It was the early 50’s. Nainital was still very much a British hill station and the schools still had European or Anglo-Indian teachers. Three-quarters down the Mall road from Tallital where we lived was Narain’s Book Shop. It was a long low building with two sections and two sets of steps leading to the two sections. It was run by two brothers whom we always referred to as ‘Mr. Narain’, though their actual name was Tewari. One of the brothers was tall and talkative, the other short and quiet, but both were gentle, smiling and helpful. The tall one chewed a lot of paan or tobacco and so would carefully tilt his head upwards when he talked or laughed.
Being the youngest of four– two sisters and a brother — and not very good at the gulidanda and seven tiles the others played, and probably introverted by nature, I had very early retreated into the world of books and had become a precocious and voracious reader. The first book I ever chose for myself was bought in Narain’s. I still remember the delight and excitement with which I hesitated over all the beautifully printed and illustrated books before choosing it, and I still vividly remember the whole story and the pictures.
It was called Gaston and Josephine and was about two little French pigs who get ensnared by a wicked farmer who is going to turn them into bacon, and how they managed to escape. And, equally vividly, I remember the delight of holding the new book in my hands as I read it and feeling I had chosen well. Thankfully, that pleasure has stayed with me, with every new book I buy and read.
We loved going to the bookshop. The colonial hangover had still not dissipated, and though we were not at all well off my mother subscribed to a magazine called Women’s Weekly, full of love stories and anecdotes of the Royals, knitting patterns and recipes. The Women’s Day and Woman and Home were bigger, glossier and coloured, but beyond our budget. These were small with a pink and blue cover. They would come rolled up, usually two or three at a time, by sea mail from England so their arrival was always uncertain. We would invariably stop and ask in our superior ‘English’ voices, “Mr Narain, has the English mail come?” And what anticipation of happy reading there was when it had.
My mother insisted that my brother, who was older by three years (so ten or eleven to my seven or eight), take me out for a walk whenever he went to Mallital with his friends. It was quite safe for young children to go out alone without grownups in those days. There was no traffic– only the hand-drawn rickshaws with the rickshaw pullers’ cries of ‘bacchte raho’ as they ran along not wanting to stop their momentum. I think even the cycle rickshaws had not yet been introduced, or if they were, there were very few. And as for crime, the first murder I ever heard of was in the early seventies. Ghosts and churails were what people were afraid of, but we always had to be back before dark anyway.
My brother was naturally very reluctant to take me and I was equally uninterested in whatever it was he and his friends found to do, so we reached an agreement highly acceptable to both. We would walk along the Mall road up to Narain’s and then I would happily skip up the steps and the two Mr Narain’s would smilingly welcome me, let me browse among the books and comics and then, when I found one I liked would, believe it or not, give me a stool to sit on behind the door and let me read till my brother came and picked me up again.
Half an hour? One hour? I don’t really know, I was lost in the world of the comic. I think I was careful with the comics I read, and perhaps they knew my widowed mother couldn’t really afford to buy us non- school books, but they must surely have been the kindest, most impractical, un-business-like shopkeepers in the world.
In spite of their un- business- like ways the shop prospered and was well known and loved for the next few decades and there was always something new and exciting for every reader. Sometime in the sixties I think the talkative brother asked if I would come in and help them sort out some records because they were closing up the record section and turning it into a candle shop. I was adolescent and unthoughtful at the time so I never really questioned why. By then I had shed some of my colonial English baggage and I remember buying some Talat Mahmud gair filmi ghazals from the stocks they were getting rid of.
I suppose that was the beginning of the end of Narains’ days of glory. And what a glorious place it was, stacked with books of all kinds (even poetry), for eager minds wanting to explore the universe within and without. And what gentle custodians it had.
It seems ironic to use a digital platform to bemoan the slow death of the printed book, or at least, of a beloved bookshop. I can’t date the ensuing gradual changes or when half of even the book section became a candle and gift store.
Walking along the mall I still invariably climb the few steps into Narain’s bookshop. I’m saddened to see the children’s book section. Some of the books have been in the sun too long and the colours have faded and the plastic edges curled up. They are all standard ‘things that will sell’ as birthday presents – colouring books, activity books, Indian mythological stories or fairy tales retold (often in bad English) or Did You Know books. No Gaston and Josephine for an excited child to discover for herself.
Further in, there are a few shelves with classics reprinted cheaply, a few self-help, a few Osho or Deepak Chopra, some history. The main display shelves, now only five or six in number, contain mostly best-sellers. A Murukami or Amitabh Ghosh, or a more serious book that has caught the popular imagination, may lurk among the bird and nature books, and he usually manages to stock the latest Booker Winner, but it is hardback and even I feel I should wait for the cheaper paperback edition. The table in front of the proprietor is covered with Jim Corbett and Ruskin Bond, which will attract the tourist as local colour and some self-published books, usually not worth the paper they are printed on.
I never leave without buying something, but I have to fall back on the classics—a George Eliot or Dostoevesky that I had missed or wanted to re-read.
Why don’t you have at least one shelf of new books for readers like me, I ask Pradeep, the present Mr. Narain.
It’s no use, Ma’am, he says, nobody reads much anymore, and if they do, they read on Kindle or order from Amazon. I tried, but the books just lay on the shelves. Too much of a loss.
I am guilty myself so can say nothing.
Like his father before him he is kind, knowledgeable and helpful and loves books. I look at his face and see again the faces of his father and uncle who ran the shop when I was a child in the 50s, and the shop as it was then, and wonder how long he can keep the bookshop going till even these books disappear behind the glitter of the candles and the empty words of the greeting cards.