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    Volume 9 Issue 14|April 2, 2010|

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A Roman Column

Book Space

Neeman Sobhan

Where have all the English bookshops of Dhaka gone? Last time I was in the city nobody could tell me. Once, not long ago, I used to go to 'Words and Pages' on Gulshan avenue but it was closed when I last visited. Perhaps it has shifted somewhere, like Omni Books. And when I went to Etcetera, it had turned into a gift shop. Someone told me to go to Bookworm near the old airport--the shop I used to go to ages ago, when it was probably one of the first English book stores of Dhaka.

I would really love to read an in-depth report on the state of English language book shops in Dhaka, and where to go. The only recourse to book buying in English now seems to be on the traffic congested streets of Dhaka! Between one traffic light and another I have looked at the whole range of books being sold by our itinerant booksellers on the streets of Gulshan. I have bought quite a few. How can anyone resist a young man or kid offering you the bookshelves of his arms, pronouncing the titles in surprisingly clear English:

"Aunty! Eta niya jaan, 'The Idea of Justice'," hawks one at left car window and on the right, "Apa! Eta khub bhalo, 'Jinnah'"

"Na, baba, I don't like his face," I joke but I want to tell him that the only reason I might consider buying it is because one of my criterions for buying or rejecting any commodity in Dhaka is whether the seller calls me apa or aunty. Middle age is a cranky stage.

Now that I have engaged with the 'Apa-wallah', the 'aunty' loser drifts away and now my chosen bookseller suggests:

"Apa, Karl Marx niben?" As if he was hawking eggs; but why stale stuff like Das Kapital suddenly? I make a face.

"Dan Brown…Lost Symbol?" He flips the books around like they were playing cards. Even as I shake my head, I can see him try to assess my tastes, my personality, as he trots beside the creeping car. He now offers a candy pink cover: Sophie Kinsella. "Chee!" I turn my face away.

"Oh! Then take 'Like a Diamond in the Sky'".

"I have read it. Shazia Omar. Very good," I tell him.

"Paolo Coelho?" This guy thinks he has me figured out. Now I feel sorry that I don't see anything that I really want, but feel obliged to take something so I point to the Jaswant Singh book on partition and Jinnah. It can sit on my bookshelf in Rome beside my Alex Von Tunzelmann page-turner about Nehru and the Mountbattens, 'Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.'

My book peddler approves, "Eta bhalo." Now we proceed to the payment counter, so to speak, and he names his price. "600 taka."

"What? 200 er beshi na” I say, even when the exchange rate between taka and euro translates and spells c-h-e-a-p. He turns his face away, I wind up the glass. He taps on the window of possibilities. I inch it down half way, raise my brows questioningly. "500," he says.

"250," I address the driver who now takes over negotiation: "Ai! Madamey bolsey na, 250?"

Bookseller saunters alongside the rolling car, ignores my agent and tells me: "400 tey niya jan".

I wind my window down and take the book, examine it to see if Jinnah can look less cadaverous at any angle and give it back saying,"300 tey diley dao" and try to hand it back. He won't take it, and then just as he capitulates to my price, the traffic lunges forward. I quickly dig around my bag for the right notes while he runs beside the car. Oh! God! The traffic light at the intersection is green and we have left our bookseller far behind.

I am distressed to have a kidnapped Jinnah sitting on my lap and an unpaid hawker on the streets. I wave the book out of the window, trying to say your child is safe, come and get it. He catches up, smiling, "Shomoshsha nayi, Apa. No problem. You could have given it another time. You have to travel by this road only." Darn right! We are all captives of these roads. But I love this guy and his calm, philosophical attitude. I feel like giving him 500 taka but I know that since he and his ilk are my only bookshops in Dhaka, I better not spoil the market, so give him 350. Naturally he is happy, for others will soon tell me that they bought the same book for 150 taka

Anyway, the point and pleasure of book buying is not really the price (important though it is) but the freedom to browse, to be in a peaceful and pleasant space filled with the expectant hush of books waiting to be touched and opened by your hands.
For book lovers and browsers in Rome, there are many superb bookstores all over the city and its outskirts too. But they are mostly Italian books, obviously. Some big Italian book chains like Feltrinelli also have a small section dedicated to English books. But by and large, English language book shops in Rome are few.But those few are quite well stocked and modern, and even if they don't carry the book you want, they order it for you. Of course, in this age of Amazon dot com and on-line book shopping, this ordering can be done more comfortably and cheaply from home.

In fact, I am one of those people who is always checking out books at Amazon and reading excerpts or first chapters, and ordering, whenever possible, used copies of books on-line. But however easy it is to browse books at Amazon on-line, nothing can take away the romance of being inside a cosy bookstore, smelling and touching books.

In Rome, I have a few favourites. They are possibly also the only ones that exist:

One of my early haunts, the Economy Bookstore across from the Teatro del Opera, collapsed a few years ago. Now, one of the best stocked one is The Anglo-American Bookstore on Via delle Vite, a narrow cobble stoned road near Piazza Spagna, with a coffee bar in front of it. I love it especially because it once displayed my book, 'An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome'.

The Lion Book Store is on a little back street, Via dei Greci, near Piazza del Poppolo, with a church at the mouth of the cobbled street at one end and the shopping street Via del Corso at the other. This shady alley hiding this bookshop is like a sanctuary for me.

The book store that is tiny but packed with atmosphere not just for its location but its whimsical name, The Almost Corner Book Store, is actually at an angle of two streets in Trastevere and run by an Irish gentleman.

And so these are the shops to which on a nice day I pop in for an hour or two of bliss. I drive into town, past the old road flanked by the imperial Roman Palatine hills on one side and the ancient chariot course of Circo Massimo on the other, to park at a cobbled area close to the Bocca della Verita, or the Mouth of Truth, made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Roman Holiday when the poor journalist pretended to have his hand chopped off by the gargoyle like mouth to impress the dainty princess. From here I walk all the way up to Piazza Venezia and leaving the enormous white 'wedding cake' monument of Vittorio Emmanuelle behind, stroll past Mussolini's former offices and down the Via del Corso, stopping to get an ice cream as I amble down to Piazza Spagna to finally meet all the books awaiting me at one of the delightful English language bookshops of Rome.


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