Friday, August 14, 2015

Books Need People

The school I went to had a fantastic art teacher. She's the sort of woman who makes you believe in garden gnomes. Who throws glitter onto the edges of things in perfect proportion, draws roses with an easy wrist and owns a cottage in the mountains where she thinks it absolutely necessary to her students’ education to visit just before their final school examination papers.

She always brought equal parts magic and terror into our school week, sprinkling generously her eccentricities on our days. She could be the ultimate storm on a bad day, cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes and lustrous long black hair which unfurled behind her, escaping the wooden stick holding it for most part in perfect place. And then she could be the gold tip on a winter afternoon, floating into the room with her hands around a cup of chai, gorgeous Gujarati shawl wrapped around her, the mirror work on it reflecting the sunshine and lighting up the room in an array of tiny stars. She would smile and her magenta painted mouth would say words like "viridian” and “Prussian" and “cobalt”. 

She did everything differently. Defiantly. She made us paint a hundred different flowers, just because she adored them each equally. She made us climb hills filled with lemon trees because she believed almost superstitiously that it's what would take us from mediocre art students to truly impassioned artists. And it did. She made us weave with superhuman patience, dhurries on massive wooden looms and pluck Gulmohar during our summer holidays and study a pineapple’s scaly skin as a repeat pattern and chip our nails making mosaics of fish and lotuses and cut our hands on glass for lamps we painted to look like the windows of churches. She was a hard taskmaster and we cursed her under our breath and called her “witch”, but the truth is, she was a good witch and some days we lived for her smile. She was what made school bearable on many a mundane Monday, and her non-preachy effortless, almost collaborative wisdom and naughty humour were refreshing after a day of being spoken to like a child. She made me believe fairies live in the upturned cups of fuchsia flowers and that one of her ancestors had most certainly been a raven. Under her tutelage mountains came to life in lines of coal and we learnt the delicate joys of watercolour.

There were many things that made her magical aside from her most fabulous style of imparting knowledge. These include her Mona Lisa smile, her sons who were so far beyond the rest of us when it came to being cool that some kids mistook them for being the opposite (they were listening to Dylan and reading Kerouac while we tried to find the meaning of life in Nancy Drews), and the very, very special fact that she was magically associated to the best bookshop in town.

You cannot script something this perfect. That this beautiful, eccentric, wicked, wonderful lady who gave us respite from the corridors of math and malfunction in her gorgeous, temperate-climed art department that unfolded like a box of secrets, one room into another, was married to a man who had decided to spend a lifetime expanding his love of books and giving in turn this gift to anyone who would pause to have it. Though I’m certain I would have grown up with a love for Fact & Fiction either way (my parents were both huge fans), being Rati ma’am’s students let us feel like we had some extra-association to the place, and as we began thirsting for the sort of whacky knowledge they weren’t giving us in textbooks, the book shop became our number one preferred place.

Every few weeks I would make a little trip to “Priya Market” in Vasant Vihar with my reading buddy, Ishita Chaudhry. We never had more than 500 rupees between us, and it came together in a bunch of crumpled notes, sweaty from school skirt pockets and long bus rides. We'd enter, the little bell on the door jingled, and we’d say our shy hellos to Ajit uncle and Ravi ji as they sat together, listening to Jimi Hendrix or something we hadn’t heard but wanted to.  The sensation after that was one of being engulfed. Of being swallowed by the whale and travelling through his belly and when you were finally ejected in a huge baptism of seawater, it felt like you would never be the same again because your mind had been stretched and twisted and coloured and enchanted and we came out reeling, each having visited many planets, each with all of one book in our hands. 

Oh we could spend hours there amongst the slim shelves. We would look forward to our “book day” for weeks in advance. In the interim the school library would provide less provocative stuff, but we longed to “have” the books we wanted. We longed to read about sex and drugs and rock and roll. About history and religion, about wars  - not the versions we were being taught but the other side. We wanted philosophy and music biographies. We wanted Jim Morrison’s poetry and dark books on the occult. We wanted love stories. Real ones spanning times of cholera, not those peach covered romances with curly-fonted titles filled with heavy breathing. Back then if I remember correctly, Fact & Fiction sold music too – wondrous box sets of Janis Joplin’s discography and rare Leonard Cohen concerts. I also bought my first box of Tarot Cards there and as a teenager spent many nocturnal hours drawing swords and wands to fight the demons of insecurity and cast spells on basketball playing boys. Sometimes on weekends my parents would take us there, and those days were bounty-days. Instead of the one or two books I had to usually make do with, I got three or maybe even four. Swooning, I’d exit the store, palms sweaty from excitement, books held possessively in bag.

Back then they used plastic bags, then we nagged and nagged and nagged till one day I remember a paper bag being whipped out and Ajit uncle saying "Here you go, we got paper bags! You kids…" And he looked annoyed but as we left he had his trademark amused smile on. 

Over the years I've heard people say the Fact & Fiction bookshop guys weren't friendly, and I always found myself giggling at this. Of course they weren't! They were connoisseurs. In my version of the world they weren't meant to be friendly! Bakers are friendly. These guys, they were meant to be stoic. They were the generals in the Army of Literary Saviours and you earned their respect; each book you read took you a tiny notch higher. I remember the day I walked in and asked for a book on the Beatniks. I must have been about 14 and that day, my time had come. I remember Ajit uncle stood up (something I assure you he doesn’t do when you request a Chetan Bhagat). He reached up and brought down a variety of books, handing them to me while quietly explaining which I could start with, and what each held in store for me. Embarrassed that I could only buy one, I did, and then I floated out the store, knowing I was finally part of some secret club of REAL readers. From then on, whenever I walked in, he had books waiting for me. A history of LSD, a book of all Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, a book on The Who on tour, Hanif Kureishi screenplays and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Oh Ajit uncle what a masterpiece that was!) What you found in these alcoves you couldn’t find in other bookstores, because nowhere else was the human(e) hand so strong as here. This wasn’t a collection rattled off and mass-ordered courtesy some chart topping list of lurid time-passing bestsellers. This was a handpicked archive of wisdom and wizardry combined, a closet full of secrets and journeys and dormant passions you didn’t yet know you possessed. And I wanted all of it.

So the years passed. I eventually went off to college and my trips became less frequent. No one in my family dares possess a Kindle (yet?) but that said, college degrees, online shopping, lifestyles that had more style and less life in them, and shifting further away geographically all came in the way of the once every few weeks trips we used to make to the little market that had changed a little too. From being one of Delhi’s cleaner, more “happening” markets, it now played second fiddle to the nearby malls where kids go to do everything but read. Last year, I finally made two resolutions of sorts. The first to read more, and the second, to buy my books from independent booksellers. Because ironically, to truly kindle a fire, you need paper.

I made a trip back to Fact and Fiction and found my world intact. The bell on the door jingled, Ajit uncle smiled hello, Ravi ji nodded and I was lost once again to the only love I’ve never parted from…the one consistent companion my life has had. The books came off shelves as if on their own, the right ones finding their way into my hungry palms. Love and war and poetry and art chatted to philosophy as the biographies perched egoistically to one side and the music books chilled with the music system from which Pink Floyd performed faithfully.

For a short time, a sort of peace was restored in my life. I had also managed in adulthood to find a small group of people who still read and make time for it, and they each contributed recommendations and delights that changed my world for the better. Recently, some of them decided to start a small Book Club in Bombay. They named it, most deliciously, Between The Covers. I joined, hoping to add something different to my reading. After much debate they chose to attempt the 800+ page The Luminaries, as a first novel. In keeping with my resolution, I made a mental note to buy it at Fact & Fiction when I had the chance. And then, I saw the article. It was titled (almost too simply, because really how else does one say it) – ‘Why I am shutting down my bookstore in New Delhi’.

Over the last few days I have found myself back at the bookstore, more than once. I feel the need to go back, to sit on those wood floors and pore over words as a sort of ritual in mourning. I buy the books in piles, amazed at how little books still cost. We spend more on a meal or a single drink at a bar. Everything I’ve been waiting to read, I buy. Things like The English Patient and Wolf Hall and the new Jeffrey Eugenides book…I know I will read these eventually, so I buy them all now, together. I reckon these will become keepsakes more precious than other books. Like a pendant you give a child and say, “Take care of it, it belonged to your grandmother,” I see myself handing over my copy of Eva Luna to my child saying, “Be careful, it was bought at Fact & Fiction”. Because in the folklore of my life, this store has been the fairy godmother, Gandalf, and Prince Charming rolled into one. I feel like years from now the books I bought in this store will be held onto still, like a clump of soil from ones motherland, wrapped in a traveler’s handkerchief that you open from time to time to remind yourself where you really come from. I am terrified at the thought of people limiting themselves to best-seller lists, or of people who do not read at all. I am scared for a world in which children do not have the patience to find the meditative stillness of reading, or where they no longer need to use their imaginations because they are satisfied with the pictures given to them, instead of yearning to conjure their own. I lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what happens when a book is forgotten. When no one reads it anywhere any longer. Does it cease to exist?

These days at the bookstore I pick books I want, touch them, read passages and place them on the tiny counter in front of Ajit uncle, asking him, “Is this one any good?” then wait for him to give me his short but always honest criticism. I haven’t been able to mention to him or to Rati ma’am the real reason we both know I keep going back this week, sometimes alone, sometimes with family or an old friend, or then with a new friend whom I’ve told “must see” the store once before it goes. I can’t seem to offer my condolences, scared I will well up and make a complete idiot of myself. I did manage to ask, out of fear I would come one day at the end of this month and see a lock on the door – “So when is the last day?” And he couldn’t answer. All he said, after an emotional pause in which he closed his eyes a moment, was, “Imagine waking up and there’s no Fact & Fiction.” Imagine.

In a strange testimony to that space that gave my life so much sparkle, on the first day this week I went back to make a sort of pilgrimage, I was lost between Naipaul and Anais Nin when I heard a familiar voice. I looked up and saw Ishita, my school “reading buddy”. We haven’t seen each other in forever. We both stood there staring at each other, amazed, before embracing ever-so-warmly. You see…there is irrepressible magic in those four walls.

Goodbye Fact And Fiction. What a marvellous giver of dreams you've been. In a city oft-starved for soul, you should know you provided one restless, angry, and confused kid a halfway home of riches, a land of infinite possibilities and a telescope to all I could have and be and want and dream. They say if you change one life while on Earth, you have done better than most…that your time here has been worthwhile. Well you changed mine. Thank you.

This winter, you, like me, would have been 31 years old. Goodbye old friend.

Here’s an interview with Ajit Vikram Singh:

Here’s an older piece by his son Jairaj Singh, who speaks fondly of his memories of growing up in a bookshop – lucky guy:

And here is Ajit Vikram Singh’s own piece, on why he finally made the hard choice of shutting down his bookstore:


  1. A wonderful article Karuna full of pathos and nostalgia! Sadly it is hard to save a bookshop in today's world when more and more people prefer to buy on line or as you say Kindle!

  2. I was invigilating an English exam in 2003 at the end of which Karuna Parikh asked me for extra time............ an hour more. Born to write pulled into art thus paints with words. If there was a combined prize ...a Turner/'d go to none other.

  3. Beautiful. I am passing this essay/blog entry along to friends.

  4. I felt like I was walking every step with you. Feeling the cover of every book and most of all feel your excitement at knowing which non-main stream books to ask for. Lucky you! Great memories.

  5. so warm. didnt feel like letting go either,,
    they did well to light the spark that turned into this bright flame :)

    I loved what you wrote after the Paris attacks. - that was beautiful n thought provoking indeed.

    would like you to visit my page too..

  6. A beautyful piece karuna...i have been following since long now... U truely wrote a jem....why don't u turn a author

  7. I had been visiting Fact and Fiction for 23 years. The days when Priya Market used to be it. The simple joys of watching a movie and buying a book and feeling your day is made..pure bliss. I have been guilty of not frequenting that market and Fact & Fiction in the last couple of years. Maybe of not even reading as much. Life happens i guess. Then I read 'Why I am shutting down my bookstore in New Delhi' and I knew I had to visit. I did manage a last emotional visit and wished Ajit luck. I hoped he would somehow magically find a way to stay with all the last minute support. But then you dont get all that you want.

    I stumbled along and found this eulogy to Fact & Fiction and experienced catharsis. Thank you for such a lovely writeup. Anything less wouldnt be deserving to the memory of Fact & Fiction in our lives.


  8. Such a beautiful heart rending piece! I didn't wish to let it go.Gem of an article on the books,the place,the connoisseurs of books.It will always remain with me.Thank you for writing it.

  9. Such a beautiful heart rending piece! I didn't wish to let it go.Gem of an article on the books,the place,the connoisseurs of books.It will always remain with me.Thank you for writing it.