It is one thing to collect magazines, entirely another to lust after them

01 September 2011

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.

In spite of all this, I never really noticed that every single bookseller had a flourishing side trade in old magazines. I ask myself whether this was because I was snooty about periodicals with pictures or because I was a perpetually broke student who had priorities when it came to spending; I don’t hear strenuous denials of either possibility.

I don’t quite remember how magazines finally caught my attention. Two moments of origin compete in my unreliable memory. On my second day at work I notice an enclosure within the college staff room and when I look beyond the phalanx of tables there I chance upon a pile of The New Yorkers—a colleague’s hoard. I spend several hours reading listings for events that happened years ago in a city I’ve never been to, and am inexplicably smitten. In the other memory, the day bus to Pondicherry is delayed by an hour and an unusual iridescence catches my eye as I walk down Anand Rao Circle to find a cup of tea. It is TheIndiaMagazine, an arts and crafts periodical of riveting stolidity transformed that year through chattiness and much visual irreverence by a new editor. I read my copy thrice over and return determined to Genghis the pavements till every back issue is found. This, or that, is how I came to magazine-lust.

Bangalore has changed considerably since. Book buying of the sort described above has gone upmarket; both Blossom and Bookworm originated as dealers in used books and are now the city’s most successful bookstores because they offer both new and secondhand titles. They don’t do magazines. A few doors down the same street is an establishment called Magazines where you may wander among foreign glossies under the tolerant gaze of several lordly Persian cats. The establishments I used to frequent in Balepet and Upparpet have shrunk to a handful—some forced out of business by the fading generosity of the city and others by a building frenzy which views the alcoves and ledges of the past as mere frippery. The ones who remain have dwindled into hawkers of pirated versions of The White Tiger and Angels & Demons. The one constant in all this is the man who eventually found me those issues of TheIndiaMagazine: Aaquil bhai. These days my book-crawl has shrunk to a biweekly stopover at Aaquil’s. And the haul is more often magazines than books.

CHERIYAN ALEXANDER TEACHES ENGLISH at the college where I work, and when the workday ends he returns in relief to being a pack rat—The New Yorkers I first encountered were his. His house and office are crammed with books from his areas of interest—theology, the history of religion, Russia and Eastern Europe, ecology and sustainable development. When asked about magazines, he rattles off a hit list that includes TIME, Newsweek, The Economist, National Geographic, The NewYorker, Harpers and The Atlantic before concluding, “I’m not really a collector—more a bits-and-pieces man.” This somewhat out-of-syllabus behaviour connects him to Jayakanthan Ranganathan, a developer with a Chennai-based software firm, whose list begins similarly before heading off in the direction of Wired and Rolling Stone. He talks of magazines as a diversion while waiting for the greater surprise that subsists in “being found by a book”.

This denial of collectorship suggests that it is perhaps one thing to lust after magazines, and another thing entirely to collect them. Conversations with collectors run either to completist preoccupations—“every issue of Asiaweek ever published” and “Three more issues of Imprint and I’ll have everything”—or the problems of storage. I remember one happy evening spent feeling my ganglia dissolve while a good friend went on about the best gauge among polythene covers when it came to defeating dust, moisture and mildew. With people who live in homes that are halfway between church and museum, every conversation, inevitably, tends to unfold along the theme of curation as apotheosis. But for those who lust after the reading that magazines offer, the three-act shtick of collection, completion and cathedral silence is alright for thrills only if you’re a pigeon in a Skinner box.

If magazine-lust is not about mere ownership, what is it really about? A personal sense of readerhood seems crucial. In conversation, my colleague Cheriyan offers the notion of a reading habit whose spirit is aleatory. Compared to the book, he sees the magazine as the more ideally compact vehicle by means of which “the individual reader may range beyond the familiar and discover the new”. Satyajit Chetri, a reluctant Los Angeles-based software honcho, echoes this notion of chance discovery when he talks of how he encountered science fiction while in his teens—in an issue of American music magazine Reflex that arrived without explanation among the wares of a Guwahati pavement-wallah. Jayakanthan’s choice of Wired and Rolling Stone reflects a different readerhood—one built around an ongoing argument with the past. He reads old issues of Wired because this allows him to see the perfectly ordinary in today’s technology in terms of the buzz that surrounded it once, “to see technology and buzz for what they are”. Old issues of Rolling Stone are enjoyable because they hardsell bands out of the aesthetic compulsions of their time and he feels duty-bound to resist.

WHY DOES THE IDIOSYNCRASY of these reading choices draw so naturally from a compounding of old, foreign and English? Our shared lust seems to mark us as children of a slower time. Memories of straitened times and smaller pockets will permit you, dear reader, to understand why foreign magazines were always old when they arrived. The alterity they provided was perhaps a reliable way of escaping local sermons—which required readers to bow endlessly to tyrannies such as self-improvement, relevance and utility—to join a more spacious conversation.

It is perhaps significant that the English needed to borrow a word from the French to talk about this roomier sort of conversation, but we won’t go there right now. The strict boundaries that girded our lives while we grew up left little room for causerie, and when we encountered writers who luxuriated in the gloriously inutile, we fell for them, and, boy, we fell hard. Jayakanthan talks with much affection of the sprawling braggadocio that defines Rolling Stone, and quotes sentences from Matt Taibbi’s hatchet job on Goldman Sachs to drive home his point. Cheriyan’s marker for this moment of arrival is the angle he found in a three-part article on truck drivers by John McPhee in The New Yorker. Causerie is also the explanation for why I begin reading The Economist at the last page—graphs, indicators, obituary and onwards.

We fled from career noise and competition success, but each of us, nevertheless, also found an Indian magazine or two that offered talkiness. Cheriyan whimpers with delight when he hears of The Illustrated Weekly of India, Satyajit’s voice turns orchestral when he talks of Gentleman, and after India Magazine disappeared, I chose to be fascinated with Man’s World for a couple of years.

The conversations that began thus continued and deepened in unexpected ways. Satyajit began blogging, much before it became fashionable, about trashy popular cinema from Hollywood and Japan and Korea. When people compliment him on the contagious enthusiasm and sense of fun that mark his writing, he bows in the direction of the film magazines, Indian and foreign, that didn’t turn up as often as he would have liked in Guwahati. Cheriyan believes that two of his abiding interests—the history of travel writing and deep ecology—began in an ordinary childhood fascination with National Geographic. He launches off into a long aside about the seismic shift in character that the magazine underwent in the 1980s. Issues from the 1950s and the following two decades bother him because the writers seemed to operate in a mode that was sub-Hemingway—offering a landscape that was magically empty of people. That has changed over the last 30 years—the writing is no longer patronising, and it is less often by white men in pursuit of the easily exotic. I ask him if he has stopped buying issues from the earlier decades and he hems a little bit before admitting that he still does—for “their unique feel”.

This sort of seeking harks back to the image that the word ‘magazine’ once evoked. The Oxford English Dictionary reveals the origins of the word to lie in the Arabic word for warehouse—makhazin—an inflection of the word khazana, which survives in several Indian languages. Its entry into English dates back to the late 1500s, when works of travel such as Samuel Purchas’ Pilgrimes series and T Hickok’s Frederick’s Voyages made references to storehouses known variously as magosine and magason. The present sense of the word comes from its ascent into metaphor, a move organised by Edward Cave, an 18th century printer and publisher with little education but nevertheless a man of resource. In 1731, he had the brainwave of sourcing diverse articles from London’s many half sheets to create a periodical which he titled, rather grandiosely, The Gentleman’s Magazine. He explained this choice of title with these words: “the many things deserving attention, contained in them, are only seen by accident…This consideration has induced several Gentlemen to promote a Monthly Collection to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces.”

That conceit has unravelled over time to offer a more unsettling idea of the magazine—each copy is built for what seems like immortality, even as conventional wisdom condemns every magazine to be no more than ephemeral. Cheriyan’s belief in reading as an endless agape of sharing seems to wrestle this paradox to the ground. Tucked away in one of his cupboards are several files full of clippings from the years when TIME and Newsweek were not so glossy—the prose offerings of Roger Rosenblatt and Lance Morrow will be read out with relish and then photocopied whenever some unfortunate asks a question about how to write concisely and well. Another shelf of this cupboard is home to several dozen maps that were once inserts in National Geographic. These are reserved for oppressive afternoons and the dead silence they produce among students. Handing them out apparently makes everybody amenable, first to conversation and then to instruction—a miracle I have not yet been able to verify. At work, Jayakanthan maintains a tall Wired pile. Colleagues are free to borrow, and copies can disappear, but every now and then somebody returns for conversation—his geekiness evaporating in that minute of enthusiasm.

To view the magazine as artefact is perhaps another way of refusing to let it subside into the short-lived. Cheriyan talks of how some magazines offer what he describes as “sheer physical beauty”. The small variations of layout, fonts and photographs come together to create a dynamic engagement, a pleasure that is rarely afforded by the book. He describes this as an “unofficial visual education” and traces it all the way back to a moment in his childhood when he first came across a magazine with colour photographs. Satyajit and Jayakanthan talk of a similar slowing of the eye with reference to entirely different magazines. Every now and then, Aaquil manages to trace several issues of TIME from the 1980s for me. There is the immediate tingle of recognition as those objects in somewhat faded red borders slide out, and thereafter I can feel the toes of my soul curl up as I gaze unhindered on those sedate pages, interrupted only rarely by photographs, a stream of text that seems unbearably sexy after the visual clutter of today’s standard magazine page.

Sometimes, to talk of old magazines is to begin to gaze on a former self. Satyajit, who grew up in Guwahati, spent years in pursuit of Mouchak, an Assamese children’s magazine, and Chandamama. I come across the latter now and then; to open a copy is to look back in bemusement at a childhood self that spent hours absorbed in those stories, unmindful of their terribly archaic language and a general creakiness that is now intolerable. For all its faults, Chandamama offered our imaginations room of a more festive and innocent variety than Amar Chitra Katha, its successor in our reading lives. Satyajit’s other great love object, the children’s magazine Target, causes us to remember and share dangerous information from our non-metropolitan pasts. Reading Target somehow led him to develop a deep passion for kulchas and a generalised envy of Delhiites who could eat whenever they wanted at Nirula’s. I remember, and confess, that a year’s subscription caused me to wish fervently that I could be somehow transmogrified into a boy named Bunty and ride a red bicycle while that name fluttered about my person like a flag. Nehru’s clunky nation-state obviously got to work rather early, and with some success, on both of us.

TO RETURN TO WHERE WE BEGAN, this not-so-posh lust, to mangle a Nabokovism, differs from more straightforward enterprises such as collecting in one other way. It occurs enmeshed with other passions and is never visibly demarcated from the rest of the victims’ lives. Between then, the sufferers we have met have confessed inadvertently to many other loves—books, conversation, information culture, design and, horror of horrors, their professions. There is perhaps one other aspect left for us to acknowledge—the pleasure of being able to draw an unofficial map of your city because you once made this unusual demand of it. Cheriyan Alexander is full of tales of now-defunct outfits (“Zameer’s…that guy outside Remington’s… that old man down Brigade’s”) in Bangalore’s Cantonment—this part of the city was once capable of bounty before it gave up on such civility, much before my time. Satyajit Chetri, who spent the first few years of his career in Hyderabad, admits that Bangalore, among the cities of South India, offers enthusiasts the greatest variety. Nevertheless, he preferred pottering around in Abids and other areas of Hyderabad because operators there were less anal about prices and because magazine hunting did not have to be carried out in the spirit of urgent rivalry that Bangalore is home to. In Chennai, the city which introduced self-immolation to the Indian political vocabulary, there was once a Moore Market, now defunct after a successful attempt at translating the political gesture from human beings to buildings. No adequate replacement has yet been found. Jayakanthan remembers a bhai on Mount Road, somewhere near a wine shop, who specialised in stocking Marie Claire for readers in search of safe titillation in a conservative city. This man who, like Aaquil bhai, presided over a flow of tourist discards and hotel outflows and could be relied upon to find practically anything, has apparently been run out of town. And Aaquil told me some months ago that he might have to vacate his spot.

The idea that filters through these stories of different cities is that of a winding down. Its truth can be verified without much exertion. The generation that grew up in page-hunger now gluts itself on RSS feeds; those who needed seedy magazines now have the Internet. As cities begin to redraw themselves, the old equation between pedestrian and pavement seller is naturally the first casualty. That the widening of our roads should lead to the narrowing of our lives is perhaps no more than a minor visual conundrum, a bagatelle.

It is far more diverting to look on the lives of those who’ve fallen on piles of yellowing paper in regular passion. Cheriyan Alexander took several bank loans to put up a little loft above his apartment—his wife had begun to develop a steely glint in the eye, and he thought this a prudent compromise. It is one thing to build an eyrie, and another thing entirely to get there every day—there is the small matter of the killing staircase that leads to it, not to mention the cheery squeezes administered to the room by Bangalore’s suddenly antic summers. Jayakanthan Ranganathan is a strong man, but even he winces when asked about storage. Satyajit Chetri lives uneasily under a self-imposed moratorium on buying anything other than comics, his first love, after a recent attempt at moving house. And I, your humble narrator, once a blithe spirit who invited nobody home because I liked the maze my house had become and knew that other people hadn’t enough soul to appreciate these things—even I received my comeuppance. I still walk and sit very carefully as a result of three frantic days and nights spent massaging nuts and bolts into slotted-angle shelves after a sister announced her desire to return from foreign lands, to put my life in order, to incinerate if need be the smallest square of paper that showed any interest in obscuring her father’s floors.

Arul Mani teaches English at St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.

Keywords: Magazine magazine collection reading