Monday, 21 October 2013

Of old books and dying telegrams

                                                                                                                          Photo © Prashant C. Trikannad

I usually don’t post pictures back to back. However, I couldn't resist posting this photograph I took last Sunday, of two largely secondhand booksellers in the old central business district of Mumbai. These fellows are “sitting” at the junction of Veer Nariman Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road at Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk, or Martyrs’ Square). A few more booksellers are on the opposite footpath, outside American Express Bank. They're the last of a handful of used booksellers in the area; the rest were driven out by the municipal corporation more than a decade ago. 

They sell all kinds of books including vintage paperbacks and hardbacks. The books are preserved in cellophane. Very rare books are rarely on display. They are hidden away and are brought out for regular customers or discerning readers. These booksellers know the value of their books for they seldom bargain. If you want a book, you buy it, perhaps with a marginal discount. If you haggle over the price too much, they turn their backs on you and put away the books.

If you look at the picture carefully, the third stall in line is a footwear seller whose immediate neighbour is a sugarcane juice seller (not in the frame) followed by a seller of stationery items (I think) and two more booksellers. The man with the large white sack walking along the footpath is a ragpicker or a scavenger, one of a thousand of his kind engaged in the city’s unorganised recycle trade. Every single non-biodegradable item that I throw out goes into his dirty sack, so to speak. You can enlarge the picture for a better look.

The stone facade that you see behind the booksellers is the Gothic-style Central Telegraph Office building erected by the British over a hundred years ago. A couple of months ago, India Post succumbed to competition from its virtual enemy—email, sms, whatsapp, whatnot—and officially shut down telegraph services across the country. The night before saw a mad scramble by people who wanted to dispatch one last telegram for the sake of posterity. The death of the telegram, after 163 years, made headlines the next morning. Hopefully, the old books will be around for a long time.

10 comments:

  1. Wish I could see more of that over here.

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    1. Charles, the secondhand book trade in that part of the city was thriving until a decade ago. I'd cultivated many of the booksellers.

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  2. Great photo and another interesting post. I would try and enlarge the photo to try and decipher the book titles if I could!

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    1. Col, I ought to have taken more pictures with close-ups. Perhaps, I'll do that the next time I visit the place which, incidentally, is less than 2 km (about a mile) from my office. I'd need a good reason to go there though buying more books wouldn't be one of them.

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  3. Prashant, my sister sent my son a telegram too on the last day. One to be treasured...it was unfortunately never delivered. I also felt a strange kind of loss having grown up at a time when telegrams were commonplace and telephone calls were expensive. Now when I see the ubiquitous rag-pickers too with a cell-phone I marvel at how much India has changed.

    All the best for the self-styled challenge.

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    1. Neer, I think the CTO was open very late into the night and the road outside was jammed with cars. I remember getting telegrams in parts; sometimes they'd even be incomplete. A telegram was always a cause for concern as they were deemed as harbingers of bad news, as in the early Hindi movies.

      Thanks for the best wishes for my challenge; hope I can pull it off.

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  4. Wonderful photo. I could not pass by such a stall without looking in. Now is the time here for people's garage sales and yard sales, and I have to resist the urge to pull over as I drive by and see if there are any books.

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    1. Thank you, Ron. I do look in every time I pass by though I don't always buy any books. One of the reasons is that I've found some other outlets including an old age home near my house that holds a biannual charity sale which includes old and cheaper books as well. I have found some good books there.

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  5. Very, very interesting post. You know how I love book sales. I was just reading a book (published in 1990, a mystery of course) where the protagonist mentions receiving a telegram. I had not really realized how out of date they are now.

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    1. Tracy, thank you for the kind appreciation. I enjoy going to book sales too even though I often don't buy any books. It feels nice to be among hundreds and thousands of these wonderful companions. I don't think I've ever read a book referring to a telegram unless Agatha Christie has referred to it in her novels that I have read. The landline telephone might be the next to go.

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