Giggles and good books

Esther Elias meets Nalini Chettur the woman behind the 40-year-old ‘biggest little bookshop’ in the city

Published - January 11, 2015 08:49 pm IST

PASSION FOR PROSE Nalini Chettur at her store. Photo: R. Ravindran

PASSION FOR PROSE Nalini Chettur at her store. Photo: R. Ravindran

A mighty crash of metal screeches outside Vivanta by Taj Connemara on Binny Road. In the blazing afternoon sun, crowds gravitate to the scene instantly. Just within Connemara’s wall, below a little yellow sign on the verandah that reads ‘Giggles: The Biggest Little Bookshop’, sits Nalini Chettur, unperturbed. Her customer has darted out to watch the drama, so has her assistant, but Nalini continues on, adjusts the carbon paper in the hardbound receipt books on her lap, pens book titles one after the other, and adds their prices on her nimble fingers. After 40 years of running Giggles from a 100-square-foot wedge in Connemara’s wall, watching the Binny Road-world around grow congested over the decades, there’s little that startles Nalini.

Seated on a folding chair, draped in her classic printed silk saree and sleeveless blouse, Nalini looks up from her books and says, “There was a time when this was all so quiet, you know, when you could hear yourself think.” That was back in 1974, when Nalini was a sales promotion officer at a well-known city-based bookstore, looking to open a branch in the then four-starred Connemara Hotel. As the only woman employee there, Nalini often joked that all her suggestions for change were met with a ‘haha’ and no action. “I left the store itching to start my own. A friend then suggested I actually should. I had a paltry Rs. 1,000 worth of savings, so I giggled ‘haha’ at her and left the idea at that. Imagine my surprise when Connemara offered me their space!” And thus was born Giggles.

In the years since, Giggles has grown from its first avatar as a ‘book boutique’ of handicrafts and non-fiction about India (to feed Nalini’s own hunger for knowledge about her country), to stock literary fiction, much of it Indian, and a proliferation of children’s’ writing. While the handicrafts are no more and Nalini has moved from within Connemara to its premises just outside, her stacks of books from floor to ceiling are taller and fatter enough to leave no space for her. So she sits outside, the door to the store capable of opening just enough for one slim person to squeeze in and stand poker straight. What hasn’t changed is Nalini’s obsessive commitment to hand-pick every book she showcases. “I am elitist,” she unabashedly states, “People write books today like baking cakes — in a few hours. I don’t quite cater to that idea, though I know it sells.”

Nalini’s day begins at five every morning with a glass of water, the chanting of Sanskrit mantras and some calisthenics that stretch her bookseller wingspan. Then she settles down to read, often juggling five books at a time. “There’s an instinct I’ve honed,” says Nalini, “I just know whether a new book will work or not. I was pushing Midnight’s Children long before the Booker made it famous. It’s a sixth sense.” She also scours Indian newspapers for book reviews, and a friend prints her out reviews from international newspapers for she doesn’t use a computer. And then begin her round of calls to Delhi publishers for fresh orders, and another round of calls to her regulars, to let each know of the latest find that’s arrived in their oeuvre of interest. Until last year she used a dial-up with scores of numbers stored in her head; she’s a recent convert to a keypad mobile. For the customers turning up that day, Nalini packs all they’ve asked for into separate plastic covers, and heads to Connemara in a rickshaw. “I’m famous in the tuk-tuk circles,” she giggles, “If any of them act funny, I’ve bags of books to knock them with!”

Once in, she distributes the new arrivals among the teetering book piles (“There is a method to the madness in here, I assure you.”), and sets up a coir mat to display her pick of books for the day. “I love this part. It’s like making a curry — you put in a little bit of this, and a little bit of that — some translated poetry beside the President’s book, some Indian children’s writing beside an Australian, two-time Booker winner, and my favourite book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, for today — the curry is new each day.” It’s this personalised, melange of books that Nalini is known for. It’s the reason her cubby-hole of an independent bookstore has survived the large book chains, and the online retailers, without a calculator for her accounts, or a computer for her catalogues. “It’s all in here,” she says, and points to her greying head.

Nalini’s love for books began with her banker father, who moved cities every few years but always brought home a book every evening for her, and later, gave her Rs. 2 each month to buy the Penguin classics. She recalls her grandfather too, who sat her down one evening on his planter’s chair with a cigar in one hand, in the centre of his massive library and told her in Malayalam, “Ammu, one day this will all be yours.” It never was, for the collection was dispersed to local libraries after his death, but Nalini grew up convinced she would someday spend a life with books.

Giggles’ clientele too is invariably as book-bewitched as she is. As the sun sets today, a Malaysian dancer-doctor, who first met her in the 1990s, arrives to pick up packets-full of reading for the year ahead. “Would you like a cookie while you browse?” Nalini asks her. In the meanwhile, she waits, swatting the swarming mosquitoes, while scents of vadais from Connemara’s kitchens above floats around. “You know, there was a book about Paris’ Shakespeare and Company bookstore called Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs . I’ve 10 books in my head of all the people I’ve met on this journey. Someday, I’ll write them down and call it ‘Books, Cookies and Mosquitoes’.” Till then, here’s to several decades more of stories.

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