Once upon a time, in the book shops of Mysore

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: A leading Kannada newspaper recently in its weekly supplement on Mysore carried a brief article about ‘Newspaper House’, an all too well-known landmark of our City located in the Lansdowne Building.

Like all book shops which have since my childhood always drawn me like a bee to nectar, it still continues to be one of my favourite haunts although they mostly sell magazines now instead of books and newspapers as the name might still suggest.

Though started by his father in 1930, my association with the shop and its former owner L. Raja Rao was from my childhood days in the mid-sixties. Although a very soft-spoken, frail and small-built man, he was extremely large-hearted in dealing with his customers and his benevolence and gentle nature were of great help to me in satisfying my almost insatiable appetite for books.

Although books were very cheap then, as a school boy I used to find myself at his shop invariably with money that never even remotely matched the bill for the books I would enthusiastically pick up, when the gentle soul would urge me to take as many books as I wanted without the need to pay immediately. That was my first and certainly my only painless experience with buying on credit which now pains me so much when the time to pay my bills draws close!

He had grown so fond of me as one of his favourite customers that even long after I became a full-fledged doctor he refused to let his sons, Sridhar and Krishna close the credit account in their ledger although it was a facility which I no longer required and which would have perhaps helped some other less well-to-do lover of books.

While most people are a little shy to admit that they have long standing credit accounts, this is one credit account of which I still feel proud and sentimental. When once he was to be interviewed by the All India Radio, he wanted to introduce me as one of his favourite young customers and had requested me to come down to his shop at the appointed hour although I politely declined the honour.

But he certainly did me a great favour by proudly introducing me as the most avid reader of all his works to R. K. Narayan, who was a regular visitor to his shop. It was only after I got to know him well at this shop that I gradually discovered the freely approachable and talkative man that RKN really was under his rather grim exterior and his brown sleeveless sweater.

Rao was such a simple-hearted and grateful man that even till his death, three decades after the incident, he would never fail to narrate before his other customers how I had once given him a lift from his shop to his house in my father’s car on a wet and stormy night. The 10th anniversary of his death has just gone by but I still recall his smiling face whenever I enter any book shop. May his tribe increase and may his soul rest in peace.

While talking about books and book-shops that have been a part of my life in the city, I think it is pertinent to mention here the other lead players.

The ‘Geetha Book House’ located diagonally opposite ‘Newspaper House’ also used to be another one of my hideouts although now with its changed timings that clash with my working hours and with its full holiday on every Sunday unlike in the past when it used to be open for half a day, I have not been able to visit it for a very long time.

It is owned by Gopalakrishna who used to painstakingly but most willingly procure every book I wanted and who still remembers my tastes very well and still sends me an old-fashioned post card occasionally whenever he receives a book that may be of interest to me. This shop too has been the source of a large part of my collection of books that have given me long hours of fascination and pleasure.

Nanumal & Sons’ and its later offshoot ‘Ashok Book Centre’ now owned by the two brothers Ashok and Thakurdas, who still not only allow but even encourage their customers to browse all the books to their heart’s content without the pressure to buy, are perhaps the last of the old-fashioned book shops in this City long known for its literary heritage and stalwart writers.

Sadly, with the habit of reading fast vanishing and business thus declining, good book-shops too have all but vanished from our City although I felt happy to have been recently invited for the ‘re-inauguration’ of the much expanded and renovated ‘Navakarnataka Publications’ outlet on Ramaswamy Circle.

The kindness and magnanimity of the book sellers of Mysore is undoubtedly a debt I can never repay and it always make me recollect one of my favourite poems by Charles and Mary Lamb about a poor schoolboy who, much to the irritation of the shop-keeper, would always visit a bookshop and try to browse books which he could never afford to buy.

It goes thus:

“Of sufferings the poor have many,
Which never can the rich annoy.
I once saw a boy with eager eye
Open a book upon a stall,
And read as if he’d devour it all.
Which when the stall-man did espy,
Soon to the boy I heard him call,
“You, Sir, you never buy a book,
Therefore in one you shall never look.”

The boy passed slowly on, and with a sigh he wished he never had been taught to read, ten of the old churl’s books he should have had no need.

I was sure lucky that I happened to know much kinder and more generous book-shop keepers here in Mysore than the poor boy in my favourite poem.

K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a column for Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared