On Sunday at Abids in Hyderabad, it is difficult to tell where one book stall ends and another begins. I have been told that things have changed, that the main road, along which they now sell clothes for Rs 100 only, once had book stalls. There are many people here—at 10:30 in the morning, the export rejects of jeans and t-shirts are already disappearing, while the book stalls that begin at the left turn marked by Meena Bazaar are empty.
In Abids on Sunday, Chermas, which always seems to have more people buying clothes than it can hold; Bulchand, whose advertisements remind me of big, shiny weddings; and the Van Heusen’s next to Meena Bazaar are all closed. When I come back at 11, there are more stalls: wooden structures that look like bookshelves rest against the closed shutters of the shops behind them. Signs over piles of books on the road say Any Book Rs 20, and I am excited, forgetting that I am in a new place, and that it is 42 degrees.
The makeshift bookshelves of every stall have copies of Dan Brown and Jeffery Archer that still look fairly new. The stands look shaky; each shelf is perhaps as broad as the thickest Harry Potter book—broad enough to display the books by their covers rather than their spines. They are the names that anybody walking along the road will notice—Kane and Abel, Deception Point, 3 Mistakes of my Life—the “popular” writers. “Aaj kal log yahi padthe hain,” a man says from his stool in the shade, when I ask him if he has anything else. Later, my father will tell me that fifteen years ago he had found academic books here that he had not found anywhere else. This time he does not find any.
Abids now has fewer book stalls, and fewer visitors. Those wandering between piles of books look like they are familiar with the place and with each other. Vinod Ekbote, who works at a desk job in the Telangana Government, has a blog that he posts on almost every Sunday, after his weekly visit to Abids. Every post has pictures of the covers of the books he has bought, with small notes on each of them. It is when I dig up old posts on his blog that I realise that people who visit Abids on Sunday all seem to know each other—the comments section is full of a steady exchange of books they have picked up, and plans to meet for nimbu paani or chai when they have finished shopping the next weekend.
The beginning of the road has old National Geographic magazines next to even older copies of Vogue and Femina, and I wonder who buys them. They have brighter covers with less writing than the magazines that I see my aunt buy occasionally. Next to me, a girl is asking an old man if he has DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He points to the piles before him and says, “Aapko dhoondna padega,” and the girl walks away. The man doesn’t look surprised; he continues to arrange his newer books on the makeshift shelves.
I find myself looking for familiar names and books that I have been searching for the past few months. The pile I begin with has only Mills and Boon, Erich Segal and Georgette Heyer, with an occasional EL James. They are unfamiliar names because I never took to reading romance, and I soon realise that books in many such piles belong to this genre. In other stacks there are crime stories that I very briefly took to reading when I was younger, but the names still aren’t familiar enough. I am looking for Zadie Smith, or Sarah Waters, even Anais Nin, but do not find them.
When I am on my way home, I wonder if this is the mistake I made. Nobody asked me what I wanted, or if I was looking for something in particular—I did not realise that this mattered until I sat on the road to look through a pile of books. To search for particular books or authors is not the same as allowing yourself to drift through piles; I let myself pay less attention to book covers, or the sound their names made. It is not the same when one goes to buy books looking beyond familiar names, and new books become finds that matter. Vinod Ekbote’s blog posts seemed to confirm my mistake. He talks of hours he spends at Abids on Sunday, looking for new names and older copies of books he already has—Keki N Daruwalla, books of Indian Verse, EM Forster, Joan Didion, Anne Fadiman—they’re all there. In response to a friend’s comment on his search for a particular book on his blog, he writes, “Abids is where it turns up one day or the other.”