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A life amid rare books

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A tribute to Madhava Rao, one of those antiquarian booksellers who preferred no publicity.

When I first chanced on Madhava Rao’s bookshop, I got the shock of my life. It was the very picture of an antiquarian bookstore. Bibliophiles in India will know how truly rare it is to find a rare books shop in this country. I was thrilled beyond words and, when I had finished slavering over the books (restored and shelved with impeccable care), exclaimed that I just had to write about his marvellous antiquarian bookshop, which was two rooms on the terrace of his house in Basavanagudi. With equal intensity, he forbade me to write about him or his East-West Bookshop. He was content, he said, with a customer base drawn from word-of-mouth. “I don’t like too many people coming here,” he added. As I got ready to leave, he suspected I might sneak in a little piece on him after all and made me promise that I would not write anything. “But when can I write about your bookshop, then?” I asked, not fully believing that I had to remain silent about what seemed like one of the most remarkable bookstores in India — one that turned out to be right under my very nose, in the city I lived in. He replied, “When I finally close the bookshop.”

Madhava Rao, Bangalore’s maverick antiquarian, died suddenly on March 3 of cancer, diagnosed late. He was 78. That morning he went up to his terrace bookshop as usual and completed at least two book transactions on the phone (one to an itinerant book peddler who would come to his house every other week with a gunny sack of books) and then turned his attention to the daily task of restoring old books. The peddler arrived at 3.00 p.m. to find that the bookseller, who had called him that morning, had just passed away. Only a few months before, I had spent half a day at East-West, keenly browsing in the company of a young, ardent bibliophile friend. Together we had gone over his stock with a fine toothcomb and, though we each bought more than an armload of books, Rao said a little irritably at the end, “Must you look at every book, I say?”

How could one not? There were treasures here, and hidden in plain sight too.

I should clarify here that the stock I speak of was not choc-a-bloc with rarities or first editions or even anything like very scarce or expensive editions. Its uniqueness and charm lay in being well-preserved old editions; some genuinely antiquarian, many out of print, all gathered fetchingly in one room. A room full of gilt-edged antiquarian book spines is something to behold. And then there is the smell of leather and fine paper ageing, and the delicate feel of tissue guards over illustrations. Rao managed to make every copy on his shelf desirable and valuable by simply presenting them with antiquarian flair, wrapping them in Mylar sleeves or clear acetate plastic. All of it has gone now, thanks to a quiet deal he made with a longstanding customer, knowing the end was near. Several book dealers made discreet inquiries about the fate of the East-West stock, and were told by the family that the books along with the shelves had been sold en bloc. They are, one hopes, with a collector now and perhaps will be well cared for.

A naturally fine and witty raconteur, Rao could regale you with fantastic and wonderful stories about second-hand booksellers and the used book trade. Mostly self-taught (though more than once he acknowledged Murthy of Select Bookshop as mentoring him in the trade), Madhava Rao had a genius for recognising an interesting edition, spotting uncommon editions, pursuing them relentlessly and then, if the copy required it, restoring it so you, his customer, could hold in your hand an antiquarian edition whose condition was more than just acceptable.

Once when I had just entered his shop, he threw open his hands to reveal a folio-sized volume torn in two halves that he had obviously been working on. “See, just look at this, Murthy gave me last week. What does he think I am, a magician?” For the longest time in the book trade, Rao was known for being a skilled restorer of crumbling books. Perhaps he picked up the skill for book restoration when he operated a press in the early days, or he simply had a knack for taking apart a printed book and putting it back together. The small room that you first stepped into held the antiquarian beauties; the second and larger room, wall-to-wall with books, housed the newer, shinier, less interesting books. One tiny shelf, in particular in that tiny room, held much fascination for me: it housed literature, mostly late 19th century and early 20th century editions of English and European authors.

Here, on Rao’s little shelf, to my astonishment, were several rows of antiquarian editions in fairly desirable condition. As the antiquarian market mantra goes, ‘Condition is not all, it is everything.’ Among other things, I found an 1894 Gulliver’s Travels , an 1889 Three Men and a Boat , a deluxe 1912 Pilgrim’s Progress , and a 1905 Essays of Elia . I remember my bibliophile friend found a beautiful edition of The Second Jungle Book , a snake embossed in gold on the cover. Most bibliophiles visiting East-West preferred the two larger Godrej glass bookcases that held history, travel, war and science. The first two rows on these shelves, Rao’s own personal favourites, had a sign that said, ‘Not for sale’. Though — some times the bookseller himself didn’t know it — other books not marked thus could also suddenly turn unbuyable. When I picked out a first edition of The Great Railway Bazaar , he quietly put it back muttering something about having to remember to keep aside books he didn’t want to sell. Though I am fairly sure that the moment I desired it was the moment he decided he would keep it.

His colleagues and customers knew that he began buying interesting, uncommon editions and hoarding them for himself and, only later in the late 1990s, turned from book collector to bookseller. It was also well known that, even as a struggling book dealer, he always kept a low profile, though no one could really say why. Some speculate he had private reasons for not advertising the bookshop.

Knowing the obsessive intensity and passion with which he conducted all his book transactions — from buying, restoring, and selling and coming back for more fervent buying (he book-hunted in every corner of the city, ferrying his loot back in an auto) — I think it was just so he could be left alone to study and play with his antiquarian loot: to savour, enjoy, and take in an edition’s bibliographical qualities, to work his magic on broken copies with those hands, and only after such bibliophilic ritual and intimacy, offer them up to fellow antiquarians for their contemplation, pleasure and possession.


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