This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in the March 29-April 11 2013 (Vol.9 Issue 16) issue of Time Out Mumbai in my After Words column.
Bibliophiles in Mumbai are currently having their Bull-in-a-Chinashop moment. Sundarabai Hall, that cavern on Marine Lines, home to the book exhibition since yonks, is hosting one where books are being sold by the kilo. Yes, that’s right. No typo.
After several friends made me sufficiently jealous with tales of treasures they had trawled, and the pittance they had paid, I could not stay away.
Normally, a visit to a book exhibition is a slightly ‘posh’ activity, where aficionados move in slow-motion along the stacks, eye-ball the merchandise, stop occasionally to flip a page or two, glance at the back cover, look at the price and more than usually move on. The deliberations are like that of an English high tea, all ritual and gesture. It is not so much about buying books, but about basking in their presence. Here, in contrast, the scene was like a rag-pickers paradise painted by Goya. The many, many visitors scurried from table to table, weighed down by baskets filled with books, giving everyone else the evil eye.
This was a paradigm shift, for when book are sold by weight, any concern about the content becomes secondary to the probability of ownership. The stacks were nominally separated by books for children, fiction, non-fiction, encyclopaedias and suchlike, but had no finer divisions. Those who asked the management for another copy of a particular book were given wan smiles in recompense. What you see is what you get. Also, inherently embedded: garbage in, garbage out.
Not immune to the thought of paying a hundred rupees per kilo, I tucked in myself, and was soon amazed and appalled by my own desires over-riding sense. In such a situation, the only book that you would potentially not buy was one you already have. But dear reader, I bested myself, by buying one or two of the books that already line my shelves at home. Pavlov would have loved to jump out of his grave and take behavioural sampling, for like a dog that salivates conditioned by the sound of a bell, I filled my basket within no time.
The smart ones in the crowd had worked out that they could get a bigger bang for their buck by choosing paperbacks over hardcovers (again, the more fool me, who bought seven kilos of only hardbacks). On the other hand, this was the moment to go after those weighty tomes that would have been untenable in any other exhibition (cum-sale) of books.
So, at the end of an hour and a half in the company of more books than I could reasonably count, and of more people I took an instant dislike to because of the contents of their baskets (that I coveted), I emerged into the mid-morning haze of a Mumbai summer, lighter of purse but proud daddy to a newborn, overweight pack of books (no plastic bags).
Now that I was out, and had unburdened my load on the seat beside me in a taxi ferrying me homewards, I rubbed life back into my hands and contemplated the books I now owned. But did I really need them? Life-lessons were learned. Should you wish to follow my path, these you should know:
When buying books by weight, you do not bring either the age of the book or its current condition into consideration. It is simply- do you want the book or not?
Either you pick it up or someone else will. As the grand sage Yoda says: do, or do not.
Many of the books are familiar. But there is no point ruing the fact that you had seen this book on the road at Flora Fountain for ten rupees thirty years ago, but you did not buy it then, either.
You can judge a book by its cover. If it is attractive and shiny, pick it up. What is inside can to be seen to when you get home.
Yes, your home is already filled with books. Yes, your shelves have long since been outgrown and stacks are piled your spouse’s side of your bed, but so what? One kilo for one hundred rupees, bleddy!
Please do not get into petty issues like- will you read the book when you buy it? No true bibliophile buys books only to read, come on!
It’s all right if you do not pick up 'The Da Vinci Code’. They published far too many of those than were needed, anyway.
Do not think of the behind the scenes business model of this kind of sale. What the organizers make out of this is none of your business. Just think: is your basket full, and do you want another?
I am home now, and it is more than a week since my purchases. My book stack still is unopened. What’s the hurry? I kind of like it, just the way it is.