An alternative bookshop*

Last Saturday a long-lost friend D and I went to the Sahitya Akademi bookshop here in the city. It’s tucked away in a place no one but I seemed to know.

The last time I came to the Sahitya Akademi bookshop, I got the book I wanted in less than 10 minutes. That’s because I called them and asked beforehand and they had kept the book ready. That was two years ago. And the book was Anindita Sengupta’s collection of poems, City of Water. That was nearly two years ago. This time I had no such book in mind at least in the beginning.

Once inside, it’s like winding the clock back to the 80s or the 90s. All sarkari** places do that, I know. This one is as sarkari as it gets: a proper government office. But nonetheless, quite entertaining. The books on the Godrej-almarah-grey bookshelves were dusty and looked obscure. Once you looked closely, the famous names came into focus: Sachidananda Mohanty, Gieve Patel were two names I could recognise. There were way too many copies of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Herbert. I spotted more regional language books than English, which was a bit disappointing.

Not finding what we wanted, we peeped into the room marked ‘Assistant Editor’. The kurta-clad editor made us sit on shaky metal chairs and ignored us for a while. That’s when I realised that I was looking for Anjum Hasan’s book of poems for ages and maybe I can find it here. After about 5 minutes, he looked up from the desk and asked us what we wanted. We explained that we came looking for two specific books, which we didn’t find either in other bookshops or on their bookshelves. He showed us their book catalogue, said that it was not their most up-to-date one and explained that they were preparing for the Book Fair and hence the new catalogues were diverted for that purpose. He also searched online database for the book I wanted. D’s book we found in the catalogue. Then he called an assistant who looked as moth-eaten as the books themselves, showed him the books we were looking for in the catalogue and asked him to search for it. I wondered where he went to search. Perhaps there are store rooms dustier than the ones outside.

While we waited, the Assistant Editor tried to chat with us. We thought we were from the Prakriti Foundation because we wanted only poetry. Sahitya Akademi Chennai, he claimed was way more organised than any other Sahitya Akademi bookshop in India. And then told us that on Saturdays they don’t work but he happened to be there that day since he had some work. Ouch. I always call and then go and that’s what I did this time as well since I know the whole sarkariness it exudes. Whoever picked up the phone told me that they would be open. Who knew they’d not want readers? In about another 5 minutes, dusty assistant got me my dusty books. D’s books were even more elusive than mine were and weren’t available at the moment. We paid and left soon after feeling rather under appreciated for reading Sahitya Akademi books.

Anyway, I was happy that I found Anjum Hasan’s collection of poems, Street on a Hill, which I had been searching for the past two years. I was almost going to write to the poet herself since it was not available in regular bookshops. (She did say we can ask her for a copy on her website.)

*I hope you have not missed the irony.

** Hindi for ‘government.’


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