Antiquity at its Best
Tucked away in the Indian Himalayas is the hill station of Shimla. Once the summer capital of the erstwhile British Raj in India, Shimla comes alive in the holiday season. A major attraction is the Mall flanked by its half-timbered buildings which retains its Raj-era charm. Side by side with the shopping malls, art galleries and up-market restaurants, one comes across many an old shop. One such landmark is the 61-year-old Maria Brothers which is a rich repository of rare and antique books (ranging from 6,000-7,000), maps, old prints and photographs. The shop is the first antiquarian bookstore in Shimla.
Talking to Rajiv Sud, the owner of the shop, one gets the impression of a slow growing but still significant market. “ Maria Brothers cannot be put on par with outlets for popcorn or cold drinks. One major drawback is that the reading habit is on the wane. And if people do go for books, they put their money into modern potboilers such as the Harry Potter series,” asserts Sud. The clientele for the store, he says, is by and large collectors or research scholars.
A look around the shop reveals a veritable treasure trove. The oldest book, OOST-Indise Voagien by Johan Mildenhal and F Cartwright, published in 1706, is part of a Dutch collection which describes the authors' visit to Persia and the country of the great Mughals. The book is divided into four part sone section on Turkey and other countries, the second also on Turkey, the third on Iran and the fourth which depicts the authors' return journey through Arabia and Syria.
And there's more for the avid reader of antique books. Take for instance the 1894 edition of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, illustrated by Gustaue Dore. Likewise book buyers can put their money into works such as Heart of Continent by Francis Younghusband, Swan Hedin's 1882 edition of Through Asia, a 10-volume English translation of Katha Sarit Sangar (1940 edition) or priceless works as for example, the Ramayana in Persian and 16 volumes of the Arabian Nights (published in 1880) by Sir Richard Buron. Some buyers can also opt for antique steel engravings, Captain GF White's Himalayan Painting (1860) and the original Danille Prints.
Maria Brothers is also stocked with exclusive and timeless maps for example a map of Rangoon (1910) and one of India (dating back to 1931). Another draw is several issues of Young India, edited by Mahatma Gandhi and published in 1926. What's more are antique folk instruments such as a Kashmiri sarangi and a Tibetan damyang.
The shop has an interesting history which dates back to his late father OC Sud. A graduate of geography from Lahore's Foreman Christian College, he arrived in his hometown of Shimla just a year before Partition. Initially dealing with textbooks and stationery, he gradually switched over to rare books, first editions and print books along with maps, old photographs and steel engravings among others. A definite landmark for the elder Sud and his shop was the purchase of OOST which he bought from Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1960.
Rajiv, a student of St Edwards School in Shimla and a postgraduate in history from Himachal Pradesh University, stepped into the business to help out his ailing father. There have been definitive changes along the way for one, he says, the customer base is slightly on the wane and many works are becoming harder and more expensive to replace. “One has to make do with reprints,” says the younger Sud, gets his books from dealers in the UK and Canada.
What sells well, according to Sud, are travel-oriented and history books along with books on philosophy and religion. Some visitors to the shop complain about the heftily priced works (which range from Rs 300-20, 000) along with the clutter or “jumble sale ambience” of the shop.
Nevertheless Sud is not discouraged. Over the years the profile of foreign to Indian buyers (70:30) has transformed to 60:40 respectively. On the anvil is the development of a website to help increase sales and strengthen the customer base. He has sought the help of several retired librarians who will start work in the next few months. Once the cataloguing is over, the photography will begin.
Looking back at his priceless legacy, Sud says, “The quality of our works remains the same. If I compare with my father's time, I have more stocks than he used to have that time.” The road ahead may be rocky, but Sud has amply displayed his resilience and perseverance and will continue to do so.
Antique books stacked up inside the 61-year-old Maria Brothers book store.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007