Endpaper Pradeep Sebastian

Book prince of Kolkata

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

I first heard of the itinerant book peddler, aka The Book Prince of Kolkata, from the late Madhava Rao. I was complaining to him how one seldom sees genuine antiquarian editions of any kind in our second-hand market and he said quite casually, “Oh, there’s a man from Calcutta in town hawking old books.” I dismissed it right away. “By old they usually mean stuff from the 1940s and 1950s.”

“No, no, he says most of what he has are from the 18th and 19th century. Why don’t you go and take a look?”

“Aren’t you coming?” I asked, surprised. He looked up from marking prices in his books and said, “See, I say, there is no end to these things, you know.”

I knew. But I hoped that end for me wasn’t just yet, that way of feeling about looking far and wide for books. “So, where can I find him?”

“You can’t. He’ll find you.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s in some old hotel in the city, he won’t say which. This week he will be in Bangalore, next he’ll be in Chennai, after that perhaps Hyderabad. I’ll pass on your number to him, and he’ll get in touch if he wants you to look at his books.”

I learnt not long after that he moves with his wares from city to city, staying a few months in one decrepit lodge after another, calling up second-hand booksellers and their customers to come look at his books. No one knows when he’ll be in your city or where — a phone call comes out of the blue to say he’s arrived and gives you the name of a lodge in Kalasipalayam or off Avenue Road.

The call from the Book Prince came the next day, giving me the name of a lodge in Russell Market, with a forewarning: “No new books, only old type books.” The voice was surprisingly soft, even gentle. The whole thing seemed shady, so I rang up a younger, fitter bibliophile friend (who sometimes book hunts with me) to see if he’d join me. “Shall I bring along a gun?” he asked. “It would be unwise not to,” I said. “It sounds something right out of a Holmes story — like the Red Headed League,” he replied, and added: “Perhaps we should call out some Russell Market Baker Street Irregulars to stand watch until we safely exit out.”

“Make the call,” I said and hung up.

We found the lodge quickly enough; a passageway with welders tinkering and raising sparks led to a staircase with an empty reception desk. But adjoining the desk were two small rooms with the doors open, and outside one of them stood a man in a glittering gold shirt and a printed lungi, smoking. He was in his forties, thickset, with jet black hair shiny from gel. A whiff of strong perfume drifted off him. “Prince,” he said, smiling and gestured with his cigarette for us to enter. Oh, so his name was Prince.

We paused briefly at the landing, exchanging a swift quick glance at each other, (for there were no Russell Market Irregulars looking out for us and my bibliophile companion only had a pen or two tucked somewhere in his shirt) and then cautiously stepped into the room. A double bed took up almost all the space inside, and a tiny bathroom. Where the hell were the books?

Prince glided in, but kept the door open. “What are you looking for?” he asked, waving his cigarette around the room. “Anything,” I replied, slowly looking around the room and finally spotting two stacks of books in a corner, just behind the door. “You can take the books and put it on the bed and look. I’ll just be outside.” He left us alone, pacing up and down the floor, smoking and occasionally exchanging a few words with his fellow lodgers.

The books were old but none were 18th century, mostly late 19th and early 20th century and, without exception, in poor condition. Several seemed to come out of the library of the same gentleman — obviously a Freemason because most of the titles dealt with the Lodge. One was even a handwritten notebook, a record of the proceedings of a Mason meeting. Of the hundred or so books we shuffled through, only five or six were in (just about) acceptable condition. While the books weren’t rare or even scarce, they were certainly not common. We were disappointed, annoyed and puzzled that such uncommon volumes had been poorly preserved. “Finished so quickly? Want to see more?” He had stepped back into the room, seeing we had stopped browsing. But where was more?

Under his bed, it turned out, as he flipped his bedsheet up to show books shoved underneath. “Are all the books more or less in the same condition?” we asked. “Same, same,” he said. There wasn’t much point to browsing more. My point was doubly proven: not only are antiquarian books hard to find in our market; but when they do occasionally turn up, they are falling apart, many beyond restoration. Well, we thought, at least he can’t ask too much for the books. “That’s too much,” I blurted out, taken completely by surprise when he quoted what seemed a fantastic sum for the six books. I could see negotiating would get us nowhere. The Book Prince didn’t really want to sell — he wanted browsers.

In the end there wasn’t any mystery to this transaction, so why all the secrecy and fuss? And later figured it was his way of luring customers, book fools like us. Declining his offer, we made our way out, thanking him for his time. He was quite sportive about it, saying, “No problem.” I couldn’t resist pausing at the door to turn around and say, “You seem to know the books are valuable, why don’t you take care of them?”

“Why should I take care of them? They should take care of me,” he snapped, looking at us with disbelief. We forgot all about the books and could talk of nothing on our way back except The Book Prince of Kolkata and his enigmatic, hilarious answer.


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