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The last time I went to Mylapore to buy a book, I was in the eighth grade. The Sanskrit text for our third-language class was available in only one store in all of Madras and for a T. Nagar kid like me, getting to that established store near Kabali temple was like a voyage of discovery. There is intelligent life in other suburbs!
Twenty years later, I was back in Madras (now Chennai) to find another bookstore which has been around since the 1950s—Alwarkadai. This sidewalk store, a stock of books sitting on plastic sheets, had been shifted around based on the whims of municipal officials before it became a Luz landmark. Three generations of readers have shopped there but I have somehow missed out on the experience.
While most of Alwar’s revenue is from the sale of secondhand texts, his reputation is based on the ability to procure out-of-print books for clients. Even the Maharajah of Mysore has used his services, supposedly. “Give Alwar a week’s time and he will get you any title in any language, if it not already available with him,” I have heard. The British Council could have put in a request on behalf of the Queen of England and I would still not be surprised, such is Alwar’s renown.
Alwar is no longer there, a friend reported recently. Did he have to move again or worse still (since the newspapers say he is in his 70s) was he truly gone? As a booklover I had to find out.
My mother insists on accompanying me though she reads nothing other than newspapers and magazines. Perhaps she is convinced that a decade abroad had deprived me of the skills required to function in Chennai. At the Luz bus shelter, Alwar’s customary spot, I see a vendor of kitchenware. Oh no!
“Just keep walking down Luz Church Road,” he says reassuringly, pointing a wooden ladle in the right direction. In less than 10 minutes, we come upon a shirtless man with a Periyar beard against a backdrop of piled-up books. It is Alwar. Business seems dull and I can browse to my heart’s content. Well-thumbed tomes on Visual C++, Java, and other programming languages stand out on those piles. Chennai is not a beneficiary of the outsourcing boom for nothing!
There is nothing on display except “useful” books—texts and exam guides. What did I expect to find in a secondhand store, my mother wonders, The Gutenberg Bible? But Alwar must have something for buyers who read simply for pleasure. I need to ask but I have no idea how to interrupt his chat with his neighbor, the coconut-seller.
Meanwhile, a spry man with bare feet steps forward. He is too old to be an assistant but no competitor would steal customers from right under Alwar’s nose. Ramanan introduces himself and asks if I am looking for anything in particular. Brightening at the first sign of customer service, I ask for Sanjay Nigam’s Non-Resident Indian and Other Stories, a recent out-of-print book. He shakes his head. I try ambitiously for Mexican comics, La Burron Familia, next.
“My Spanish sources have dried up,” Ramanan says. “Anything in Tamil, perhaps?” Despite being an avid reader, I have not yet discovered literature in my first language and don’t want to admit it. Jaganmohini, an obscure name from a newspaper article, comes to my rescue.
“I sent all those mohinis off with a foreigner. People get Ph.D.s from those old magazines. Vai.Mu.Ko, the editor was a prolific writer too, you know. Come to this address tomorrow for her novels,” he offers. I literally drag him into the waiting auto-ricksha.
We pass through some unbelievably narrow lanes and find ourselves, back by the temple, in a small outhouse full of books. Ramanan throws names of old writers at me as he rummages through his stacks, but I recognize only those who have been published in popular weeklies. He appeals to my mother who simply smiles. I instantly identify an author from a film based on his novel. A pity, so few Tamil stories have been retold in celluloid.
Ramanan is Alwar’s procurer now. “Ah, you should have come to my shop in the old Moore market,” he sighs. “That whole building and the one across burned down one night. One wide street connected them. What does that tell you?” He pauses dramatically. Arson, I want to whisper back. The tragedy of 1985 that reduced several such collections of out-of-print books to ashes, suddenly hits me.
Aside, the now defunct Madras magazine, must have documented the mysterious fire. Maybe he can get me that issue. I start making a list. A recent read, Pudhumaipittan’s short stories on Tirunelveli men and their first brush with urban life was interesting even in translation. I should read the original to savor the Tirunelveli dialect (sprinkled with mudhis).
My mother grabs the pad, crosses out the title and rewrites it, though there is only one wrong na in my Kandasamy. “I can read better than I write,” I nearly blurt out though Ramanan passes no judgment on my Tamil skills. My ever-practical mother eagerly scans the books I have selected—for termites.
Ramanan names a price. Trusting my instinct on the value of the books, mother makes no move to haggle, surprising all of us in the bargain. One lingering look at the bright gopurams of the temple and I am ready to head home to savor my bounty. But first we drop Ramanan back at work.
Kids in school uniforms scour the stacks under Alwar’s watchful eyes. Too late, I realize I haven’t exchanged a single word with the legend. However, the possibility of meeting the old Tamil authors through these used books drives away all such concerns from my mind.
After all these years, I simply cannot keep them waiting.
Vijaysree Venkatraman writes from Cambridge, Mass.