The Bombay Book Collector

Recently we posted the thoughts and recollections of an avid and devoted Greene fan who lives and works in Mumbai, which prefers to call by its old name – Bombay. His passion is collecting and reading not just Graham Greene but a wide variety of literature. He seeks out and ‘raids’ the secondhand bookshops of his home city. All will be aware that India is currently in the grip of another wave of the pandemic which is claiming so many victims worldwide. This has forced Zoeb Matin to resort to the Internet rather than his beloved bookshops in his relentless bibliophilic pursuits.

  … And then there is the added problem brought by the yearly monsoon which he describes here in vivid detail.


Tracking Down Mr. Greene from Safety of Home

If someone, apart from the elderly, the sick, the workaholic and the wanderer, has been most inconvenienced by the onset of the current pandemic, it has to be the romantically inclined bibliophile who would walk out in the blistering mid-day sun or in the pouring rain to burrow deep into some old bookshops and dig out any old and antique editions. He would then carry back his acquisitions, homeward bound, whose procurement would justify being drenched with either rain or perspiration.

But even as recently as February, Bombay and its hidden secrets had been reasonably open for plunder, the pandemic is after all no mere trifling matter and it is rather a sobering and even disillusioning state of reality that we all are trying still to get accustomed to. People are still suffering from or even succumbing to the inexplicable danger of the still-mysterious germ. Even as there is nothing like the sight of an earnest man willing to help us sift through his horde and prowling between shelves and piles of old books in search for something that glitters more than gold, I would still advise, for now, every fellow bibliophile to try and find their sought treasures from the safety of their scrubbed and sanitised homes.

My own experience in this regard has been a reasonably satisfactory one, though it is no match for the real treasure hunt filled with sweat and parched thirst, flooded once with despair and at another time, overwhelmed with the thrill of discovery. Here are a few experiences when I was able to track down Mr. Graham Greene, my favourite storyteller, from the safety of my home.

About two years ago, comfortably long before this accursed pandemic had struck home. I had resigned, in exasperated despair, from my second stint at earning a livelihood; it was for an old and reputed company of underwriters and brokers and what had burned me out, a little like Querry, was not overwork but rather stale gossip and unreasonable expectations. I could not guard my mind and body against the first and I could not live up to the second. I played truant and became irresponsible and embraced the pain of reprimands with willing enthusiasm; there was at least the consolation of honesty in it. And one day, I threw in the towel and felt unsurprisingly relieved of a burden as I returned home in the taxi that evening.

But even a happy decision can have its unhappy consequences. I was now unemployed and useless, without a livelihood, without a mission, something like what D. of The Confidential Agent must have felt when his papers had been whisked away in the rush and tumble of broad daylight. I wandered around from office to office, giving seemingly endless interviews when they actually amounted to only four or five and to relieve a little of the new despair in my mind, I lingered near those same treasure troves and in one, held in my hand, for the first time, The Power And The Glory.

A feeling of blissful escapism flooded me. I had enough saved in my bank to allow me this unwarranted indulgence. But as I read the first chapter right there, transfixed in my place, and as it concluded with the whiskey priest, named as “the stranger”, plodding reluctantly on the back of his mule into the uncharted darkness of a place he had been trying to flee, with the escape of The General Obregon drifting away beyond recall, I made a silent and solemn oath to myself – I would not buy this book until I had found employment.

How fortunes change within a little time. A month later, my sixth interview was a success and I started working at yet another company of brokers, albeit one that pushed its workers to their limits. Work was frenetic and it took time to learn the ropes. But I enjoyed this new beginning immensely. And soon, my oath resurfaced one day and I now thought of fulfilling what I had wished for.

I came across a website that claimed to deal in old, second-hand books and its name is Second Hand Books Online India. The website looked old and out of date but yes, it did have a second-hand and rare Penguin edition of The Power And The Glory with an unforgettable cover by Paul Hogarth as I knew quite well by now – a pistolero wielded a gun as a threat while behind him, under a glowing ball of the sun, stood a withered old man clasping, nearly hidden out of sight, a crucifix. I ordered it immediately but as I completed the payment, I wondered, is this website for real? There was no confirmation of the order; there was merely a receipt that was mailed to me, how quickly do we get accustomed to the comfort of assurances. There was also no notification as to by when the book would be delivered; so after a few days, I dialled the number given in the website. A man picked up the phone at the other end; his voice was patient and helpful. Yes, indeed, my order had been confirmed and it will be dispatched in another day. By when it will reach me, I inquired. It will reach you in two to three days after that, he replied, as patiently as ever. I decided to trust him. And true to his word, three days later, he sent me the number to track my order which had been dispatched. He had fulfilled his promise and I reprimanded myself mentally for being so skeptical.

I still remember the evening when the postman informed me that a parcel wrapped in brown paper had been delivered at my doorstep. I scrambled my remaining work, hurried home in a taxi and found that coveted piece of treasure lying at the threshold of my flat. I unwrapped it deliberately, as if I was enacting a sacred ritual and there it was, The Power And The Glory, the name of that admirable man who had written it, the pistolero and the old man. Authority and defiance, the stifling authority of my new job and the defiance of my having played truant at reaching home earlier than usual today. The wine that the whiskey priest had begged for had been the first touch of that book; the whiskey that had kept him plodding on was the exhilarating and eye-widening experience of reading it.

A year later, the pandemic would strike home and force us all off the streets into our homes. And for about two months, between March and May here in Bombay, not only were all shops were closed but everyone was even hard-pressed to get anything delivered at home. And that can be close to a nightmare for a bibliophile – not having enough new books at home to read and not being able to find them as well.

But eventually in the beginning of May, I stumbled upon a new website called Book Chor, which is Indian for Book Thief. Not a very reassuring name, I thought to myself but it did have a great collection of Greene, albeit many which I already possessed, except for something really rare: Under The Garden. This was something that I had now heard for the first time and it promised to be something different from the master, an unexpected fable written for adults. And so I ordered it on a whim but was informed promptly that it would be delivered after fifteen days only. I was disheartened and did not really believe that it would come, with everything being uncertain.

But it did come. I received a call from a man who had been assigned by the post office to deliver it at any cost to me. It was still a tense, pensive situation, especially with the lockdown enforced so recently and the street outside my home was desolate and barricaded on both sides, allowing only motorbikes and scooters delivering essential goods. Till night I waited and then the man informed me that he was about to reach in another fifteen minutes. In the hot, stuffy May night, I walked out into the darkness and waited near the gate of the compound. I looked right and left; there was not a soul to be seen walking, except for a few stray dogs who slunk around, as if curious at this strange absence of human beings. One of them barked in apprehension. I saw a few motorbikes pass by but none of them stopped here.

Then, a man in a scooter halted slowly beside the gate and removed his helmet. His face was masked like mine but his eyes smiled and he took out a small parcel and gave it gingerly to my waiting hands. I thanked him profusely and as I reached home, I unpacked it with relish and there it was, a small Penguin 60s’ edition of Under The Garden with tiny print inside. I devoured this magical, mesmerising and melancholy story in less than three days.

Finally, I have to write about an unlikely saviour who saved me from the disillusioning boredom of the rains when they came last year.

In July, it rains so torrentially in Bombay that the whole city becomes a gushing tide of dirty water. The sewers are flooded and the reservoirs start to overflow and many streets get water-logged too so that one has to wade through brown water, ankle or even knee deep, to get things done. But the pandemic only made it more difficult and one had to go out even more to buy essential goods and so, it was on one such morning that I walked out into the water flooding beneath my flat to buy some meat.

The internet ends up churning miraculous surprises, at times. I found out about this gentleman named Mr. Nishant who owns a family bookshop of his own and who was now selling his wares, largely second-hand books, online through Instagram and Facebook. One of his latest wares for sale was something again unexpected and rare Mornings In The Dark, a comprehensive collection of all of Greene’s film reviews for both Spectator and Night and Day as well as his writings, interviews, essays, articles and stories for films. Call it a chest of the rarest jewels in the world.

I dialled his number and asked him if this book was available. He replied that he was indeed willing to sell it at an affordable price but there was one small problem: he would be unable to get it delivered on the same day though the shop was only some kilometres away from my home. I agreed, nevertheless, seeing how the water in the compound was already ankle-deep and how the dark clouds above in the sky threatened more rain for the day.

The following night was again a long, protracted wait for this said chest of gems to arrive. It was again raining torrentially and I was worried that Mr. Nishant or his messenger would find it hard to make it. It becomes doubly difficult for one to drive a motorbike or scooter in a waterlogged area and I prayed silently that at least for once the rain would stop and the water would clear away a little. As if on cue, the rain paused for a while, a motorbike rattled loudly into the compound and Mr. Nishant’s messenger handed me over that chest of jewels. Up in the comfort of my home, I unwrapped the package and thought it was a little damp at the edges, it was still very much a sight for sore eyes.

Bombay is full of unlikely saviours like Mr. Nishant. Just as it is full of miracles and miraculous discoveries like the rain pausing for a while as a bibliophile finally acquired a book he wanted.

Zoeb Matin