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Dance bars, yes. Books, no!

By Lindsay Pereira
Last updated on: May 24, 2005 16:52 IST
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Mahesh Kumar would sit quietly, precariously, atop a small pile of books, watching Mumbai go by. I had known him for months by then, and he would recognise me from a distance. When I stopped by his little bookstall -- the grand facade of Churchgate casting its shadow on us both -- he would jump up and, almost immediately, whip out his latest acquisitions.

The last time, there was Michel Houellebecq's Atomised. A fairly new Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man. A faded edition of Khushwant Singh's Delhi. And James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late. I remember buying everything but Delhi, telling him I had a copy.

Mahesh knew exactly what to tempt his buyer with. He managed, as he often had before, to surprise me with his suggestions. When a young woman approached, he would reach out for Paulo Coelho without batting an eyelid. She would pay and leave. No words were exchanged, and the transaction would last little more than a minute.

"How do you do it?" I asked him. "Do you know these authors?" He laughed wildly, telling me he had never been to school. He couldn't read the alphabet, attempted one Hindi paperback every six months, and wrote a monthly letter to his mother who lived in Chhapra. That, for him, was all the contact with reading or writing of any kind.

He managed solely by paying a great deal of attention to his customers. With one eye firmly on the crowd passing by (he insisted on calling out to regular or potential buyers every five minutes), he told me about his "system" -- Paperback thrillers in the top and lowest rows. Penguin paperbacks in the second row, current pirated bestsellers in the third, everything else spread across the fourth.

Depending on the row you reached for first, Mahesh could gauge -- and pretty accurately at that -- the kind of books you were most likely to buy. What you wore, the kind of mobile phone you carried, the mood you were in and the expression on your face – these were pointers he then used while quoting prices.

Armed with this information, I tried confusing him a couple of times. By reaching for Michael Crichton, for instance, when it was really Colm Toibin I wanted. He would ignore my childish attempts, put away the Crichton, pick up Toibin, and name his price. I stopped playing that game with him a long time ago.

All along that paved pathway, stretching from Eros to Flora Fountain and beyond, were others like Mahesh. Boys far from home, hawking literature in an alien city, with an understanding of its denizens that went beyond the merely perceptive. They would offer Playboy to teenagers asking about Windows for Dummies, and it turned out the kids wanted Playboy all along. They discussed the pros and cons of titles by Robert Ludlum, relying on testimonials from past customers to recommend or dismiss a book. They knew, somehow, that they ought to charge more for a Faber & Faber imprint. And they delineated, neatly, the literary from the pulp fiction. Years ago, one of them asked me to consider reading Patrick Suskind, saying he thought I'd like him. It turned out I did.

In time, I stopped trying to understand Mahesh. I gave up analyses of his methods. I simply stood by his side, letting him do what he did best. He would pull up some titles, push others out of the way, poke and prod the many heaps surrounding him, and surface, minutes later, with something like David Mitchell's Number 9 Dream. "Yeh aapko accha lagega, saheb," he would smile. I would pay up, knowing he was probably right again.

Mahesh doesn't sit there anymore. He -- and the others like him -- have been asked to leave. Selling books at that public space is now illegal. The pathways are easier to navigate now, apparently. Nothing stands between Flora Fountain and the railway station anymore, except people, and a few more people. Nothing shocking like Vladimir Nabokov, Emile Zola, Gunter Grass or William Shakespeare to stop you from reaching that train on time. Nothing but a piece of dirty cardboard, propped up against a railing near Churchgate, with the words: 'What did the books do to you?'

I walk past those empty spaces quickly these days. And sadly. In the state of Maharashtra, where I live, dance bars are perfectly okay. Boys who sell books, however, will not be tolerated.

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Lindsay Pereira