Quick Reads

On Second Hand Books: ‘Everything Spiritual’

It's incredible to see how an old book shop can be a confluence of diverse forms of knowledge.

Credit : The Better India

The dusty, messy treasure houses of second-hand yellow books have always excited me. Netaji, a character in my play, Sadasarvada Purvapar (2019), is drawn from the second-hand booksellers I have met. Surrounded by so many books, Netaji loves spending long hours with a bidi in mouth and the famous Sanjay Dutt starrer 'O mere Sajan Sajan’ song at the background. It’s like being in a temple of books for him. 

An avid reader strapped for money can be seen hanging over such a place. Some paupers would keep bargaining for hours to buy a second-hand book. And, needy can negotiate to borrow a book with the deposit of token money. It provides the Netaji like sellers as well as his visitor the moments of frustration and elation. My intention in building a character of old bookseller and his place in play was to respond to the crucial social space. The space that cultivates knowledge, highlights local culture and, engages with day-to-day socio-political dynamic.

The aromatic smell of fragile old papers and texture of bound volumes of used books celebrate known as well as unknown writers and artists, philosophers and scientists. It occupies the place in people's imagination. People walking, strolling, hitchhiking, relaxing during a lunch hour can take a break at this place. Secretly, their eyes would gleam with the scintillating description in a porn-magazine or desirous body-poses. Some of them may hang around there only for a newspaper or magazine reading. These places are not uniformly present either as a shop, a library, or just a place to visit. They are productive sites for construction around ‘material' of a text.



The public here is different from the category of researchers or students frequenting state or private archives. Their orientation toward a text is different. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the text’s archival value, they would be interested more in pleasure or entertainment or purposeful reading. Here, different kinds of books can be read, dismissed or picked up. In a small district place like Kolhapur, it’s also an adda to share a cigarette or tobacco. Such a place, in the form of pavement book shop near a temple or a bus-stop, exists not just because of an appreciation of books. It's also close to people’s hearts for the possibility it offers of engagement and dialogue across ideologies and practices.

Many booksellers know the importance of old books, manuscripts, photographs, old magazines and journals, handbills. They are sensitive to the historical linkages of the books they own and the contemporary provocations that yellow pages can offer the reader. Acknowledging the marginal position in the overall cultural scenario, the booksellers are fully aware of their importance in genuine reading and research cultures. On the other day, I overheard someone telling a seller in Patna on a pavement that his place can be called an ‘archive’. With tobacco in his mouth, he said, "You big people can call us by whatever name you want. But, I know I am a minuscule second-hand bookseller.” 

Searching for the textual material at such spaces could be exhilarating. You may draw blank even after going through the stacks of books for hours. At times, you may win a lottery of precious titles. Recently, I realised that I don’t have enough space to keep the books. So, I shifted some of the old books to my native place in Kolhapur district. But I haven’t stopped buying books. Every time I visit Netaji, he warns me: “This is gold. People have stopped reading. This maal (for him, books are maal) is not going to be there hereafter. Pick up whatever you can.” Inadequate family support to such ‘time-pass and useless’ business and declining buyers have failed the second-hand booksellers miserably. Besides, ever-expanding families would take away a room reserved to store books that, according to the family members, don’t have any future.



Next time, as I visit him, he calls me. "O sir, come, there is a new lot. Fantastic it is. Come, I'll show you."  He knows I am not going to leave his tapari (stall) in less than four-five hours. Once I visited him after the heavy monsoon. Almost the entire city was underwater. I was worried about what would have happened to his books. As I approached him, he was having a nap. With concern, I asked him: "Did you suffer a lot in the bad rain this time?" After his typical pause, he replied, "Fifteen days before the downpour, I had dreamt that it's going to rain. Without thinking much, I hired a tempo and moved all the maal to the godown.” After a pause, he continued, “You are a reader. You know it’s everything spiritual here.”  

In my play, Sadasarvada Purvapar, two characters involved in archival studies visit Netaji to seek the ‘archival material’ for their work. For Netaji, it's very precious and invaluable 'second-hand maal (material)’ that he is possessive for.  I wanted to explore the tension between the researchers' aspirations and Netaji's possessiveness. Interestingly, the Netaji like sellers are well-informed on how digitising technologies can be threatening to their culture of location either at the pavements or in closed warehouses. Many times, I have heard them complaining about the student-researchers who are hobnobbing the shops with the mere scan-the-book zeal. I  overheard a seller in Pune telling a student, "Why do you want to scan? Come, take the book and read." 

It's incredible to see how an old book shop can be a confluence of diverse forms of knowledge coming from different corners of society. Often, they challenge our assumptions about the relationships between academic and popular publics. An aam reader here can be seen leisurely going through a history book that may of a researcher's interest. Such informal engagement with knowledge may not be possible at a general library or an archive. Though neglected by mainstream society, old bookshops add value to our lives. The Netajis inspire us to inquire into established institutional set up of libraries as well as unconventional spaces like pavement shops. They are not just shops or warehouses but spaces to engage with our pasts and futures. 


(Ashutosh Potdar edits www.hakara.in and is a contemporary writer and playwright in Marathi. He teaches Literature and Drama at FLAME University, Pune.)