Sitting on the anvil of my new Book release – my debut in non-fiction – I decided to visit a couple of Bookstores in Dehradun, the still beauteous Valleytown that sits cradled in the bosom of the Shivalik foothills of the great Himalayas.
At one time, in my not too distant past, Dehradun was a place of academic thrust and a host of literary activities. I remember discussing magazine features with Brahm Dev, whose majestic Astley Hall Watch Shop – RK & Company had been a meeting ground for several luminaries in the field of literature including the indefatigable and timeless Ruskin Bond. I recall Brahm Uncle sending me off to the abodes of established writers and Hindi language poets, who had made Dehradun their home, for relaxed yet highly entertaining interviews. I also recollect being invited to the prestigious Doon Club to participate in Kavi Sammelans – Poets’ Meets – that were often held on Sunday mid-mornings.
Since there was a paucity of time on this visit – one that I was making to Doon after a gap of three long years – I decided to drop into two bookstores, which were at a necking distance of each other and easily accessible to me.
The first was The English Book Depot and the other was Natraj. Both stirred within me a whirlpool of memories. Remembrances of my growing up years in Doon Valley – those sanguine days of childhood and young adulthood – came flooding back, flashing through my mind like a motion picture.
The English Book Depot, owned and run by the Dutt family, is perhaps the prettiest Bookshop in Dehradun. Opposite Gandhi Park, it is located on the left-hand side of the swankiest nook of Rajpur Road, a little before the red light crossing spilling at the edge of which stands the over 100-year-old – but recently renovated – the building of Central Bank.
The tall, old trees lining this patch of road, the ornate, vintage-in-design, wrought iron grills on the low running wall that demarcates the area from the main road, the cobbled pavement by the road, and the gravelled pathway outside the shops – it really makes for a neat, clean, nice-looking setting that has held on steadfastly, almost obstinately to its glorious past. While new shops with their newer wares have sprung up, this area still is the closest we can get to the Doon of the 80s.
Years back when the Dutt family had let out the front of their Store to Barista, I was sorely upset.
“What the hell were they doing?”
“Why were they doing it?”
The little ignoramus, I ranted inside.
Today I am hugely glad and relieved that they did so. The scion of the family, recently, told me that the move allowed them to stick to their original passion – that of running the Bookstore even in these harshest of times where hundreds of bookshops across the world and our country have been forced to down their shutters.
I also now think that letting a swanky Coffee shop set up their business at the head, while the Dutts have taken the Bookshop into the womb only to make it more expansive, well-lit and beautifully laid out, not only heightens the appeal but was, indeed, a smart move.
You know, grab a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of cake too and then saunter in to spend a luxuriously decadent morning lost amidst a boatload of books – from the old lieutenants to the new arrivals.
Or step into the Shop on a hot afternoon, letting the ACed interiors help you beat the sweltering heat – that is only becoming more severe with each passing year, robbing the valley of its cool weather tag.
Go first into the Bookstore, pick up the books you want to browse through, take permission from the genial, gentle owners to bring them into the Barista area, order your favourite Iced tea or frappé and lean back into the plush sofa. Don’t rush yourself – the Bookshop owners won’t – relish the words that paint a picture on the canvas of the book, soak in the imagery, and transport yourself to another land returning ever so slowly to the present moment and time.
Then get back to the Shop, thank the owners for letting you visit your little fairyland without having really flown anywhere; and then make a purchase. Always make a purchase. Buy a book, without fail!
With this little act and with a fraction of an amount, you would spend on a pizza, invested in the Book, you come away enriching yourself, getting yourself a lifelong companion and helping those who are passionate about their work and life goals stay in business. It is a win-win!
If I am visiting Dehradun in monsoon this time, as I always used to, I am heading straight to the English Book Depot, to go meet the Dutts – both Aunty and Sandeep – buy the book(s) I have been yearning to read, step back into the coffee shop, grab the window seat and indulge in two of my favourite pastimes – that of losing myself within the covers of a book and intermittently watching life walk by in its myriad hues.
The sight of raindrops falling on a bed of grey gravel stones, the droplets hanging down like diamantés from the paisley-vine intricate patterns on the wrought iron grills or sliding down the clear window panes sometimes in straight lines, on other crisscrossing and merging into tiny little pools – there is something decidedly romantic about this nature show.
The cocktail of smells makes for a heady experience too – the fragrance of freshly minted paper, the aroma of coffee beans, the wafting scent from a bake that the barista heats up for you, even petrichor – it is a perfume that you bottle up and store in the attic of your mind.
This time around, as I breezed past Barista and strode to the Bookshop, I met Aunty manning the desk. One has always addressed her as Aunty, for as long as I can remember. And she has looked just the same – elegant, with a pleasant disposition, a ready smile and sitting straight on her spine. Her silvery grey hair and diamond studs in her ears have added to her gracefulness.
On the afternoon I visited, she and a distinguished-looking gentleman – I presume him to be her Son – were having their tea and refreshments. Even before any other word could be exchanged, Le Husband and I were invited to join them for a cuppa. Immediately, the tin of cookies was extended to us with the jolly-natured nudging –
“Do try one? They have just been sent to us by friends in Hyderabad”
“You’ll like them. They aren’t too sweet.”
The gesture took me back to the halcyon days of yore. When an all-permeating, generally nice feeling, easy interactions, friendly exchanges defined our daily lives.
Now scoffed as small-town values, it was these attributes that allowed the human in us to shine through – you know the qualities of always extending a hand, readiness to exchange a smile, engaging in polite, friendly chatter without an ulterior motive.
It reminded me of the time when you would request your neighbour to mind your child because you were out running an important errand, and they would happily oblige. When you would be only too happy to lend a bowl of sugar to the Alice living next door, not without inviting her to have a cup of tea with you before she left! Lives were leagued – both joys and sorrows – over those little bowls of sugar.
I lament the loss of those days, those values, those times when life was actually lived and shared and not rushed and sliced through.
The Gentleman I met at the English Book Depot is Sandeep Dutt, who incidentally is an Author, Entrepreneur, Mountaineer, Founder of Learning Forward India Foundation, Ambassador Hundred.Org, Ambassador Vurbl.Com, Chairman Bhadrajun Artisans Trust, Owner of The English Book Depot and National Director of The Duke Of Edinburgh's International Award.
But the lofty titles sit lightly on him, with just the pride in his work and the sparkle of his passion beaming through.
“So, who is selling well these days Sandeep,” I ask him.
“It’s always Ruskin Bond who sells in high numbers. Some other titles sell well too, like the recent book by Stephen Alter. But we don’t get many footfalls sadly, as is the case with most bookstores,” he shares.
Then he picks up a book from a rack and tells me how this is his third book. “I write mostly on education and learning.”
“I run a YouTube channel Sandeep – The High Priestess of Hedonism. I would love to chat with you on it. Would you like it? Do you do online conversations?” I ask.
“I have had one of the longest-running podcasts, shared on Apple, Spotify, and almost everywhere else,” he tells me, adding with a gentle smile, “Just Google me, Ma’am.”
His smile is genuine, his stance humble!
I talk about the state of other bookshops in Doon. There was one at Astley hall, towards Kanak Cinema Hall I try to remember.
“Book World,” Sandeep aids my memory. “And yes Natraj, close to us. We all are there, existing somehow, living off more on our passion than a business.”
I ask Aunty to subscribe to my Channel. She says a radiant yes and hands over her iPhone to Le Husband to help her with it. And she immediately takes me back to the days where trust existed between people, when we were not always circumspect and looking over our shoulder. Sigh!
I quickly committed to returning to The English Book Depot on my next visit, hopefully with my Book. I tell Sandeep I will pick up his title next time. And with that I say my goodbye to him and to Aunty, who holds my hand warmly before wishing me ‘fare thee well.’
As I step out on to the main road, and head towards our Car, I desperately look for the pavement magazine sellers who would once set shop on the cobble-stoned footpath.
In the 80s of Dehradun, cruising on my Maroon moped I would often make a halt at the two magazine sellers. They quenched my treasure hunt and provided me the prized stash I came looking for – Woman and Home, House and Garden, Seventeen, TEEN, Country Living, MAD, even RD and People – all international editions.
While sadly, I did not find the magazine sellers – who proved to be such delightful aiders & abettors in helping me weave my dreams – I still have my set of magazines, neatly stored in my Dehradun Home Library. An oblique consolation that! Talk about things we have been losing to the rush and ravages of time and the things we will hold on to, regardless!
On this visit, we were quite rushed off our feet. We were saddled with a big backlog of pending work. Three years is a long time for big and little jobs to pile up.
We were also hugely hot and bothered. Dehradun is, increasingly, becoming roasted in the sweltering April heat. It was an anomaly back in the day, but is so utterly and deploringly commonplace in the present time. That we have brought it upon ourselves is the harsh truth of the matter.
We quickly walked past the tea kiosk selling the rich, sugary, milky broth of tea and fried snacks – pakodas (fritters), bread pakodas and the like. The Tea Shop has been there for a long time, and it always caters to a thronging crowd of people. I was happy to note that the small, hole-in-the-wall Shop has stayed in business.
We made a left to enter the U-shaped womb that once housed Odeon Cinema. I may have seen just one odd film or two in that Raj-era theatre, yet it was such a significant landmark. Now long gone, having given way to new shops!
In a rush to erase our pasts – for whatever set of reasons, and create new entities, new identities, will there remain a time when we will recognize our own selves and our kind!
In the same old building with its arcade supported with tall columns, on the left still resides Natraj Publishers. It is called a little differently now I instantly make note – Natraj, The Green Bookshop being the new designated Sign.
It seemed that the time had come to a standstill here. The same look, the same layout of books and racks, the same place where the Owner’s counter had existed, I noticed with a sense of overriding nostalgia.
I meet the pleasant, well-mannered Shop Incharge, whose name I ask for and then promptly allow to slip away amid a string of conversation. But what remains with me is his sense of loyalty to the Shop, respect for his Boss – the Owner of the Shop, his cordial nature, his amiability with the customers and eagerness to serve, and his overall cultured demeanour.
He tells me Upendra Arora – the elderly, dignified Owner of Natraj Publishers – has just stepped out for a meeting and will return in half an hour, should I want to see him.
The good fellow wishes me luck for my upcoming book, gladly subscribes to my Channel and patiently answers all my little questions. I cheerily note that time has stood still in Natraj in more ways than one. The old establishment fiercely holds on to the old set of values, when abrasiveness, rude disposition, rushed brushing off, stepping on toes with discourtesy, heedlessness to customers – both paying and otherwise, and eschewing real-time living for life inside a 5inch X 2inch gadget had not yet kidnapped our sanity and sanctity.
I make a quick observation that here too the reigning deity is Ruskin Bond. It is not too difficult to register as the good-natured, affable Octogenarian author is everywhere – on standees, in posters, on bookshelves with rows after rows of author-signed copies of his bestsellers.
I thank the Gent profusely and mention to him I will be back. Soon!
I tell Le Husband we should be coming back on our next visit, and also drop in at the other bookstores – for pleasure, for keeping a date with memory, and for reliving those days that have stayed alive in a happy place in one’s heart.
As we drive past Elloras – the once-famous Doon bakers that eat of their past glory and St. Joseph’s Academy towards the Puma store – our next stop – I point out Saluja’s and Jugal Kishore & Co. to Le Husband. On our return drive to Clement Town – the home to our family Farmhouse – I point out at a row of bookshops on Dispensary Road. Scores of textbooks, geometry boxes, school bags, dissection sets and other paraphernalia have been bought at these, to make good of one’s formative years.
I think with the growing public outcry – at least in the right quarters – to save the trees and the environment; there must be another to save our bookstores.
Relics of our rejoiced pasts, keepers of our conscience with the jewels hidden within the pages of their goods, dharohar – heirlooms of our rich heritage, harbingers that herald a future of promise, of fortitude, of wisdom and of learnedness; and delighters of our collective hearts – for there could be nothing else as magical, dream-stirring, joyful as a good book!
I plan to start a series of pop-up free libraries where you can leave a book and pick one too! A few such dot the regions of the world where the minds are stable and the hearts in place; where the people crave as much for soul-feed as for food; where life holds greater meaning.