Memories: The Generous Book-Stall Owners Down The Ages!

While reading the latest book by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Home in the World-A Memoir, I found one incident or rather an experience of this great economist-researcher-scholar-writer-Nobel Prize winner in 1998-Bharat Ratna winner in 1999, concerning a book-stall owner that he frequented in the fifties in the famed college street area of Kolkata, then Calcutta. I was enthralled to find that experience having a strong similarity with my experience of a book-stall owner in the seventies. Well, two mandatory clarifications here: first, I’ve titled my piece not after Sen’s great book which means that this is not going to be a review, but just a story, and I’m still going through the book which, in my view, is of epic proportions, particularly in relation to the history, culture, economics and heritage of Bengal from the pre-partition days; and second, there can absolutely be no imaginable comparison between the living legend and this nonentity, as I said this is just a story of a resemblance that I find greatly amusing and interesting.

Amartya Sen (his name ‘Amartya’ was given by the legendary Rabindra Nath Tagore), after finishing his school education in Tagore’s Santiniketan the liberal atmosphere of which gave a definite shape to his thinking (particularly his life-long resolve to work and research for eradicating the stark inequalities and religious divisiveness of the Indian society, influenced also by the great famine of Bengal of 1943 that killed nearly 3 million people, and how to prevent re-occurrence of such famines in future which he always held to be economically plausible, citing the World War-2 erroneous policies of the British), joined the Presidency College in 1951 for his pre-university course (today’s 11-12 standard) in Calcutta that was under the Calcutta University. His batchmate was Sukhamoy Chakraborty (1934-1990), one of the greatest economists of all time and who along with PC Mahalanobis had been a key architect in the formulation of India’s Five-Year Plans when he joined the Planning Commission, after returning to India from his teaching in MIT in the US. Later, Sukhamoy Chakraborty was teaching at the Delhi School of Economics as a professor of economics and during my post-graduate course (1979-1981) I used to behold him in absolute admiration and awe, although he did not take our classes as per my selected papers. Later, I was very sad to know of his untimely demise in 1990. As avid students of economics the name of Amartya Sen was very much known to us, and I think, but not sure, he visited the D School some time during that period for a lecture. However, we must return to our story, because once we start talking about those times it’d go on forever.

Both young Amartya and Sukhamoy, obviously, were serious thinkers and book worms. Their Presidency College was situated at the College Street area of city and right opposite to the college was the legendary Coffee House of Calcutta where all Bengali writers and intellectuals had their addas, having endless debates that evolved their thinking, leanings and writings. This tradition continues even now and every Bengali intellectual, including students of course, cannot help but visit the Coffee House regularly. I also have the privilege of sitting in those famous environs inside where, apart from the addas there are culinary delights too with the inevitable cups of coffee. Outside the coffee house are the numerous book-stalls lining up the lanes around where books are sold like hot cakes and I’d prefer to call those book-sellers as book vendors, because like any other vendors they too call out continuously to prospective customers to come and get the book-dishes, a sight perhaps one cannot find anywhere in India (in my personal experience, I never found anything similar anywhere).

As was usual, Amartya and Sukhamoy did not have enough money to buy every new book that arrived at the bookshelves of the stalls. At times one of them would buy and lend it to the other or vice versa. They also started visiting a particular book-stall where the owner did not seem to mind them sitting there for hours reading their preferred books without making any move to buy those. So, this went on, and at a crucial juncture the book-stall owner made the kindest of gestures, impressed perhaps by the knowledge-seeking intensity of the young boys. He offered to lend them the precious books on a condition that the book would be lent only for a night and it had to be returned the next day, in the original shape and quality. The generous book-stall owner used to wrap up the book covers with newspapers for that very objective. It was a godsend for the young scholars and they capitalized on this as much they were capable of. Amartya Sen also recounts some other customer asking the book-stall owner as to how he managed to do business in this way. The owner was reported to reply that if he did not want to manage in that way he would’ve gone for more profitable businesses like selling jewelries. This shows how books are admired and almost worshipped in West Bengal even now.

Cut now to my ‘coincidental’ part in the story. During my pre-university days too in the seventies, to be exact during 1975-1977, in a small town called Mangaldoi (now in Darrang district of Assam) I had been an avid student, helped very much by a ‘simple living high thinking’ inspired and independent-spirited family environment. My civil-service-officer cum writer-author-translator father was serving in that town for the second time, and following him we four children, particularly my younger brother and I, were literal book worms. We had an old bicycle that time and I daily used to go to the Mangaldoi College that was more than two miles away from our rented house. We used to get books from the district library, college library and other sources of private lending. My father being an honest officer he had to run his family of six with his limited monthly salary, and therefore, there was just not enough money to go on buying new arrivals at the bookshelves; at times he bought and at others we did saving out of our meager pocket money.

I used to frequent a book-stall somewhere in my locality to regularly check the new books. I sensed that the elderly book-stall owner had a very kind face and he always smiled at me whenever I parked my bicycle and came to the counter. That perception about him encouraged me to try reading the books at the stall itself: I’d normally ask for the book I wanted, withdraw to the extreme corner of the counter-desk so that other customers are not disadvantaged and kind of start devouring the book; at most times I finish the book and return it with a cordial smile; when I fail to finish the book, a voluminous one, in one ‘standing’ I come again the next day and ask for the same book to which the generous book-stall owner never reacts negatively or shows his displeasure. I really savored this godsend opportunity to read and read new books without having to buy for months in my leisure time, particularly in the forenoons of holidays. Of course, whenever I felt a little guilty I used to somewhat recompense the book-stall owner by buying a relatively cheaper book.

Such generous book-stall owners or sellers or even shopkeepers exist even today, I’m sure. They are not cut-throat sellers or competitors; they live their lives and do business with their principles held high. In my Kolkata stay I found a shopkeeper who gave my special items to me at a price less than the MRP. I was pleasantly surprised and asked him how he could afford to do that while most others try to charge even more than the MRP on some pretext or the other. He only smiles sweetly and says that it is very much possible if you want to do that way. We also find quite a few others in Mumbai and in Kolkata who give away their vegetables or fruits without payment if we did not have the change in pocket then, saying with a smile ‘take it Sir, where will you go!’ Great! I salute them all, like I’m sure; the greats of Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakraborty obviously did and do.