Smell of Paper


I

Like most middle-class Bengali homes at the latter half of the past century, our house too had a modest bookcase, replete with the obligatory moth-eaten, clothbound AT Deb Dictionary, and a decrepit Geetobitan gathering small cobwebs at a steady rate. There would be volumes of refurbished, dark-green board-backed Bankim Rachanabali with silverfish bore-holes, and a handful of waxy, hardbound Bangla books from Soviet publishers, bearing the imprints Raduga, Malysh, Vostok.



February was a special month each year—time for the Calcutta Book Fair. It was one of the few times you might see half a dozen Benfish stalls stretched across the dirt and woodsaw dust on the Maidan greens, selling greasy, delicious, unidentified white fish fritters with pungent mustard sauce. Nestled between book stalls were loudspeakers that announced children lost and found, between snatches of crackling Robindrosongeet. You would see families of three, four, and five trooping down the dust-caked walkway in a furtive search of new coursebooks.

As a boy of eight, I would only read books in Bengali. Thanks to Ananda Publishers, translated versions of Tintin were accessible and part of the familiar tapestry of childhood afternoons and playing truant. Among other favourites, courtsy annual editions of Anadamela, were Kakababu stories of Sunil Gangopadhyay, the amazing and underrated Viking stories of Francis by Anil Bhowmik, and the classics—Upendrokishore, Premendra Mitra, glimpses of Shibram Chakroborty. Early teens was when I discovered Satyajit Ray, and gobbled his writings as fast as I could. Reading in English was unfamiliar terrain, save for the odd abridged Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, or a Noddy.

Reading in English scared me. Our Catholic school library was an incense-scented darkwood and glass affair, occupying a third of the room that was used as the chapel and choir hall. The librarian in charge was a severe, salt and pepper haired, maxiskirt-clad, Anglo Indian lady called Ms Peterson. She spoke in perfect English and wore starched white shirts. I was terrified of her, and stared with some degree of reverence and awe at the yellowing library cards stashed in a special paper sleeve inside each book. As the boys withdrew their two allocated titles with an air of surety, my library withdrawal slip remained sparse.

It would be years later that I started with the Classics, Charles Dickens in particular, in earnest. I remember spending a vacation of amazement and tears while reading Great Expectations. It was a dark olive, board bound title, frayed at the spine, with shiny spots in the corners worn smooth by the years. The scent of European softwood pulp and binder's glue was addictive. It was probably an acquisition from my mother's house—a crumbling, Edwardian-era, four story tenement deep within a maze of narrow North-Calcutta alleyways. Built into one of the first floor walls was a translucent, yellowed glass and mahogany bookcase, now renovated. Inside it were dust-caked books from my grandfather's time, ancient tomes on Physics. These did not pique my interest, except for their aroma. That wonderful old paper smell, a hint of musk, moisture, moth and indescribable sweetness. It was perfect olfactory alchemy.

It is the smell of books that drew me to them. In the damp western room of the house in the village my father built, there was a termite infested bookcase, packed with hundreds of darkening clothbound titles, old books that were handed down to my father and his siblings. On monsoon evenings, when a stray lash of wind severed the electrical lines, we would light soot-lined kerosene lanterns and rummage through the bookcase. Among old, water-damaged photograph albums, Bengali periodicals long forgotten, there were mounds of cobweb-clad, esoteric books. My father's father, Dadu, was a man with fierce curiosity. At once, you would find biographies of Vivekanada, Edison, and Marx, Math and Biology titles, Soviet tomes, ancient Pujo annuals of forgotten periodicals, and even an odd Political theory hardback smelling of moss and water. On those stormy evenings, I would steal away to the western room and feel my way around the bookcase in the soggy green darkness, feeling the rough texture of yellow paper and breathing the mouldy, magical, aroma.


II



I never lost my fascination for old books. It took a visit to College Street, the age-old bookmarket in Calcutta, to cement the love affair. My young mouth of 16, smelling of a cigarette pinched on the sly, opened wider. This was the first time I walked beyond the school books and dived into the serpentine lanes. This was a mysterious network of book-laden crannies, concealing eager booksellers who spoke in a secret tongue unknown to anyone not in the trade. You needed to ask for the book you wanted, and had no chance of browsing. The congealed mesh of shops on the Presidency College side dealt with used fiction titles, laid about in stacks, spilling out into the busy footpath below like small tentacled creatures. These were easier to navigate. You had to ask for the author, and if the shopkeeper felt generous enough, you might be allowed to stand a while. On a good day, you could even browse from the small mountain of leatherbounds, clothbounds, and paperbacks sliding down on to the street. I picked up an O Henry there once, it was one of my first books from College Street.



After I floundered my way into an undergraduate degree in English, names such as Dostoevsky, Joyce, Conrad, and later Kerouac, and Kesey became familiar. The girl I fell in love with grew up with books, English books. She told me of enchanted summer afternoons spent under a slow spinning DC fan near the Rashbehari tram line, with handfuls of Enid Blytons. I envied her when she spoke of reading The Faraway Tree when her age was in single digits. I remember an early winter afternoon on the metro, and a newsprint-covered copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I lent her, a tinge of excitement in my mind. In the months to come, the attempt to impress her made me discover, and fall in love with, the rebel writers. Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S Thompson, even the strange and brilliant Robertson Davies. Perhaps it was to impress her, perhaps it was a way of compensating for lost childhood opportunities. I started hoarding books by the dozen.



A distracted walk down the Indian Museum stretch on Chowringhee revealed the surly Kalman bhai, who prided himself on his collection of fiction and art titles. This became a regular haunt, along with the crumbling Mallick Book Stores on Free School Street. Stuck between Lonely Planets was a pristine William Burroughs novel, one of my best finds. The loot would be stacked in neat rows in my little bookcase.


III



Old books have found their way to me in almost all cities I have been to. In Bangalore, the mecca of old books is the revered Blossoms Book House, on Church Street. Organized with near-obsessive detail and well-kept, Blossoms was the reason each visit to the city became a pilgrimage for beautiful hardboards. I could spent hours here, lost among the white-painted steel bookshelves. My best find here was a dust-jacket covered 1950's era library edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, yet unread. Hoarding more books than I could read has become a nasty habit. There are around a hundred books I have not read piled back home in Calcutta, and around a hundred more in Delhi. Although I do not read as much as I should, a stack of unread books make for a comforting sight on a cloudy day.



When I moved to Hyderabad, idling about the book market at Abids or at Best Books became a lovely way to spend Sundays. It was halfway through our university that we discovered the American Studies Research Centre at Osmania University. Resembling a quaint American Library stuck in the Lyndon B Johnson era, the ASRC was a popular haunt for Indo-US humanities students. When the US Government ceased funding for the centre in 1988, the building was annexed by the Osmania University.The massive building and its occupants were a slice of frozen time. A mise-en-scène from an '80's period drama, complete in every detail, including laminate desks with early-era IBM Windows 2.0 workstations. Carved inside an unassuming concrete building near the University campus, this giant network of wooden carrels and bookshelves resembled an otherworldly church. More so, since it had few visitors. We spent many an afternoon compiling research for our term papers in eerie silence. On occasion, we drifted among the books to soak in their old, acrid smell. This was, and still remains, the best-kept book secret of the city of Nizams.

When I moved to Delhi some years ago, the Kitab Bazaar spanning the stretch across Daryaganj became a hunting ground for old books. The bazaar came to be in 1963, when traders from nearby villages congregated to sell books once every week on the seventh day of Aitvaar. Now spread out over two kilometers, the market in its present avatar is a pastiche of law and competitive course books, office supplies, stolen airline toiletries, and novels, rows upon rows of them. Daryaganj is noisy, dusty and haphazard—elements that add up to a good bargain. Oblivious to the chaos around it, book peddlers from across the four neighbouring states continue their weekly journey to the strange, enchanted market south of the Walled City.



I don't think I can ever live in a place without an old book market, and its peculiar, intoxicating smell of old paper. In our tiny rented house at the edge of the capital city, we now have a restored Edwardian bookcase. We bought it secondhand, from the wonderful refurbished furniture market at Lajpat Nagar. In it, we have started building a small world of creased spines, old and new.

This will be our little place for keeping memories and magic. And the fragile, heady smell of old woodpulp.



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