A Bookworm’s Summer
On the first day at work, I was told to reach the bookstore late in the morning. Since I didn’t know how to ‘dress for work’, I resorted to the safest bet- a white blouse and blue jeans. The employee at the cash counter who had directed me on my last visit turned out to be the manager of the bookstore. Very soft-spoken and good-natured, Ashish Sir handed me a notepad and a pencil as he introduced me to the rest of the staff and showed me around the bookstore and pointing at various sections- fiction, non-fiction, ‘mind, body and soul’ (a sort of euphemism for self-help), history and economics and a special one dedicated to Indian authors. Sue Townsend, Susan Sontag, Oliver Sacks, Alan de Botton, Naom Chomsky- I looked at a host of names of unknown authors and meticulously jotted them down. There was still a lot for me to know.
The bookstore opens at 9:30 A.M. everyday, including Sundays (the rest of Khan Market remains closed on Sunday). The early morning customers are usually backpackers who come to the bookstore after having breakfast at the café. Most of them are friendly; if not asking for directions, you might find them cracking jokes. I particularly remember a Monsieur in his late 50s, a French diplomat, who had come to buy desi Mona Lisa bags (for the record , that’s a handcrafted bag with a print of Mona Lisa wearing a Rajasthani lehenga) from the gift shop for his wife’s friends back in France. I had my eye on a brooch he was wearing, engraved with the flags of France and India and images of the Gateway of India and the Eiffel Tower. He was surprised when I recognised he was French by the way he spoke English (and of course, the brooch). We soon began talking and I accompanied him to the café where he was served lemonade (gratuit, of course, since he bought so many hand bags). Impressed by my fluent French, after paying for the bags, he took off his brooch and offered it to me as a present. I was thrilled! My colleagues congratulated me. I was trying my best to keep the customers happy and I could see my efforts yielding fruit. I always reminiscence of him as the kindest and most charming Frenchman I ever met.
Gradually, I started to become a part of the fabric of the bookstore. I felt at home with my co-workers and the unfamiliarity began to break unconsciously as it does between strangers living together. When uneasiness and discomfiture are replaced by trust and bonhomie- it can’t be traced back to a point on a timeline. Life would be such a pain if we refused to make strangers friends. Would we have any friends at all?
To my delight, the chaiwalla would come twice a day, once in the morning and then in the evening, pouring a very sweet concoction of ginger and tea in cheap plastic cups. I was extremely wary of this ‘unhygienic kerbside’ tea at first and didn’t have any for the first two days. But then, tea’s tea. As Italian writer Cesare Pavese said, we do not remember days; we remember moments. I do not know when those moments of conversations and advice from my colleagues over many cups of tea slipped away. But I still remember them with a sweet fondness whenever I think of the bookstore.
Another of my more memorable encounters at Full Circle was quite unexpected. A smart and impressionable woman with very short hair walked in the bookstore one day and her presence created a buzz. Arshad, who manages the fiction section, informed me she was the author of Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth: Tehelka as a Metaphor. I had never heard of the book. I went up to her as she searched for something in the cooking section and asked if she was looking something in particular and if I could be of some help. The lady turned out to be Madhu Trehan, the wife of eminent surgeon Naresh Trehan, and the founder of India Today. Her humility and approachability would have never let these facts be betrayed. She introduced herself as a “freelance journalist and writer”, something too understating for a renowned journalist like her. I was talking to the founder of India Today without even knowing it. She talked about her TV show Newstrack and seeing the blank look on my face, she laughed it off, “Don’t worry. How would you know? You were just six when I was anchoring it!” That was comforting. I felt as if I was talking to an old friend and not a veteran journalist. As she left, she wished me all the best for my future.
Mayank Austen Soofi, journalist with the Hindustan Times (as I write this, his books on Delhi are ‘selling like hot cakes everywhere‘), whom I know for some time now, would come on Saturdays armed with the latest edition of the New York Review of Books or Jane Austen’s Complete Works. I would try all my marketing skills on him considering the mutual weakness for books! (Not that he would refrain from buying in my absence!)
Every morning I walked in and saw the same faithful books, more often new ones, welcoming me. I discovered new writing styles, authors and genres that perhaps I would have remained oblivious to for a few more years had it not been for this job. I met new people from different walks of life, everyone had a unique story to tell. For a month, I felt as if I were at the centre of the literary world- I was au courant with all new writers and new arrivals. It enriched me as a bibliophile and exposed me to a variety of experiences that transformed a part of me for ever.
After attending French language classes on weekends, I often stop by at the bookstore to meet the people who made my summer memorable. Old and new titles rest on the shelves as always. I pick one and read the blurb. I dig my nose in the book and drown in its fragrance. It is the same. The only difference is that earlier I was behind the counter making the bill, now I am the customer and paying it. Along with ten percent discount, I am offered a warm and affectionate welcome that any customer would be envious of.