, that whizzed past us a few days ago, I was standing outside the shop, knowing well that it would be the last visit. A board, hung outside, screamed “Clearance Sale, last 1 day”. Inside, the soft spoken ever smiling staff wore a lost, sullen look, suddenly unsure of the future that lay ahead. The shutter waited to come down at the usual ‘store closing time’ but for the last time.
In the near future, the space might be taken up by another multinational bank or a multi cuisine restaurant, similar to those that line the two sides of the road already, the debate is still on. Sanity would have made way for corporate greed. The rows of bound pages would be emptied to gear up for brisk business with minted bills of paper. What makes me sad? The fact that the same rows of books had taught me to dream. A dream of seeing my own book on one of those shelves. ‘Part of it had been realised’, I had thought when I caught sight of the black spine of the book that I had translated last year. But to see my own book sitting on the shelf of this bookstore, in my neighbourhood, would now remain unfulfilled.