I was an impecunious student living at the busy, bustling, blaring corner of College Street and Harrison Road. We lived on the third floor, but even there we often shut the large French windows to mute the din. The trams created a metallic racket, the honking of the buses and the hollering of their conductors rose to the heavens, and there was the steady hum of vendors and traders offering their wares.
Young, heedless, I became inured to this unwelcome orchestra in three weeks. I slept well, punctuated only by erotic dreams. I was excited instead by the vibrancy of the place. In two opposite corners stood two fragrant restaurants, one famous for its confectionery and the other for its mutton delicacies. Next to one was a shop whose windows displayed the most spectacular saris, of colorful silk and exquisitely designed cotton. Ample middle-aged women came to shop, but occasionally they were accompanied by a slender young beauty that left me enthralled. Set back from the corner was a large, messy market that repelled me, but next to that was a dream house, a movie theater. On its upper-floor deck were huge cutouts of beautiful stars, facing the window of my room, and a well-endowed Madhubala was enough to populate my erogenous dreams for a month.
But the most exciting thing in that buoyant, boisterous corner was the long series of second-hand books for sale. There were seven to nine vendors who ran well-stocked consignment stores, selling all manner of books. One or two specialized in science tomes or college texts, but most sold all manner of books, ranging from literature to how-to books to dictionaries and encyclopedias. Some were soiled or had a missing cover, but many were in great shape and could be had for virtually a song. If you bought more than one volume, the shopkeeper would readily offer a discount. When clients were few, they even allowed you indulgently to stand and read a passage or two.
The display was modest but ingenious. None of the vendors had a bookshop or a stall worth talking about. They displayed their books on small planks hung from the railings that bordered the campus of a college, just outside of which they plied their trade. What could not be displayed they kept in cheap metal boxes on the ground. It was astonishing how well they remembered the titles and authors of the books they displayed or kept in storage. All you had to do was say half of an author’s name or a fraction of a title, and the vendors would produce the book in an instant. Their metal boxes also contained a plastic cover. That was their tenuous protection from a sudden downpour that could destroy their painstakingly collected books and decimate their inventory.
I stopped and said, “That’s my home. Let me take that box. You collect the other books and follow me before all those get soaked.” When we got indoors, I saw him shivering and went to get a towel.
I hadn’t done much, but Bidhu Babu seemed touched. He told me his name and added that he had seen me often looking at old books on the street. I explained that I was a student and I liked reading literature, but I had very little money to buy new books.
Bidhu Babu had worked in a small printing shop, but when business shrunk he was let go. Since he was a widower and his son lived and worked in Pune, he decided he would start a business that required little or no capital. I liked both his enterprise and his personality. I felt we had connected at some level.
From then on, whatever money I had from my parents or earned by tutoring students, I used to buy novels from Bidhu Babu. He found the latest authors for me and gave me attractive prices, and I tried to reciprocate by bringing my friends as new clients.
Four years later, when I was leaving for the university, Bidhu Babu said he was leaving his business, for his son had invited him to live with him in Pune.
“I am not as young and strong as I was. Still, I am considering whether I should again start a book selling shop in Pune. My son says he can rent a stall near his home.”
He looked happy, and I felt happy for him. But I was losing the best book seller in town. And a friend.