My ‘One more time’ came on a sultry day in Fort off Victoria Terminus (renamed CST) in Bombay (renamed Mumbai). Ajay had asked me to look for a good book on pottery, particularly one about glazes. He’s set up a small studio on the first floor of his house in Goa, actually he’s using the entire floor for his clay-work. I thought I had a good chance of finding the book in Mumbai until I began to draw a blank shop after shop. But when I walked into Sterling Book House off DN Road in Fort after dodging a water melon stall and nearly bumping into two people tucking in red melon pieces with toothpicks from paper plates I was at the end of my search.
Once in, I had difficulty in getting the young shop assistant to understand what I was looking for. The word ‘pottery’ did not draw any response, he looked at me with a blank look.
“It’s what people prepare from clay, like pots, jars, cups and saucers,” I said, using my hands to shape a pot out of thin air. His eyes lit up and he disappeared between two narrow shelves in the elevated portion of the shop reached by climbing two steps a few feet off the desk where an old man sat, collecting payments and answering queries of people stepping into the bookshop looking for a book. The shelves were placed very close together to make up for lack of space in the shop. There was space only for a single person between them. If any of the shelves were any taller and if you were searching for a book near the top of the shelf chances were the back of your head would brush books in the shelf behind you. Outside the shop, beyond the hawkers’ stalls on the pavement adjoining the road, the sun shone bright and vehicles drove past, honking as they went. However it was cool inside the shop.
The shop-attendant came up to me with two books, the kind I find ornamental because apart from gorgeous designs and cursory information on pottery there is little else to satisfy an advanced amateur looking for techniques to advance his craft of pottery. As I waved them away the shop-attendant said, “Saab, we don’t have those kinds of books here. We only have these kinds.”
Most book shops did not. They kept a few titles which typically lasted them a year or two, sometimes more.
“Look again,” I said. He went away and returned the books to their sections and looked up another section. I saw him pluck a book out, dust it and head toward me. Glazes for the Craft Potter by Harry Fraser read the title. It was highly technical, dealing with the chemistry of glazes and formulations. I asked the shop attendant for a piece of paper and copied down the contents page and read them out to Ajay over the phone that evening. He was pleased with it. “What’s the cost,” he asked.
“₤14.99, about Rs. 1,300,” I replied.
“Ok, get it,” he said.
Two weeks later I returned to Sterling Book House. The old man was still there. The book was an old edition and had probably lain on the shelf for years, and two weeks was not about to see someone step into the shop for it I thought as I walked into the book shop.
“I want to buy the book ‘Glazes for the Craft Potter by Harry Fraser’,” I told the old man at the counter. He wore a white shirt, full sleeves. He seemed to favour white shirts, for he had one on the last time too.
“We don’t have it,” he said. Taken aback it took me a moment to recover. In two weeks a book that’d lain in silence for several years was gone! A sinking feeling took hold of me, somehow I could not believe it was gone. Surely there was a mistake somewhere.
“Someone bought it?” I asked him.
“No. We never had it,” the old man replied.
Colour returned to my face and I smiled. At least no one had bought it I thought.
“No, it can’t be,” I said. “Just two weeks ago I saw it here.” I was alarmed at the turn of events.
The old man put his work aside, adjusted his glasses and looked up at me.
“We don’t have it. I know we don’t have it,” he said. His tone had a finality generally common to old men. “Maybe it is there,” he said, pointing to a bookshop across the street from his. “Go there, maybe you’ll find it,” he said.
“But I saw the book in your shop here, just fifteen days ago,” I said, exasperated.
“That’s our shop too,” he said pointing at BookZone across the road. “Check there, you might find it.”
Reluctant, I made my way out. Maybe they’ve shifted some books there I thought. But I had a strong feeling that BookZone didn’t have it. I was correct. They didn’t have it. I made my way back to the Sterling Book House and confronted the old man.
“They don’t have it,” I told him and taking a slip of paper from my pocket I held it out in front of his face. “Look, this is the page on which I copied the book’s content page, and this page was given to me by your shop attendant.” I looked around to see if I could recognize the shop attendant I met the last time I was here. He was nowhere to be seen. Then turning to the old man I repeated, “It was only two weeks ago that I saw it here,” and drew his attention to the contents in the slip of paper and the title of the book written in capital letters on the page.
“But we don’t keep those Harry Potter kind of books around here,” he said.
“Harry Potter?” I exclaimed at this unexpected turn of events.
“Yes, we don’t keep those kind of books,” he said dismissively. I smiled the second time that day.
“Sir,” I said, relief washing over me. “It’s not a Harry Potter book. The book is titled ‘Glazes for the Craft Potter’ and is by Harry Fraser.”
He kept quiet for a moment and turned to look at the shop attendant who was listening on, and then he let out the faintest of smiles and signaled to the shop attendant to go get it. In two minutes the book was on the table. Considering that the old man had hid his embarrassment rather well I thought I might succeed in wrangling out a discount on the book. Some bookshops are open to it considering that they get paid a sales commission between 30% to 40% on the book price, and do not mind passing some of it to the buyer. Moreover this particular book had lain on the shelf for a long time, I thought that he must be pleased to see it ‘go’. So when he drew his calculator from the drawer to convert the ₤14.99 into rupees, I suggested that he give me a discount on the book. Without looking up at me, busy punching keys on the calculator, he said, “you’re getting it at a discount.” And he presented me the bill. I had one look at the figure and half-shouted, “What discount!”
He had converted the book price to its full equivalent in Indian rupees, totaling over 1,300 rupees. “You haven’t given me any. You’ve drawn up the bill for the full amount,” I said.
“This book in your hands is the old edition, costing ₤14.99. The new edition costs five pounds more at “₤20.00,” he said looking up at me. “If I had covered this one’s price with a label showing ₤20.00 you wouldn’t have known. But I didn’t do it. I let the original price show, so I’ve saved you five pounds. Consider that your discount.”
I looked at him silently, wondering if there was anything in his hard boiled face that I could identify that explain his cheekiness. There wasn’t. He was serious, dead serious.