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More a book lover than seller

Varahalu Chetty. -- Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam.

Ask Matta Varahalu Chetty, bookseller, publisher and owner of the Book Centre about the ongoing cricket fever that has gripped the country, he would reply: "Yes, we love cricket here, but displays of fanaticism I dislike intensely. One must learn to enjoy the game in the true spirit. In a contest, I feel good for the winning team and sorry for the team that has lost. So the emotions cancel each other."

But is he not rooting for India at the World Cup? "Yes, I am, but then again, may the best team win! Look at that poor fellow Tendulkar, he must be left alone to play his cricket."

At a time when cricket jingoism is assuming both ridiculous and even dangerous proportions, Varahalu Chetty's reaction is refreshing. Indeed, his attitude towards cricket, in a way, also reflects his manner of looking at the world. He is not one to settle for only the black and white in human affairs, but constantly seeks out the grey, however unpalatable. And he can never reconcile with extremities, no matter what the justification.

Essentially a democrat, Chetty is endowed with a deep sense of humanism and an antipathy for certitudes. He has a fine zest for fun, laughs a great deal and is possessed of a `Socratic fervour' to prick and provoke. He seems to enjoy nothing more than leading the way in the form of a controversial statement in the presence of two persons on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and then leaning back and enjoying the verbal fireworks on display. And whenever the antagonists seem to cool off, he moves in with yet another well-informed verbal pin-prick that sets the bitter foes off again. Chetty, meanwhile, is having a whale of a time, a mischievous grin and twinkle in his eye.

Such encounters frequently take place at his abode, the legendary Book Centre - a `mini university' as K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar (former Vice-Chancellor of Andhra

University) once remarked.

The Book Centre is not just a place where one drops in to purchase books, fiction, non-fiction and the kind. Over the decades, it has been a virtual literary and cultural centre. There were times when AU professors would round off a lecture with a reference saying "Go to the Book Centre. Go to Varahalu Chetty". And he never failed them.

He always has an eye for the rare book and manages to obtain it. His inexhaustible passion for promoting the reading habit is legion and age, he is now 74, has not dimmed the ardour. His face lights up at the mention of a new arrival, a frown envelopes it if he cannot recollect a certain title, author or publisher, and when he knows you, too, have read that `particularly good book', he breaks into a boyish, excited smile, takes you by the hand to the restaurant across the road for a coffee, all the time exchanging notes about `that splendid work'. His memory power is amazing and he very rarely forgets people he has met.

Chetty would have in all likelihood become a faculty member in AU, from where he took his BA Hons degree economics, but the death of his father pushed him into the selling of books, the family business. However, as the former Vice-Chancellor of AU, M. Gopalakrishna Reddy, puts it, "Such was his passion for books that he never sold them. He circulated them." Chetty often appears more interested in a person who visits the shop owning a good book than in his collecting the cost! He takes a fair amount of interest to follow up a request for a book as if securing it were a means of personal fulfilment for him.

His own take on the matter is "I am one of those persons who take pleasure in being a failure as a bookseller." It would be no exaggeration to say that no academic or teacher has endeavoured to sustain the intellectual atmosphere of the city as much as this humble and low-profile citizen.

There are many who swear by his friendship, of his warm and friendly disposition. Vavilala Gopalakrishnaiah once said, "I will go to Vizag whenever Varahalu Chetty wants me." Tenneti Viswanatham always sought his advice and was one of the few people he genuinely respected.

Chetty has also been associated with many public causes. He was one of the prime movers and founders of the Dr.V.S. Krishna Memorial Degree College. The former AU VC was his teacher. And now Chetty has taken upon himself the realization of a dream: establishing a modern public library which will be well-equipped with Internet and other electronic facilities. The library will also provide services to the public for spreading and disseminating useful knowledge and information which will strengthen the intellectual base of the city by regularly organising educational, cultural, literary and research programmes. Towards this end, several eminent citizens came together in 1999 and formed the Visakhapatnam Public Library Society with the help and support of the Municipal Corporation. The VMC subsequently agreed to raise a suitable building on a 2,000 square yard site in Dwarakanagar and hand it over to the society for management and development of the library, provided a minimum corpus fund of Rs.30 lakhs is shown by the society.

A vice-president of the society, he says that the two-floor library will also have a special wing for children. The building is almost complete and will be handed over to the society soon. "We need donations at this juncture, big and small. This is the need of the hour. The library is an extraordinary gift to the city and future generations," he adds. There is also tax exemption for donations.

Varahalu Chetty is never the one to be fatigued. He now wants to bring out, with friends in the city, a magazine that will help strengthen our democratic and secular ethos.


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