A street full of bookshops smartens up even a dowdy little town
Once Woody Allen has celebrated all the maximum cities, he may one day release a film titled Ernakulam, You’re Not Half Bad. I’d like to beat him to it in my more modest medium. Ernakulam is not far from home, and it’s still the kind of town in which I can walk anywhere I need to go. But I’d always considered it Fort Kochi’s dowdy, almost squalid sister till we recently visited to see the Biennale. One evening, as we were looking for Marine Drive, we found a book fair just opposite the Press Club. I have fingered my way through miles of rickety tables at book sales but here the books were meticulously organised, so I had a tall pile of purchases in no time. Better yet, the book fair was a permanent thing, attached to the Blossoms book shop upstairs (no relation to Blossoms in Bangalore).
On that trip I had already found more books than usual in Fort Kochi, starting with a good stall at Aspinwall House, one of the star gallery spaces of the Biennale. Pepper House, another Biennale stop, had a proper book shop next to its cafe, unnamed but evidently more permanent than the art exhibits. Close to the synagogue in Jew Town was Idiom, which has always had an excellent collection of Indica. Collections of books on art and culture are often tucked among the cafes and antique shops near Mattanchery, for the benefit of sunburned tourists in floaty shreds of crinklewear.
But Ernakulam clearly has its own dedicated readers. The Eloor Lending Library branch here has been around since 1979. It started on Marine Drive and shifted about 20 years ago to its present spot on the corner of Press Club Road and Market Road.
It has more than 10,000 members, according to K.S. Sabu, the manager. Among them are many doctors, he says, and they seem to like medical thrillers. (Imagine, doctors with time to read novels.) He admits children aren’t reading the way they used to. On the day I went, in the middle of vacation, there were no kids browsing the library’s excellent variety of science and nature books, comics, and literature light and serious. For adults the shelves offer literature, crime fiction and law-abiding fiction, and dedicated sections for art, sci fi, poetry, plays, psychology, philosophy, yoga, romance, home decor, horror and chicken soup.
Between Eloor and Blossoms are several more book shops along Press Club Road, Shanta, Janatha, and other shelf-lined caves of welcome darkness on a blazing afternoon. Some sell the usual combination of textbooks and water bottles, others offer good reads at affordable prices or for borrowing.
Every Indian city ought to mitigate its mosquitoes, dust and bus horns with a few leafy streets lined with book shops and ending in a serene lending library. Having had no luck in Delhi or Chennai, I never thought to find all that in this small town, but it is here, it is here, it is here.