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I can still see it in my mind’s eye, the tiny shop I used to frequent as a college student decades back . It was nondescript in appearance, lost among other bigger shops, situated in what was probably the College Lane (if I am not mistaken). Yet it was a huge attraction for the likes of me. Whenever the college hostel let you out, which was Wednesdays and Saturdays, I made straight for the place.

Its interior could not have been more than a medium-sized car and at the very best could accommodate two adults at a time. You see, we were all younger then and way slimmer. If there were more customers, they had to wait their turn while those inside made their choices. In fact when one of us wanted something from the top shelf, we had to step out so the proprietor could step in and take it down for us.

The room was lit by a dim bulb fixed to the  roof and on the days there was no power one had to make do with whatever sunlight poured in through the small and only entrance to the place. 

Strangely enough, none of this bothered the patrons. Walking into the dingy box-like room was in itself a high. The three walls  were covered from top to bottom with books of all types. What more could bookworms want? The books were mostly fiction, old and new, most of them the popular variety of the times, but there were a few non-fiction books as well, and comics too.

It was a lending library.

Every evening the man who owned the place would open his shop for custom. The door of the place itself opened out to be a desk with more shelves built into it in which were books too. The man would next take out a chair, wipe it and seat himself. He was an unassuming man in a shabby mundu and shirt, reading glass on his nose and sandalwood paste on his forehead.  In front of him was a ledger. In it he noted down the names of patrons, books borrowed and returned, as also the reading fee collected.

The older the book, the less the reading fee. It is a universal fact that students are mostly always short of cash and I was no different. So, though I salivated at the rare sighing of the newest books (he secreted them away in the lower shelves next to his feet), I tended to choose from among the older books. Luckily for me, I loved them all whether old or new. And reading P.G.Wodehouse didn’t cost much he belonging to the ‘older author’ section.

The man knew of my love for Wodehouse and was impressed. I don’t think he had ever read Wodehouse or knew anything about him as an author. Perhaps one of his bigger customers read Wodehouse. Or may be it was the fact that Wodehouse was not usually borrowed by college students making me an exception. Mills & Boon was the most popular among the girl students while I wrinkled my nose in distaste hearing the very name. Yeah, I was snobbish like that and looked down my nose at those whose diet consisted solely of M&B books.

Edgar Wallace, Somerset Maughum, Arthur Hailey, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Pearl.S.Buck, Colin Forbes, Harold Robins, E.S.Gardner, James Hadley Chase, Harry Patterson, even Enid Blyton (since I was a late starter there were quite a few I hadn’t read)…. I tried them all, anything and everything but Mills & Boon. Resist from the idea that I did not read one of them them romances at all, especially if they were lying around (just a couple of hours to read one anyway) and I had time on my hands. It was just that I was loathe to part with good money to read about men who acted snooty (I hated those men) and women who threw themselves at such men (I was ashamed of such women).

The owner of the lending library kept the latest and in-demand books for his ‘special’ customers. Only when they were done did he display it in the inner shelves. I thought I was one of his specials too (though I read only older books) till I woke up to facts.

One day, I was going through books, always a pleasure, in the dingy interior when I heard him say from out front that he had with him the book Roots by Alex Haley. It had been published in 1976 and we were then in early 1978. I was pleased that he had kept aside the book for me. It was going to eat into my share of money for the month, and would also take a huge chunk of out of the time I ought to spend studying (we had to return the book in a week/10 days or pay fine for each extra day defaulted). Still I was going to take the chance and take the book, I decided.

Walking out happily with a grin plastered on my face, I asked him, ‘Where is it?’ He gave me a confused look. ‘Roots,’ I said helpfully to jog his memory though it had only been a couple of seconds. ‘Oh, Roots? You wanted the book too?’ he asked doubtfully. Too late I realized he had not been talking to me, but to some special customer of his. My heart sank. I looked up to see a fat book in the hand of the man walking to a parked mo-bike. Though disappointed, I sighed knowing there was no use holding a grudge against anyone, least of all the library owner. Who was I kidding anyway? I had lots of studying to do, a degree to run after, and no time to read a book of that size just then. It was all for the best.

By the way, I have not read Roots to this day. May be I should rectify the lapse soon.

©Shail Mohan 2017

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