June 7, 2009
THE EX-PAT FILES
Love at first sight
By Rohit Brijnath
From every childhood come pictures. My gentle father, snoring like a tractor, but always lying with a book open across his chest. My mother reading at her desk, as still as an Indian painting, the silence broken only by the whisper of turning pages.
In our home of conversation, there was always a place for quiet and the written word. Books leaned on each other on shelves, huddled together in glass cases and stood like wobbly buildings on bedside tables.
William Styron's Sophie's Choice sat mournfully next to John Updike, Robert Ludlum needed a dusting, empty space signalled Carl Sagan had gone. Norman Mailer growled, Somerset Maugham pleaded: Pick me up.
They all called to me - fiction, thrillers, history, not to mention my father's grand atlas, the pages now as worn as his sweaters. It was not enough to mention the Amazon in conversation - to a boyish groan my two brothers and I would be instructed to pull down the atlas and then trace the river's course.
My mother, sari bunched in her hand, took me to bookshops and let me choose, let me find books and myself, for words are a personal thing. They fly off the page, journeying through the eye and into the mind with a particular cadence, a separate flavour.
This was Calcutta. Later, wherever I went, Bombay for college, Delhi to raise a family, Melbourne to live, I searched for books. People grade cities on transport, food, crime, schools; for me, bookshops matter.
Nineteen months ago when I shifted to Singapore, I was nervous and ignorant. I had no idea if this nation read widely and where would I go on lonely Saturdays.
Then a friend sent me on a silent train, to a chattering Orchard Road, through the polished fortress of Takashimaya, and into the doorway of Kinokuniya. Evidently, there is a thing called love at first sight.
Melbourne's second-hand bookstores are fun to burrow through, but its newer stores, lacking range, never seduced me. But to stand at Kinokuniya's entrance and see the shelves snaking off in every direction, a forest of books (literally maybe, alas), on so many subjects, was to feel energised, restored, reassured.
This city, I thought, yes, I could live here.
Book buying is a love affair conducted in many places. In India, every pungent railway platform had wheeled carts, where Ayn Rand hung out with satiny film stars pouting from Bollywood magazines.
Every town had its streets where literature shared the pavement with pornography. Every city had old shops where jumbles of books loitered behind glass smudged with ancient fingerprints.
Only the owner knew every book's geography and, on request, would dig into piles, haul out a book, slap it against his leg to remove dust and present it as if offering a priceless gift. Which it was.
Some of this remains, but now is the era of the slick, neatly stacked bookshop. It is a different adventure, an easier one, though sometimes, instead of asking for a book, I go looking for it, for part of the pleasure is in the hunt.
I can spend an hour easily in Kinokuniya, fingers trailing across the spine of books, authors' names dizzily parading through the mind.
Then a book is tugged out, examined, the words of the first page rolled on the tongue, tasted, put back. In my new city, this store has become many things for me, a refuge from a noisy world, a church, a university.
Bookshops have to surprise me, a connection must be established. On my first day in Kinokuniya, I looked for The Kingdom And The Power, Gay Talese's look at The New York Times.
I once owned it, loved it, lent it, lost it and could not find it, not in Delhi, not in Melbourne. But suddenly, there it was, standing before me, and the pleasure of discovering an old friend in a new place can't be overstated.
Now, I take everyone there: friends, my daughter when she visits. But mostly, I'm waiting for July. Then, the woman who first took me shopping for books comes to Singapore for the first time. Already we have a date. Mother and son, Kinokuniya and coffee.
Rohit Brijnath, a senior correspondent with The Straits Times Sports Desk, wrote for Calcutta's Sportsworld magazine from 1986 to 1993, and for India Today magazine in Delhi from 1993 to 2000. He moved to Melbourne in 2000, writing columns for Indian papers and the BBC South-Asia website while working part-time at The Age. He came to Singapore in 2007.