One of my favorite activities as a teenager in Bangladesh was hanging out in a back alley in an area of Dhaka called Purana Paltan. In those days the lane was known for a row of used book stores. The shops were large boxes framed in wood, with rusted tin for walls. Each shop teetered when you stepped in, stacked with books from floor to ceiling. Novels in English still felt like part of a democratized Bengali experience, accessible to the masses via these book bodegas. These were the eighties and the stores hadn’t yet run out of books, and the small used-book industry was still managing to chug along.
The reading traditions of previous colonial influences were on the wane, slowly relaxing its sway on our lives. So while we were learning to roll the ‘r’s of our words like American TV stars, we felt a tension with the diminishment of the Queen’s English, at least the bastardized version we were used to. But still, scratch the surface and there came the missing traces, like the scene of an unattended picnic left behind after a storm. I was getting to know our past colonial masters by the reading material they had hastily left behind – from the pages of those used book covers; amidst orange-spined Penguin paperbacks. The ectoplasm of history was everywhere!
Describing that street with words like ‘row’ and ‘alley’ now seems maudlin, maybe romantic at best, invoking, perhaps, notions of leafy London suburbs, rows of trimmed hedgerows and smoked kippers. My street of books was opulent, but with the richness of green algae, gurgling in the drains on either sides of the narrow street. One had to rub shoulders with the residents of a particularly active slum nearby, that maintained a steady spillage of naked children and destitute women who begged and loitered. The more enterprising of booksellers had laid sturdy planks to help customers cross the moats of waste and into their stores, while keeping out the urchins. Once inside the shop, one quickly sidled onto a stool next to the lunghi-clad bookseller, or some fellow mouth-breathing book browser, looking for that J.G Ballard or D.H Lawrence we were on the hunt for. Shoulder to shoulder, sweaty and lost, there was no better place for a teenager and his friends (after we tired of talking about girls we were clearly too cool for) to hang out. Sometimes there would even be tea.
For the English reading cohort in Dhaka these were curious times. It was a bridge perhaps between two distinct ways of life – a bridge between a time of reading and thought, versus, a time of cable TV and the massive cultural upgrade (or downgrade, depending on your point of view) that was to come in the nineties. TV still had two channels – on and off – and even at that time, some of us dreamt science-fiction dreams, of the infinite possibilities of cable TV. But such things were too far into the future and we had no choice but to return to those rag-tag tomes.
The books revealed the past in striations. English and alien, stories that quietly hummed within humidity-fattened pages, literary adventures that started well before we even opened the book. Iris Murdoch, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and my favourite P.G. Wodehouse all hid in those racks. They seemed to mix somehow with the smells of frying jilapis and samosas from the ‘hotel’ next door. Some days the whole endeavour felt like picking through the detritus of unknown lives after a flood – little notes scribbled on the first page of H.G. Well’s Invisible Man; names of strangers, congratulations, inscriptions, dates from times long past. The smells of tea and garbage; screams and sounds; books procured in those shops would never quite lose the scents of their inglorious origins.
There were American books too, chronicling a later colonial period. The Pakistanis, an American bedfellow, and beneficiary of the great American propaganda machine, had passed on their used paperback thrillers and golden age comic books. Mad magazine, satire of everything Americana, marked an amazing act of America’s schizophrenic greatness. That instinctive throb of empire grabbed at us – hoisting us onto that American dream in our teenage country. And dream we did, of Pop Tate’s hamburgers, picket fences and prom nights.
Leon Uris’s Exodus figured large there too; there were always many copies all over the shops; we even had a copy at home. There were two theories to explain this. Either, some early pro-Israel lobby apparatchik was mailing out bushels of Uris’s bestseller around the world; or, maybe we Bengalis, at one time, (likely in some pre-sixty-seven era) and during our own Independence war, deeply identified with the Israelis in their struggle for statehood. But truth be told, in those days, my attention would have drifted to some wholesome smut from old Harold Robbins, that pimply adolescent’s’ constant companion – books that were read for specific pages, where the good bits were eventually memorized by all. There were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew by the dozen, but even I had my standards.
We bought these books when we had the money, and manipulated richer friends to buy them when we didn’t. Sometimes, along came second-hand girly magazines, highly contraband things, items that often materialized, all warm and toasty, from a compartment under the bookseller’s seat cushion.
After I left Bangladesh to go to college in the US, partly, I confess, to seek my fortune measured in better bookstores and TV stations, I harboured a nebulous paranoia. I worried about a dystopian Dhaka where the stores had run out of books. I, like the infant Superman, felt similarly about abandoning my planet Krypton, a place I would never materially need again. But summer breaks from college brought me back to Bangladesh, and back to those tin box stacks, to those that still remained anyway. The racks were retreating disturbingly, much like the banks of Bengal’s ever changing rivers, consumed as much via sales as through the wasting away of books ill-designed for the tropics. Only one shop stood where there were once many. The slum next door had grown larger, extending its portentous system of deep alleyways if you cared to look in. The striations of generations too were merging, I noticed, old British and American writers had given way to a thin soup of contemporary best sellers. Great volumes of Tom Clancy and Stephen King – lots and lots of Clancy and King.
One of the last times I was there, I sat with the bookseller, an uncomfortable, long-faced man with a thin moustache on his lip. I wondered about what would happen to him once his industry died. I wondered selfishly about what would happen to me without the books. I had known him through my teenage years, having sat next to him for years, cheek to lunghi-clad cheek, rarely speaking unless we were haggling over the price of a book. There was always a nervous tick about the guy, I suppose from years of selling pornographic magazines (where he made his money) and watching out for the police. He made me nervous too, half my brain always wanting to screw up the courage to ask for something from under his seat, but never quite succeeding, sort of the equivalent of a first date that had lasted for years. That day, I recognized a book from years past, jammed hard between two other dusty tomes. It was a hardcover copy of Reader’s Digest abridged books. Out of nostalgia more than anything else, I decided to give the book a tug. A short sustained effort led to the extrication of the thing, but in the process, I had managed to fling it onto the floor. I picked it up, gingerly, opening it to make sure it was alright, but realized that the damn thing was falling apart in my hands. The cloth binding had disintegrated, and the pages, brittle with acid and sun, were breaking into bits. Worst of all, it wasn’t really a book I had intended to buy anyway. I looked up at the guy, feeling morose.
He stared back for a moment and nodded.
“Brother,” he said with a wry smile, “for twenty years it’s been sitting there. Not in his fate to be read.”
He refused to let me pay him, but finally relented after a little coaxing. And before I left, he shoved a well-thumbed copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children into my hand. It was the first paperback edition from 1981 and still sits on my shelves today. Thinking back, it seems to me that Rushdie is somehow fitting, given how his book may have been one of the first to fly the flag on the strange terrain of South Asia’s post-colonial post-literary landscape.
Those shops have since gone. Some have relocated to another part of town where the new booksellers are found, near the university. They now sell pirated SAT, GRE and MCAT books. Oh, and Java and Microsoft books – tons and tons of computer books. It’s as though out of all that time spent agonizing about colonial and post-colonial malarkey, after all that loitering and time-wasting, has come this hard and practical reality – Thou shall not read any more – find thee gainful employment ye bloody slackers, in the computer trade, even.
I have to remind myself that I too once went to these shops in search of escape to other places. These days, those types of transport come from coding lines of Java.
Though they sell fiction still, it is with a far greater attention to the best seller lists. No one is taking chances anymore and everyone is selling the same five or six titles – such literary works as The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter books, and many varieties of Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I am not sure what it says about the fate of books or the readers who buy them, but all I can say is that now the English reading cohort of Dhaka seems quite exclusively interested in a far more streamlined, optimized method of viewing the world. Corporations and book pirates have ensured readers of this zero-sum situation. On some of those days, as I have walked fruitless and disgusted, among the rows and rows of the same shiny bestsellers, I worry that, with the purchase of that last copy of Midnight’s Children, I may have doomed Dhaka’s readers forever.
Of late, when I read about the great buzz on the death of books and reading and of literature, I recall that last day at the book store. I recall the fraying of the binding, the crumbling of the paper in its many unlikely and angular pieces, the physical sensation of the complete implosion of that fat thing full of stories. We are likely still walking on that bridge connecting the two ways of life, the one that reads, and one that does not. We may well be amongst the last generation of Dhakaites to love our books with that specific brand of fetishistic zeal. But for used books, there needed to be a circulation of them in the first place, and in Dhaka, we now know that after a time, like all resources, even used books ultimately come to an end.
But as books fall apart and the medium yellows and crumbles, it seems that we will continue to browse, continue to look for the story that we will breathlessly seek. And dashed and despairing, perhaps when there are enough of us, we will write our own stories, and who knows, maybe fill up those racks once again.