Second-hand memories

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on January 09, 2018
Flying off the shelves: At the start of every academic session, there’s a buzz around Kolkata’s College Street

Flying off the shelves: At the start of every academic session, there’s a buzz around Kolkata’s College Street. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  The Hindu

Modern times: The government of West Bengal plans to build a ‘book mall’ to replace College Street. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Modern times: The government of West Bengal plans to build a ‘book mall’ to replace College Street. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  The Hindu

On with the new: Like a self-refilling pot of warm tea, Delhi’s Daryaganj book market refreshes its stock quickly and is best enjoyed on wintry mornings. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

On with the new: Like a self-refilling pot of warm tea, Delhi’s Daryaganj book market refreshes its stock quickly and is best enjoyed on wintry mornings. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma   -  The Hindu

The stories to be found in old books are not limited to printed words, but also the dedications and the marginalia that reveal lives and perspectives from around the globe

The new Spiderman film reminded me of the excitement I had shared with my best friend from school when we had headed to one of the only local theatres then in Kolkata with Dolby Digital surround sound to catch the matinee show of an older Spiderman film. This was 2002. It wasn’t so much the film which had caused this feverish alacrity, but the memories it managed to revive, taking me back by another decade or so. When on a sultry summer afternoon, on one of Kolkata’s busiest streets, I had discovered my first Spiderman comic with a bookseller whose only real estate investment was a blue tarpaulin sheet. The inventory in his possession mostly comprising second-hand copies of English and Bengali classics and a range of imported comic books; dog-eared paperbacks and selected hardcovers spread on the pavement in front of the Bombay Dyeing store in Gariahat. The same scene, whether it was winter, rain or summer, oblivious, like their readers, of the fact that we were only years away from warming up to the idea of digitalising our world.

But there was still time for that.

Old books came into my life like the waves of a tsunami invading a small town after dark, catching it unawares and consuming every inch before dawn. This was the time when my father — bitten by a post-liberalisation entrepreneurial bug — was exerting himself to set up his business, my mother working as a shorthand operator in a private company; my parents trying to raise me best by sending me to an English-medium school and also struggling to make ends meet. There was no budget for books in such a scenario. But each month, my mother, who’s an avid book lover herself, somehow managed to save some money after meeting every expense, with the sole intention of helping me read outside the school-prescribed textbooks. But that money would rarely be enough to afford a new copy of a book. The man on the pavement at Gariahat, on the other hand, offered me any book at only ₹10 each. I could keep it for two weeks and return it unscathed and borrow another for another ₹10 note. If I loved a book so much that I wanted to keep the copy — like in the case of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or any of the Tintins — he’d even accept payment in instalments.

This was a man who wanted to make money, of course, but wanted to make money not just by selling books but also by making people read; if that makes any sense. And he was not alone. There were others like him who I met over the years; on the streets of New Market, Park Street, Hazra and inside a narrow alleyway next to a post-office in Dum Dum. The alleyway is crowded with apartment buildings now, and the post-office doesn’t sell inland letters any more, but if I search the store-room of my house in Kolkata carefully, I’m certain I’ll find a tattered Mandrake comic-book somewhere — which was bought from that same minuscule shop, no more than the size of a telephone booth.

About two decades later, in 2013, I moved to Delhi for work. Naturally I had entered the city with an already contaminated mind, with biases and preconceptions. But one visit to the Daryaganj book market on a Sunday morning told me that there are so many unsung facets of this city which go unpublicised because, perhaps, they don’t sell enough paper or invite more clicks. Is there a better Indian city for old books than Delhi?


Thousands of books, old and new, used and abused, some neatly wrapped in plastic covers with the promise of chastity, milling about in bundles, pavement after pavement, in this bustling nook of north Delhi. Week after week, year after year. Is this short of a miracle, I asked myself. It reminded me of the very familiar College Street back home in Kolkata. But on repeat visits I realised the marked difference between the two markets is that the books here — and I don’t mean school or college textbooks — inevitably get their place taken by new books (or old, if you know what I mean), making each visit equally gratifying.

If you look carefully, every used book tells two separate stories; one that’s written in its pages and another that its physical state narrates of its personal history. Like the moth-eaten copy of Atonement which could once be found on Asaf Ali Road with folded corners and underlined sentences; perhaps a young lover’s gift to another. It could well be in Berlin now. Or the ambiguous side notes along the margins of One Hundred Years of Solitude in nervous handwriting, which the original owner of the book may not even remember any longer. But what if they are unaware that an unexpected reunion with that past may just hold the secret to adding incomparable wistfulness to their present? Won’t it be an intriguing expedition to trace down the original owner of a book you own, and unearth the trail of this alternative narrative hidden like an ancient mystery within its pages?

Preservation of old books should be considered an art form. Imagine where would we be without oral lore, most of our country’s regional folk tales would have been lost and forgotten before any of us were even born. What stories would our grandmothers tell us then to help us fall asleep? Stories keep us connected with the origin of everything. Stories keep us warm. It is only through stories that I have met the prehistoric man, Emperor Aurangzeb and the great white whale which dared to bite off Ahab’s leg at the knee. Like every oral story finds its listener, every book is relentlessly getting drawn towards its ideal reader. When you shift houses and discover while rearranging shelves that you’ve lost a book, remember that it has actually left in search of a home that was incomplete without it. Every book is a folk tale.

Old books help us love better. They have lived in other homes like your lover may have in other arms. But when you embrace either you know that without their respective journeys they wouldn’t become who they have. Who you love. Old books heal envy. Old books switch hands, demand attention, find gaps inside crammed backpacks and fit themselves on their own. Old books wait in the sun underneath other old books. Old books travel illicitly from other continents to find you because your government has banned it in your country.


Two years ago I attended a writing workshop in Kolkata where one of the mentors was Ian Jack, who had also been the editor of Granta for 25 years or so. During an informal chat he had longingly mentioned a certain edition he was particularly pleased to have produced; with contributions from the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Paul Theroux, and the reclusive Haruki Murakami. And lamented in the same breath that he had lost his personal copy and perhaps would never see it again in its physical form.

I sat there silently listening to him, lost for words, not only to see his extraordinary life unravel gently before me but also because the Granta edition he spoke of was one of the only two books that I had carried during that trip. One I had rescued from the bottom of a pile in Daryaganj, ignored and discarded, and brought home in exchange for a mere 40 bucks. Next day, when I handed Jack the book without prior caution, I watched him smile the broadest in wonder, wipe a tear and turn 20 years younger in front of me — all at once.

It was the Spring 1998 edition of Granta, themed ‘The Sea’. And just like the sea always returns what it has taken from you, old books can, too.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on August 04, 2017

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