This is Prakash, or as I like to call him – Uncle-Ji. Let me tell you, this man has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. I wish I had a close-up of them but I didn’t want to creep him out any more than I already did. I happened upon his tiny little bookshop a week ago while roaming around with a friend and was immediately fascinated by the charming shack on the side of a back road in Reclamation by Mount Mary’s Church. Made entirely out of white-washed wood, standing all on it’s lonesome on the curb, it has bright blue hand-painted words above it that say: Happy Nest Brokerage. Which is slightly confusing because he runs a bookshop not a brokerage.
As it turns out, Prakash-ji’ uses the outside of his shop to advertise his 28-year-old son’s small real estate business down the street. The bookshop is as close to a private library as I can describe. Everything is available for purchase, but the main part of his business comes from the rentals. That is, you can pay Rs. 150 a month (approx. $2.30, based on today’s exchange rate of 65.70) and read as many books as you want. Fantastic deal – I signed up in a hurry. This appropriately solved an ongoing dilemma of mine – how to reconcile my addiction to owning books with the staunch promise I made to myself to accumulate as few “things” as possible while living in India.
My first book is a collection of Marquez’s short stories.
Personally I am fascinated by the selection. Every level of high- and low-brow literature you can fathom, ranging from “Why Men Love Bitches” (I’m not kidding), “The Art of French Kissing”, and “50 Shades of Grey” to Michael Crichton, James Clavell, Malcolm Gladwell, “Eat, Pray, Love,” classic European literature, and every Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton book my 10-year-old self ever wanted to read. For such a small space, when I step inside, it wondrously seems to house every book I’ve ever wanted to read. It must be a trick of the eye.
A week ago, I asked him if I could ‘interview” him for my “website” (please note my extensive use of quotations). He instantly got suspicious and drew away.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said.
I put on my best, most inviting smile. “Why?” I asked. “Shops like your’s don’t exist anymore and I’d love to write about it.” He wasn’t sure how to reply. So I told him to let the idea marinate. And I’d be back in a week or so.
So today was the day. I approached his shop around 4pm, just after he had come back from lunch. He smiled when he recognized me and asked, “How can I help you?”
“I was wondering if you had a chance to consider what I had asked you last week.”
He let out a small sigh. “Why you want to ask me questions?” he asked. “Are you with the media?”
I explained to him that I have a website where I like to write about people in Bombay and that his business really interested me.
“What sort of questions are you going to ask me? Maybe if you tell me, I can prepare and you can come back tomorrow.”
“I will only ask you really easy questions,” I explained. “Like what is your name, where are you from, how did you get started doing this. Like that…”
He looked at me again, disbelieving of the genuineness of my curiosity towards his bookshop.
“But what do you want to know? I am not a great person. I am just me. I have a small shop. What is so interesting about that?”
So I smiled, and pressed record on the audio recorder that I brought along.
He continued with his quiet rant (he is very soft-spoken and shy). “You know, when people hear this, they will say I am library-man but I can’t talk English. So this is not good.”
“But we’re in Bombay,” I said. “I wish I could speak to you in Hindi, but I am only learning. I should be the ashamed one, not you.”
He seemed to relax a little, but I could tell he was really apprehensive and shy.
And then we started. And once we got going, we went on for about 30 minutes. He told me lots of things.
He and his family moved to Bandra from Gujurat over 40 years ago. He started the bookshop when he was 25 years old because it was a business that required very little start-up capital. He began with about 500 books and slowly accumulated more and more based on what his readers requested. Most of his readers tend to be women and lot of them request romance novels so he has a hefty shelf of romance novels. He says he likes his job because it is simple, stress-free, but he’s not shy to admit that he makes very little money. His friend jokes that when he goes home, his wife must slap him daily for running such a failure of a business. He has about 75 subscribers who pay Rs. 150 a month but his profession is dying slowly.
When I asked him if he reads alot himself, he is quick to say no – which made me laugh out loud.
“When I was young, I read alot – murder mystery, detective books. No romance, I don’t read romance,” he suddenly added, as if I suspected him of secretly reading “The Lord of Pleasure.” “But now, I am older, I only read the newspaper and small, small things, like 2-3 lines in reader’s digest.”
“Do you get bored sitting here everyday then?”
“Sometimes. But then, I listen to music.” Indeed, when I first walked in, he had his headphones on. “This is good, like retirement life.” His eyes twinkled, as if he had found the secret to living the good life in Bombay.
“Will you retire soon then?” I asked.
“I will take it day by day. When I ready, I will close this place, but right now, I am comfortable. This is good.”
After we finished talking, he asked if he could listen to the recording. So I plugged his headphones into my audio recorder and took a seat on a stool, and sat back as he wrinkled his face through 20 minutes of talk time – flashes of laughter, embarrassment, curiosity, reflection, but always with a smile and the sparkling, wizened eyes.
Watching him listening to the interview was probably the best part of my entire day. Just look at him below, listening intently.