Sunday, February 04, 2007

Grounded By Tonnes Of Tomes

"Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of that is in our minds already; as in love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back." -- Graham Greene

This quote came to my mind while writing this post, but even words can’t express my respect that I have for an 'unglamorous' person and his passion for books. I know this person for more than four years now.

A short and narrow by lane leads from Brigade Road, where Bangalore’s flashy consumerist culture displays itself along a crowded stretch of shops, pubs, restaurants and glazed arcades into a small backwater of quiet and unhurried living. Every day a countable number of booklovers head for an unusual little shop located in one of the semi-new dwelling in this area. This is the Select Book Shop, one of the finest antiquarian bookshops in India.
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Here crammed into five rooms, on simple wooden racks that run to the roof, on and under tables, in stacks piled precariously on the floor, in short in every conceivable piece of floor area, with little space to walk, are books, books and books. Unlike in a bookshop or library, where books are arranged alphabetically, here there is no such order, which is one of its attractions. The books here range from anything to everything, possibly every thinkable area of knowledge and literature. This is not the place if someone is looking for the latest Grisham, Sheldon or pulp based books, but it’s a real treasure trove of frayed pages on any topic starting from pre-Indian independence to pre-globalization, exciting ideas and six decades of unique history. There are books on education, Egyptology, health, art, history, politics, humor and satire, philosophy and religion, psychic science and psychology, and folklore. There are memoirs and anthologies too. Select is no snob and if you are a low-budget browser in these inflation-prone days, it won’t disappoint. Thanks to its profit-is-not-all approach, this quaint outlet has a remarkable ability to locate books of one’s interest.
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So what is the genesis of Select and how did all this happen?

Select was started in 1945 on Museum Road, Bangalore by K.B.K Rao. Rao abandoned his flourishing career as a lawyer and came to Bangalore. With due support from Dr. Robertson, then well known in bridge circles for his innovation called the 'Robertson Move' who provided his garage, Rao started his dream journey. Rao whose mind reveled in the sublime beauty of literature and art always invested whatever possible from his front though at the same time going thorough the motion of humdrum daily routine. The books were collected from the Britishers who were returning home after India’s independence in 1947 and many were selling their precious libraries. As time passed Select Book Shop attracted eminent people like scientist C.V.Raman and Philip Spratt, who was sent to India from England during those days to start the Communist Party but later like many others got disillusioned with communism and became a right wing proponent. During the late fifties it moved to a small shop on M.G. Road and stayed there till the eighties before moving to its present location on Brigade Road.
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[This is one of the oldest pics of Gandhiji.]

K.K.S. Murthy, son of K.B.K Rao, who like his father also has an interesting story currently, mans this bookshop. I know K.K.S. Murthy for close to 4 years now and I call him 'Sir' for the respect I have for this man and he has shared with me few of his experiences and memorable events, which are priceless.
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Though trained as a production engineer from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, K.K.S. Murthy was an ardent booklover. He worked with Kirloskar for few years and later served under Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL] for 18 years. During this time he made trips to Europe on business assignments and as is akin to any booklover he spent vacations visiting bookstores all the way from the banks of the Seine in Paris to the collections sold near the British Museum in London.
[I am telling from personal experience, that if you love books, irrespective of whether you read those or not, banks of Seine river is one place for sure visit. Even after three visits, I crave for more as they say in Hindi "Yeh Dil Mange More".]

Later he moved to US and served for Lockheed in New Jersey. He spent five years in the US, his main intention was to collect books and send those to Bangalore so that it would add to the existing collection of his father. He left two jobs in the US as the firms wanted him to apply for US citizenship, which he was totally against as it was never his intent to settle in a foreign land. Finally he took a job as an Inventory Control Manager with a publishing house in New Jersey. In his role of inspection he found that many books from the conveyor were discarded everyday as they were unfit for final packing because of silly reasons like a minor wear and tear or a dent. There were copies of Lawrence Olivier and many such books kept on accumulating. Seeking permission from his manager there, Mr. Murthy bought 19 such boxes at 500 dollars and transported them to Bangalore by sack mail.

In the mid-1970s Mr. Murthy entered the business just before his father died, and he has been at it ever since. After getting into this passion of running his father’s legacy, Murthy has traveled to every nook and corner of India to collect his books. From Chennai’s Moore Market to Kolkata’s College Street to New York to the street shops in France on the banks of the river Seine, his is a life inextricably linked with books.
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As Keats once said of a true book collector, good books cling to his hands like iron filings to a magnet and this aptly fits Mr. Murthy to the final word. His collection numbers over 90,000 and few of his rarest of rare collection include an autographed copy of Tagore's Gitanjali, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Richard Burton’s authored series of Arabian Nights, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Issac Watton’s The Compleat Angler written in the 1870’s.

Once in a while on a weekend, I just go to his place after lunch and then spend the rest of my day there till it is closed around 6:30P.M. Talking to Mr. Murthy is like roaming thorough a moving library and or a cruise through a mini-university. One day while I was there, I asked him a simple question.

What did he love in this work and was he not feeling challenged by the big bookshops in Bangalore such as Landmark, Gangarams, Strands and Shankars?

His reply was "I am not selling books here and I am not here to do business. Because of our common interest being books, I meet so many people, young and old and from various backgrounds. And it is nice to meet new people, learn new things and see new perspectives. As far as my motive and the big bookshops intention are concerned, we follow totally different schools of ideology or philosophy."
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One of the unique features of this place is that, any visitor is allowed to browse among the books for as long as you want. There is no one watching or policing you. My tip to anyone who visits this place: "Never address this place as a second hand book shop". Chances are Mr. Murthy will exclaim with a hint, a vexation: "Books are books, why do you classify them as second hand?"

Mr. Murthy gets the real notion of any person who visits him and if he finds some person 'deserving' of a particular book, monetary consideration is the last thing on his mind. I have seen it myself, he giving books to few visitors, especially students with insufficient funds just because he saw flair on their faces. He even told me an incident, when he was in a bookstore in the US, how a student of Psychology realized his ignorance in the subject, helped him get the correct book. But it’s not that way in India and so he allows the readers to spend as much time as they want before they get their book. Mr. Murthy spends hours poring over the shelves to find specific books if you seek his help. It’s customer service of an impeccably high order.

Now think who in these mercenary times would think of helping a not-so-well-known artist and showcase his works and not take a commission on the sale? Well Mr.Murthy is one such person, who is trying to develop an art gallery for the young artists. He also has a rare collection of paintings and a collector can also buy paintings by some of the upcoming talents here, which do not find space in elegant, and spacious art galleries.
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There is a particular calmness in this place, which almost seems like a reverential hush intended for the books themselves. The books here are brittle with age; their pages have turned dullish yellow and threaten to snap softly. It is this magic that has attracted many in recent times. To mention a few who frequent here are Yusuf Arakal, Girish Karnad, Ramachandra Guha, N. Ram, Romila Thapar, Sashi Despande, etc as well as expatriates who religiously visit the bookshop whenever circumstances bring them to Bangalore. Occasional visitors include author Ruskin Bond, who has been coming to the Select since the 1960s. Mr. Murthy even shared with me an autograph of Ruskin Bond during one of his visits in 2001 to the Select Book Shop.
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Bond even wrote: "Booksellers should encourage browsers. Sooner or later most of them will become book buyers. And it was in Select that I became a collector of picture postcards."

These days Mr.Murthy’s son, Sanjay has joined him leaving his job as an accountant. This place also holds discussions and talks by eminent speakers from India and from professors from different Universities across the globe. These talks are organized in a typical informal baithak format where in the listeners generally sit on mats on the floor with the speaker seated on a chair or on a dewan [cushioned chair]. Anyone can join in these discussions or visit the shop at the address:

Select Book Shop
71, Brigade Road Cross,
Phone: +91-080-25580770

It’s open 11:30 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. Monday to Saturday and upto 5:30 P.M. on Sundays.
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In this age of computers, with information at your tips, courtesy Google and Wikipedia but still 'Select' is a comforting place to be. There is something reassuring about the thought that not all information in this world is available online and there are few things, which are beyond Google’s tentacles. If you seek my opinion I prefer few things to be the way they are and be restored as they are, bearing the virginal beauty and not touched by technology. That’s the reason one hardly hears about this place in newspapers or in media as Mr. Murthy told me he is never interested in advertising.

Dive into this amazing world here.

The amazement of the first time or Nth time visitor, makes him realize that s/he 'Select' ed the right place to get his/her books. A unique discovery indeed. 'Unpretentious' treasure trove is my word to describe this outlet.
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It was in this place, that my romance started with books by Derrida and have read few books by this French philosopher but have lots to read. I have got some of the best in my collection of books from this place. Whenever I go there, I talk to Murthy 'Sir' and its the simple talk and you feel blessed with the load of knowledge, maturity and cognitive abilities of this person.

Keep reading and remain connected.


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Rekha said...

This is bad Tanay, not telling us abt this bookshop before...but I am really glad that u did now!! One interesting thng abt ur blog is tht it gives us info abt the place in which we so ignoringly live, thereby helping us to appreciate it better...Thx again!A visit to this bookshop is the first on my agenda for the weekend :)

At 2:36 PM, Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

A nice piece of information: Mr Ruskin Bond collects picture postcard and he picked up that from "Select". When I meet him I'll remind him about that.

Yes, Mr Bond has written a very warm-hearted foreword for my book "The Remix of Orchid" now on sale. More about the book at my blog


At 11:06 PM, Blogger Lawrence Samuel Raj said...

O Tanay, i too have picked books from Premier Book since 1992& was quite upset when i read about it to be closed. Would visit this weekend to remind me of those wonderful memories. Thanks


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