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On the book crawl

On any Sunday morning, book browsers and collectors crisscross each other, crawling in and out of second-hand and new bookshops. On this path, PRADEEP SEBASTIAN ran into J.S. Sharma, perhaps Bangalore's biggest and most passionate private book collector. April 23 is World Book and Copyright Day.

An avid reader, Mr. Sharma, has over 5,000 books in his collection. — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

LAZILY BROWSING one Sunday morning at Blossom, the (fairly) new second-hand bookshop on Church street, I happened to tell Mahesh, the manager, that I had just come from Select and was now heading for Premier. Overhearing this, the browser next to me exclaimed: "Oh, that's interesting, because I've just come from Premier and I'm on my way to Select." On any given Sunday morning in Bangalore, you can observe a strange traffic of book browsers and book collectors crisscross each other, crawling in and out of second-hand and new bookshops. Later in the day, the same cast of characters will do the book crawl in Balepet, to check out the pavement book hawkers. Well, everyone will tell you that the pavement scene isn't what it used to be anymore — all the great finds are gone and have been replaced by pirated bestsellers or textbooks. (Alas, even the cheap Rasavanti magazines are gone). But on the odd Sunday, you can still make a find. A Georgette Heyer, some Biggles, a Sudden, some William books and if you're really lucky, a Billy Bunter. What is a consistent disappointment for Bangalore's book lovers are the pavement books on M.G. Road. Month after month, the same books and magazines and comics that nobody wants to buy — nothing depresses an inveterate browser more than to see the same stock over and over again.

After lunch, you crawl over to Malleswaram and Rajajinagar: first to that small second-hand bookshop simply called Book Sale (off 8th Cross) for best-sellers and then to Sudha's for some good non-fiction. Somewhere in all that crawling, there usually would have been a detour to Nalanda's on Markham Road — but not anymore. Nalanda closing down after Mr. Chakravarti's passing away, is another loss for Bangalore. The books here may have been expensive, and mostly antiquarian, but at least such a bookshop existed — once. But all is not lost: there is now another modest, little-known place specialising in old, rare, and antiquarian books that our intrepid browsers should now add to their Sunday destination: H.S. Madhava Rao's East West Books Link in Basavanagudi. The subjects here range from war, theosophy, Free Masonry, to classics, biography, and history — with a particular slant on books from British India. He has, for instance, a print of Krishnaraja Wadiyar's wedding album from 1903; also a rare, single set of The History of Mysore. He also has a few signed first editions. "I prefer that customers first call me before coming over," he told me. "Not because I operate from home and don't want to be disturbed, but because I am often out searching for books. I am relentless in my pursuit for old books. You see, I'm more a book collector than a bookseller."

So, what's new at Select? A small gallery for young painters will soon open on the first floor. Young artists can exhibit there for a modest fee. Mr. Murthy and his son, Sanjay, have also begun undertaking books searches. They actually have books scouts in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Pune to locate the book you're looking for. Brand new books at a discount is another recent feature here.

Sudha, run by Narayana Murthy, has also been stocking up on new books. The place continues to be good for books on science, history, and classics, besides having a wonderful collection of books on Kannada literature.

Most of us wondered if Blossom, now a year old, would last or disappear like most other new second-hand shops have in the past. But not only is Blossom here to stay, but it has become a used bookstore to reckon with. Their collection has grown from 15,000 to 20,000. It continues to be the best place for pulp — specially old, rare, and hard-to-come-by pulp that were in print in the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. Mayi and Mahesh of Blossom also undertake books searches, but only within the City and mostly for pulp and out-of-print comics such as the early Phantom/Mandrake from Indrajal and Peanuts.

Book crawlers come in two kinds: those who mostly browse — like me — and those who always buy — like Sharma. There are several regulars that I keep running into, but J.S. Sharma, who happens to be the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Karnataka, is special. He must be Bangalore's biggest and most passionate private book collector. I first began noticing him because he always walked out with an armload of books — and this from Premier, not a second-hand bookshop! — every Sunday morning. The moment he walks into Premier, Mr. Shanbagh will rattle off all the noteworthy new titles of the week, and Mr. Sharma will mutter: "I have that, I have that... that I don't have, that I don't have. What else? Let me look around, anyway." And he'll walk out with at least ten books, most of them hardcover.

At Select, I've seen him sit on one of those low stools and painstakingly go through each pile, hoping to make a find. At the end of it, he would stack a heap of books on Mr. Murthy's table. That would be his third large book purchase for the day — the second would have been at Blossom, where he would have halted before coming to Select. Once I saw him sit next to a pile of old India Todays at a pavement book hawker and tick off from a small pocket book some intrinsically drawn numbers. I watched for a while as he peered at an old issue, put it aside, and then tick a number from the book. I couldn't resist asking him what he was doing, and he said he was looking for particular India Today issues and whenever he found one, he was ticking off that particular issue. That's the kind of exhaustive collector he is — even India Todays count. "Actually," he added as an afterthought, "I used to have all of them. I gave them away and now I'm trying to find them again." If anything marks the true collector, this is it: you get rid of something and then start collecting them all over again. You do this because you've run out of things to collect. The only way to renew the chase and make it interesting is to start from scratch.

On Wednesday, he's at Shankars, on Saturday, Strand and Gangarams. His Sunday morning ritual is Premier, Blossom, and then Select. He reads six books a month and writes a paragraph on each book in a diary. He has been doing this since his M.Sc. days and right through his civil service postings. The diaries alone come to 50 volumes. He has more than 5,000 books spread all over his elegant house in Koramangala, all of them author-wise or subject wise. The oldest book he has, The Memoirs of John Wilkins, dates 1805. From this period is also another rare book, The Court Minutes of the East India Company. These old books are protected with neem leaves. The most valuable books in the collection — and this is what he specialises in collecting — are old, out-of-print books on India, particularly on the Indian states. He is also passionate about books by and on Tippu Sultan and books on cities. His most prized collection is all the issues of Marg (India's first art and architecture magazine): from the first volume, which was published in 1946, to the current issue. He estimates that very few collectors in India would have that first 1946 volume. Except for one book, he has the complete (99) Modern Library Collection (both the Editor's Choice series and the Reader's Choice editions). Nearly all the Booker prize winners. And all the award-winning and noteworthy books in Kannada literature. Subject-wise, they range from pulp, history, contemporary literature to biography, mysticism, and erotica. If there's a writer he likes, he'll make sure he hunts down every book by that writer. Like so many book collectors, he'll buy a book just for a particular edition. Like the beautiful Winterbrook Edition of the Agatha Christie mysteries with those untrimmed fore-edges. One shelf contains just the books he loves, his faves.

When I asked him if he had plans to write a book himself, he replied: "I'm too selfish for that. Time spent writing could be spent reading. I can't stop reading." As quotes for World Book Day go, this one should keep.

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