I must have been seven or eight at that time. Or probably nine. While I don’t clearly remember how old was I, I do remember I had a pink dress with crimson roses embroidered near the waist. I do remember that when people saw me in that dress with my father, they would bend down and give me their biggest smile or ruffle my hair or pinch my cheeks – things, I was surprised, they didn’t do to the elders. Perhaps, it would have been pretty weird if the chubby man, who lived next to our house, pinched my father’s cheeks. I would have been furious.
Though my father was a busy man, somehow, he managed to make out some time to take me to the bookstore on weekends.
Back then, the bookstore seemed like a clip from a sepia-toned movie – with sienna-washed pages of The Economic Times, hanging near the door, with a couple of other newspapers. Magazines – new and old, with fading letters and missing pages – were stacked into a huge pile near the entrance of the clumsy, old room that smelled of wet asphalt. If you stood on the other side of the road and watched past the speeding scooters, at the bookstore, you’d realize that it lacked colour. Though the books it had, had paint splashed on all their pages, somehow the picture in my mind is devoid of colours.
It was an important landmark in my life – the bookstore.
In there, hid a wonderland, probably as beautiful and mysterious as Alice’s.
Each time we would walk into the single room, the owner would greet us with a happy smile and pat me on the head. While my father would stand in a corner, flipping through the pages of some newspaper, I would look around in awe at the never ending stacks of books around me.
I had this strange habit of picking up a book and smelling it first. The smells enticed me – the smell of the old pages of a magazine or the smell of crisp, freshly-printed pages of a children’s book. It was a smell, so faint, yet so tantalizing, it was like breathing in the strong aroma of hot chicken soup on the coldest winter night. Each book had a distinct smell that haunted its every page. They were never the same. Musty, of drying grass and ink, it smelled of untold stories growing old.
Often, somebody would stop by the store to use the xerox machine. Against the grunt of rusting screws and slapping of pages on the slider, I would read the book aloud, marvelling at the scenes it created in my head.
A lot of things have changed since then.
The bookstore has been renovated, its walls painted a dark white and the marble floor shines when the tube light on the adjacent wall flickers to life. Instead of the single room, they have two floors now. Each book is arranged majestically in large cup-boards and it feels like a new place.
The owner doesn’t greet me, now; not even when I’m wearing another pink dress. No one pats me on the head or stops awhile to pinch my cheeks.
The sepia-toned movie has rolled into a feature film with too many colours.
I don’t know if the change makes me happy.
Any day, I would prefer the old, clumsy, humid bookstore.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the books still smell the same.