AAQUIL BHAI SITS AT THE EDGE of a square—an unusual shape for Bangalore—opposite the Shivaji Nagar Bus Terminus where he strikes an adroit balance between books and magazines whilst making no effort to compete for attention with the many pushcarts of fruit, the garage, the ‘puncture-shop’, the several lawyers’ offices, the airgun merchant, the lassi ‘bar’, the man selling chilli bajjis and the sugarcane juice outlet that are all crammed into this space. He began with two tall piles of books on the pavement under what was once the office of Daily Pasban and then managed to wangle from the owners of the building a concrete platform and a shelf built into the wall. His English and my Urdu ensure that very little actual conversation passes between us. This hasn’t prevented him from sourcing entire sequences of The New Yorker or The Economist for me. Neither has it gotten in the way of his developing an uncanny sense of what I might come to take an interest in—ForteanTimes, a strange new magazine titled Monocle, Natural History, Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review and EcologyToday. Once he found about two years of New Scientist and stored them till I turned up, whereupon he flung his blue door open to display the trove—I think I bought the lot only because that moment of drama was strangely appealing.
IN MY 20S I THOUGHT NO END of my nose for used books. I would venture into the old neighbourhoods of the city and sniff out every possible pavement and hole-in-the-wall where they might be found. I knew which shops stayed shut on Friday, and which ones on Monday. In addition to knowing what faith occupied their owners, I had also figured out how to begin haggling with each of them; which of Bangalore’s four languages to slip into, and how to keep the conversation going with noncommittal throat sounds till the price was just right. I knew who could be relied on for a steady supply of crime fiction, and where I was most likely to find a decapitated copy of the new Mario Vargas Llosa novel. One operator had a huge stock of Penguin Classics, but began every conversation trying to get me to look at underground unsavouries (“Jevra Hollander, Ramesh, fifty rupees last for you only”—he called everybody Ramesh). I had a name for these explorations—the book-crawl.