Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Buying Books in the Shillong of the Seventies

I think it was in 1977 when I was studying in my first year of Pre University Science in St. Edmund's College Shillong. As an avid book lover it was my dream to have a good collection of books in my personal library. But this was a difficult task as I wasn't given a fixed amount as pocket money. "Tell us what you want," my parents would say, "and we will get it for you." The walk from Nongbet Cottage in Nongrim Hills where we lived till
St. Edmund's College took barely fifteen minutes. I would usually go to my classmate Alok's house and both of us would walk down together past the Fire Brigade bus stop and the football ground. As I would usually be back home by 3:30 pm I would have a late lunch at home. The upshot of all this was that my parents were very clear that I didn't need any pocket money.

The State Central Library in Shillong had an excellent collection of books. And it had a lovely reference section and an unbelievably good student's section. Not to mention the children's section which had one of the largest collection of Charlie Brown in hardcover. The walk to the State Central Library would take something like half an hour. But we would walk slowly and take our own time in reaching the library. We didnt mind walking because Shillong didnt have a summer (I wonder how it is now) and it had plenty of pretty girls. I also remember issuing thrillers from the ‘library’ of the Officers Mess at Headquarters, Assam Rifles. This ‘library’ was just an almirah full of books. But I remember reading Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition from this collection. I wonder how many of our youngsters today have heard of Thor and his unbelievable adventures. But then I am talking like a grumpy old man.

Shillong had plenty of lending libraries where one could issue copies of JS (Junior Statesman) - the weekly for the young which had cult status amongst youngsters - or the westerns of Sudden and Louis L Amour. Not to mention the Commando and Archie comics. You could also add the Alistair Mc Leans, the James Hadley Chase novels, the Desmond Bagleys, the Barbara Cartlands and the Mills and Boons (Milky Boobs, as one of my classmates in Mhow described them). And yes, the Hardy Boys, the Nancy Drews and the Enid Blytons for the school children. In the midst of all this one wouldn't be surprised if a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare also turned up. One of these libraries had a rather quaint name - Sufi Hamsaya. It was bang opposite the football ground at the Fire Brigade bus stop.

I remember one such lending library in Police Bazaar. I managed to get a paperback copy of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with colour photographs from the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I paid the princely sum of Rs. Four only for this book. I still have it in my collection. I also remember buying a copy of Hall and Knight's Higher Algebra from another small bookshop in Police Bazaar for eight rupees. And Chapala Book Stall somewhere after Kelvin Cinema past the turning for the Bus Stand. Or was it before the Bus Stand? This was famous for selling text books. An ELBS (English Language Book Society) reprint of Algebra Made Easy is still in my collection. It had cost 4 Shillings ( 4 Rupees) then.

Modern Book Depot had two branches in Shillong. One was at Laitumkhrah and this was the one which was famous for music. The LP (Long Playing) record covers on display there were a treat to see. Come to think of it an LP at Rs. 45/= was a pretty costly thing considering what people were earning in those days. And yet music lovers bought them. No free downloads or ipods with thousands of songs in those days. And cassettes were just beginning to become popular. Their branch on GS Road (Gauhati Shillong Road) where Police Bazaar began had a fanstastic collection of books.

I remember I and a friend had entered this bookshop with a bag containing books that we had issued from the State Central Library. We decided to leave after browsing for an hour and without buying anything. As we were leaving we were asked about the books we were carrying in our bag. “Oh, these are from the library,” we told the shop assistant. “Then it is okay,” he replied, “because you were using our shop also like a library.” We were giggling as we exited the shop. But I do remember buying an ELBS edition of The Dictionary of Biology from this shop for two rupees - the shop assistant on duty that day couldn't believe that I had managed to find such a book from their shelves as two rupees was a rather low figure for such an elite bookshop even by the standards of those days.

But the best was when I discovered this man who sold books on the pavement. This was in Laitumkhrah market and it was on the stretch between Don Bosco and the St. Paul’s publications. He had a vast range of paperbacks each costing just two rupees. Now that was a sum I could afford and arrange for. So I started taking two rupees from my mother every now and then for ‘lunch money’. Only, I wouldn’t eat anything at the college canteen. After college I would go to the ‘bookshop’ and pick up something I liked. Of the many books that I bought from there I still remember Ian Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me. The list is endless. Ah, I also remember Typee by Herman Melville (who is famous for his novel Moby Dick), and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.

Some months after I started buying these books I told my father about them. I had a hunch that he wouldn’t get angry as I wasn’t buying these books at an exorbitant price. My guess was correct. Instead of scolding me as he would usually do he borrowed a few of these from me and started reading them. I was happy that my collection now had official sanction at home. I never asked the bookseller how he managed to make a profit by selling these books. Many of these were editions of the fifties. If I can find them in my collection I can wait a decade or two more and perhaps mint a small fortune by selling them at an online auction. Or better still I will keep them with me till my dying day. I don’t know about diamonds because I don’t have any but books, I am sure, are for ever.

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Blogger Shilpa Shinde said...

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11:16 PM  
Blogger Dev said...

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8:46 PM  

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