Rehana Munir’s novel Paper Moon (Harper Collins, 2019) is every book lover’s delight and is filled with vivid descriptions of Bombay’s streets and pavement bookstalls, such as the Strand Book House at Fort that sells remaindered books at student prices. Clearly, an expert on nostalgia, Rehana’s writing keeps springing up vivid images of the city in the 1990s.
She sets the scene with phrases like: “Matinee shows at Sterling Cinema and peanut-crunching evenings at Marine Drive. Nawabi chicken pizza at Intermission Restaurant in Metro cinema and blazing afternoons at Azad Maidan” and “Pav bhaji at Khao Gully. And that bizarre neembu paani, blitzed with ice, chaat masala and industrial amounts of sugar.”
The book’s protagonist, Fiza Khalid is a student of English Literature at St Xavier’s College, who often spends time with her boyfriend Dhruv Banerjee in the lending library—complete with its dim lighting, hidden corners, friendly chairs, and a sleepy librarian—in other words, a hideout for “hurried embraces and long-drawn sighs.” For “stolen kisses in the chapel and bad Chinese in the canteen” and “showdowns in the woods and making up in the arches.”
Quite unexpectedly, Fiza inherits money to set up an independent bookstore from her estranged father whose cherished dream it was to do so after retirement. In no time, fantasies dominated by books begin to fill her mind. “Shelves filled with volumes of Faber & Faber poetry, which she had never been able to afford. The elegant grey spines of Vintage Classics. The cheery orange of Penguin.” Fiza decides to name the bookshop Paper Moon after a jazz tune with smoky vocals, wistful lyrics, perky melody, and piercing image of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. As she begins researching the world of the bookshop business, she comes across a decrepit yet charming mansion to lease out as the space. Fiza then gets a French designer to curate the bookshop’s interiors, complete with lamps, rugs, cushions, mats, used books on a handcart, and seating between revolving bookracks.
As she goes on a book buying spree to warehouses of various book distributors, she pays homage to many writers: “Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark—the holy trio were some of the first to jump in. Milan Kundera followed Amitav Ghosh, Dostoevsky chased Mario Vargas Llosa in some kind of mad hatter’s literary tea party. Nick Hornby and Sue Townsend added some laughs. Darwin and Nietzche kept the rest in check.”
With its own café in no time, the well-loved bookstore soon becomes a happy retreat for book lovers and anyone looking for a quiet, reflective moment in an increasingly difficult city. During the course of time, Fiza also realizes that running a bookshop is so much more than just the books. Moreover, it leads her to discover much about her own life and her family’s hidden secrets. It also takes her to the literary capital of the world, London, to attend the “Mecca for books”, the London Book Fair.
A book about “days of miracle and wonder, of family, lost and found, love chased and escaped”, the story is a must-read for someone who has ever dreamt of setting up a bookshop, or simply anyone passionate about books.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.