Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Bookseller of Chennai


Via The Brooklyn Rail (via @karaditales)
The tiniest bookshop in Chennai, India’s fourth-largest city, is located on the edge of the Taj Connemara Hotel, in the congested downtown. To get to the shop, you must first inquire at the hotel’s front desk, where a clerk tells you to exit the lobby and make a left. At the far end of the parking lot, past a majestic peepal tree and within a few feet of roaring traffic, is a narrow strip of shops, one of which displays a small yellow and red sign: “Giggles, Biggest Little Bookshop.” 

Behind the glass window are teetering stacks of books, some of them 10 feet high. The door is ajar, and there is just enough space to stick your neck in. “How do you enter the shop?” I muttered on my first visit to Giggles a year ago. “This is the shop,” a voice rang out from beneath me. I looked down to see a sharp-faced woman sitting on a tiny wooden stool, surrounded by plastic bags and buzzing mosquitoes. Next to her, on the cement pavement, was a purple mat containing a dozen or so books, both new and used. “Welcome to Giggles,” the woman announced.

The voice belonged to Nalini Chettur, a pillar of Chennai’s English-language literary scene, who opened Giggles with a thousand-rupee investment in 1974. “The main reason I started this bookshop was to educate myself,” Chettur remarked. “My generation was sent to very British types of schools, so we didn’t know much about India. We knew more about the West. So when I started this bookshop I thought I would focus on India.”

While Giggles is chock full of popular and scholarly books on India, one is also likely to find titles by Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chettur notes with pride that her favorite author—the late R. K. Narayan—used to say: “If you want a real good bookshop, go to Giggles.” Over the years, many writers have visited her shop, including V. S. Naipaul, Jan Morris, and William Golding. Contemporary figures such as Amit Chauduri, Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, and Ramachandra Guha have also stopped by the place that Guha refers to as a “crazy/lovely shop.”

“Books are piled in precarious stacks and towers, like castles built of sand,” Hebrew University Professor David Shulman wrote in his 2009 book, Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary. “You ask for a title and she sends her gofer burrowing through the stacks, hoping he will emerge alive.”

Her bookselling formula is built on personal intimacy. “You may have noticed,” she says, “that I work without a computer.” (She does not own a computer or a TV.) “So when you come and ask me for a book, I don’t rush to tap the keys. I tell you immediately whether I have it, or whether I can get it. That’s an advantage over the other bookshops, you see. I know my stock. They don’t, unfortunately.”
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Image Source : ascendent/Pete Young

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