Monday, June 16, 2008

Reading Matters

Crossword - India’s answer to WH Smith – has a branch on every street corner, not to mention pocket franchises in department stores, such as Life Style, at In Orbit mall. Bigger outlets, like the one at Mulund, have a coffee-shop, toilets, and a play area for visiting children. They take their reading seriously, here in Mumbai.
Powai Crossword has a small frontage, but don’t be deceived. It’s a Tardis, and goes on and on forever, once you’re inside. There’s a doorman, to usher you in, then a baggage person, to relieve you of your umbrella and already-shopping, then, unencumbered, you’re free to browse. Browsing’s second only to cricket, by way of top national sport, here. Chairs are placed in strategic nooks and crannies, and small stools or beanbags pepper the Children’s section. Or alternatively, readers find a book they fancy, and just drop in their traces, for a more comfortable floor-based peruse, before purchase. Consequently, as you hoover along the shelves, you have to pick your way over the sprawled legs of absorbed almost-customers. I make it a policy, never to buy the front copy of any book I want, anyway, so this thorough raking-through, before paying, does not disconcert me, unduly. (It reminds me of when I bought a copy of Brideshead Revisited, for my Mum, one Christmas, then developed tunnel vision, trying to read it, without opening it more than an inch, and cracking the spine. It acquired a certain thumbed air before long, so I gave it to her for not-Christmas, in October, instead...)
In HyperCity, just after you and your bag have been frisked by the laughing-but-ruthless security guard, but before you enter the shop proper, there’s a DesiCafe, then a Crossword. (I have a fondness for the Desicafe, because it’s where I have my first Chola Batura – basically a pancake, served with sauces, ranging from hot to paint-stripping. The pancake’s inflated, so it arrives on your plate like a fluffed-up pillow, but it collapses as soon as you puncture it. You definitely have to try it, for entertainment value, if only of your fellow diners.)
Today, there’s the monsoon gauntlet to run, before getting inside HyperCity. Mr Roland’s all for turning back, because of undue exposure to the elements, but we see they’ve rigged up a ramshackle bamboo shelter, roofed in sheet plastic, for the convenience of patrons. Well, in order to have any patrons, at all, in fact. Unexpected waterfalls, spilling from backed-up rooftops, still make me laugh or squeal (depending on preposition: looking at, or standing under) – and I have to keep reminding myself that everyone else sees this every year, like we see Christmasses come and go. We're the monsoon virgins, here.

The HyperCity edition of Crossword’s tiny but packed, though the shelves appear to have been stocked by the pin-in-a-book-catalogue method. The central island, on promotion this week, can only be described as eclectic. As well as cookery books and tv guides – including the Sunday Times Where To Eat Guide, for some reason – there’s a mountain of PG Wodehouse, Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and the Complete Works of Kahlil Gibran. (This is only 225 rupees, for all twelve books, in one volume. Not really a bed-time, or even less, a bath-time read, unless you have reinforced wrists, but a bargain, nonetheless. Am considering starting Christmas shopping right now, except see above, re insatiable curiosity leading to tunnel vision.) How "Cozy Country Cottage Decorating" gets into the window display, I'll never understand. Whether you're under cardboard and tarpaulin, at the traffic lights, or on the fourteenth floor of a tower block, or even if you're Shah Rukh Kahn, with his million-lakh pied-a-terre in Juhu, country cottages don't come into it. But then, coffee table books are for coffee tables, not for reading, the world over. There are about 47 copies of Doris Poosner’s “An Indian Man’s Guide to Success” - whether they’re hoping for a big run on it, later this afternoon, or whether they radically miscalculated their order, only time will tell. Nestling next to Ms Poosner’s magnum opus, there’s “The Greatness Guide” by Robin Sharma, then a stack of “Mein Kampf” in gilt-embossed leather. Or guilt-embossed leather, I have to suppose. It flits across my mind, to stay here all day, to see who buys this stuff. The heaps of Salman Rushdie and Khaled Hosseini, you’re kind of expecting, but who would have nominated J Archer, as sub-continental fave read? Pas moi, for one. Yet there he is, Lord A, pushing Paolo Coelho off the top shelf. We’re not short of classics, with Tolkien, and Agatha Christie, and C S Lewis, or neo-classics, like James Herriot, or even neo-neo-classics, like Sophie Kinsella. I said, eclectic, didn’t I?
Whichever branch of Crossword you’re in, by far the most shelf yardage is dedicated to the Self Improvement Section, comprising everything from Teaching your Toddler to do Sudokus, to Living your Life True to Marxist Ideals. The most significant sub-category fathoms the what-where-when-how-and-why, of Getting Ahead in Business – how could you turn your back on “Success Built to Last: Creating a Life that Matters” (Jerry Porras & Co) or “The Magic of Thinking Big” (David J Schwartz)? Most of these have a distinctly transatlantic flavour to them, but if there were ever a ripe audience, India has to be it, a whole population dedicated to climbing out of wherever they are, or to grafting untiringly, so their children won’t have to. I pick up “Seven Mantras to Excel in Exams,” by Prem P Bhalla – clearly an Indian writer, but on the same onwards-and-upwards bandwagon. It’s exhausting, just being in this aisle. I slope off, without ambition, to pastures more comfortable.
And there’s Mills & Boon, the ultimate salve, right next to the till. They’re celebrating their centenary this year, bless them - “One hundred years of Pure Reading Pleasure.” A chacun, as they say. Impulsive, compulsive reading, at 99 rupees a pop, how could you say no? Except, I do, abjuring the temptation of “The Millionaire’s Inexperienced Love-Slave” and even “The Sheikh’s Blackmailed Mistress.” Instead, I buy Binoo K John’s enchantingly entitled, “Entry From Backside Only.” Contrary to what you’re currently thinking, shame on you, it traces the history of the quirky, hybrid language which is Indian-English, with all its quaint Victorian phrasing and subverted usage. (Mention this phenomenon to any Mumbai ex-pat, and they will smile, and say, “Backside!” Monu says, “Rolandsir backside!” when he means, behind the office where Mr Roland works. You can see how confusion might arise, though.) Roland fluffs up his gravitas, and selects “Maximum City” by Suketu Mehta, “a brilliantly illuminating portrait of the megalopolis and its people,” - according to the blurb on the back cover, anyway. Sadly, the only non-fiction I’m happy reading, is by Jamie Oliver or Collins-Robert, but I do know that the lack is in me. While Mr Roland’s footling around for small notes, in his wallet, I show my cultural colours, by asking the assistant when “U Me Aur Hum” is out on dvd. Look, it’s still culture, you just don’t have to work so hard for it. There's substantive evidence of the same Arabian sea change, not only on bookshelves and film collection, here in Powai, but in fridge and wardrobe, too. To adapt Sanjay-from-Delhi’s global blood-is-blood-God-is-God philosophy, culture is culture. “All same, no different.”