Posted in Books, Bookshop

A basement full of books

As I woke this morning a memory surfaced of being in a basement full of books. Not sure why I remembered it but gradually all the details of that day surfaced.

I had gone to a bookshop in Delhi, and was browsing through books on religion in ancient India. A young woman came up to me. ‘I have a lot of such books’, she said, ‘and I want to give them away. They belonged to my father-in-law, he has died, and I don’t want them, I want to clear the basement where they are stored.’

‘Ask a second-hand bookshop’, I suggested. But, she said her father-in-law loved those books. She wanted to give them to someone who would love them too. Won’t you come and see them?, she asked. ‘I’ll come some time’, I said, trying to put her off, but, ‘Why not come now?’, she insisted. ‘I’ll take you there in my car and drop you back.’ For some reason, I agreed, got into this unknown woman’s car and went to her house. As we entered, she locked, bolted, and triple locked the door. I began to have some doubts. There was no one else in the house. Soon, she led me to the basement, and I saw it certainly was full of books. As I moved forward to look at them, the electricity went off. There was a faint light from a high-up window. ‘Oh’, said the woman, ‘let me check’, and she left, locking the door behind her. Now here I was, stuck in a dimly lit basement, surrounded by books that I  hardly wanted to look at. To add to it, somehow I had left my handbag upstairs. Those were the days before mobile phones, but still I began to regret everything I had done that morning. Was I going to end my days in a basement, and if so why?

To my surprise, about five minutes later the door opened. ‘I can’t tell what has happened to the electricity’, she said. ‘Would you like to bring some of the books upstairs?’ I picked up two books and ascended the stairs. ‘I’ll  make tea’, she offered. ‘I need to go’, I said.  ‘Please take the books you have chosen’, she said. ‘Take more if you can.’ ‘I’ll come some other time’, I responded.

I picked up my handbag, I could see it had been opened. Somewhat reluctantly she unlocked the triple-locked door, and muttered something about not being able to drop me back. I escaped into the sunshine, and took an auto home.

An anti-climax? A pointless story? Perhaps, but the memory has remained all these years. And those two books are still with me.

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Posted in Bookshop

A bookshop I can never forget

This used to be my favourite bookshop, though today there are many  focusing exclusively on spirituality. This description was written some years ago, but I have made minor revisions and updated it.

In a corner of Shankar Market, in the centre of Delhi, all the secrets can be discovered at Piccadilly book store. Here, one can find an account of the 18 unrecorded years of Jesus’ life. According to the ‘Akashic records’ of the Gospel of the Aquarian Age, Jesus wandered through Egypt, Greece, Persia, Tibet, and India. He spoke on the banks of the Ganga and visited the Jagannath temple.

On the next shelf is the Materia Medica of Tibetan Medicine and Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, written by Gurdjieff. There are many more books by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Osho, J. Krishnamurti, U. G. Krishnamurti, Chinmayananda, Gibran and a host of others writing on religion, philosophy, and the mystic world. There are packs of Tarot cards and I-Ching cards, do-it-yourself books on gem therapy and astrology and of course several versions of the ancient texts, the Upanishads, Puranas, and others.

There is a select display outside, but inside the small shop, books are piled high in stacks and there is scarcely any place to move. But this is a place where one is free to spend as much time as one likes, to browse through books in a leisurely way, or just to sit outside drinking tea and conversing with like-minded people.

When I first visited it, it was run by S.P. Chowdhuri, who was polite, helpful and knowledgeable. He could locate books on any topic in this sphere, even if one had no idea of either title or author. I once asked about books which dealt with the relationship of the inner “chakras” and the notes of music. In a few minutes there was a heap of books before me, each of which had a few pages on the esoteric theme.

People visit this bookshop from all over the world. In fact there are invariably more foreigners than Indian visitors. The shop has been in Fodor’s Guide, the Lonely Planet’s travelers series and even in Geeta Mehta’s Karma Cola. Many visitor’s record their impression in a book kept for this purpose. The shop has a collection of several such visitor books and one can spend interesting hours going through the profound or often amusing comments in them. The comments are in different languages including Hindi, English, French, German, and Japanese.

Indira Gandhi often visited the shop and on the 5th of January, 1980, she wrote, “The world of books is the most fascinating and enriching to be in. What an attractive shop it is!” Other eminent visitors have been Nirmala Devi, Girilal Jain, Arun Shourie, Lama Govinda, and several well known gurus and swamis. A visitor from Holland wrote, “To find the books on Buddhist art and philosophy, I come all the way from Holland and find them here”.

Some like to write  nuggets of their own philosophy, for instance, “If you are hungry, this is the best place to fill yourself. Dine, be filled, then you may become empty”, or “To be known to oneself is to read the books and throw them away”. Another happily recorded, “Each man I marry, I’ll spend his fortune here”. But Chidananda – of the Shivananda Ashram simply wrote, “God bless this bookshop”.

This unique book store was gifted to S.P.Chowdhuri by his elder brother in 1957, and is the oldest book store in Shankar Market. Now Chowdhuri’s son runs it. “I look for quality not quantity”  Chowdhuri had said. He was not referring to the books, where he has both quality and quantity, but to the visitors to his shop.

He did not cater to the readers of pulp fiction, fast-paced best sellers, or popular magazines. All his visitors were drawn there by a search for something, for truth or whatever one may call it. With his regular customers, Chowdhuri developed a personal relationship and many spent  time with him discussing life and philosophy. When I visited his shop after an absence of nine years, I was immediately recognized and offered a cup of tea.

“Even if you come fifty years later”, he said, “and I am here, I’ll know you”. At that moment one had a vision of time standing still. While new technologies multiply in this world and people rush to keep pace with change, there is, in the middle of all this, a peaceful unhurried corner, where people still search, as some have always done, for ageless wisdom.

The bookshop still exists,  but some of its original magic is missing.