In hindsight, the winding long line of cars trying to get in should have been warning enough. When so many people are headed somewhere, it is foolhardy to go to the same somewhere looking for peace, serenity and escape. But hope triumphs over reason, and I trudge on.
I am trying to get reacquainted with my weekend ritual of visiting a book shop and spending quality time surrounded by books and book-lovers. In the two months since my return to India, I haven't settled down enough to restart. Today, I decided, was the day. So off I went. My destination was Landmark, a large bookstore situated in - alarm bells, where are you when I need you? - a mall. A friend told me they are a good mainstream bookstore - wide selection, comfortable seating space, store recommendations, the regular works. You will not miss Barnes and Noble, this friend had informed me knowingly.
I ought to kill the guy.
It started with the music. I step into the store and the blaring sound hits me in the face. Tsamina mina eh eh ... What the heck? Did I step into a club by mistake? Nope. This is the place. Landmark. A bookstore with blaring dance music. If you can hear yourself think, let the management know, and they will kindly increase the volume of the music. WAKA WAKA EH EH ...
I wade through the crowd of people eagerly working out the PS3 demos being offered free by the store. When I finally get to the books section of the store, I can barely make out where to start and where to head. You see, these guys seem to have missed the 'merchandising' lecture during their marketing course. The display of books is as creative as a Microsoft program. In fact, Microsoft might well have designed the store, because everything works on a directory style structure. Looking for a book? What subject would that be - History, Business, Fiction? What kind of history - Western, Indian? What alphabet does the author's name begin with? See - here is the book. Easy, wasn't it? What, you are looking to browse leisurely? Looking for inspiration, you say? Well sir, we are in the wrong place then aren't we?
Apart from the utterly unimaginative and dull display of books, there is the little matter of the books themselves. The titles seem to fall into three broad categories:
(a) Junk food books - tasty and fast, but injurious to your long term health. This is the dominant category here. There are more Sydney Sheldon books than I could ever imagine existed. I would be damned if there are more Sydney Sheldon readers anywhere else in the world - and the dude has been dead for three years. That tall tower you see there? That is a pile of fresh Jeffrey Archers. And yes, your eyes aren't deceiving you - that is indeed a David Baldacci in the 'Landmark Recommends' shelf. Right next to the Chetan Bhagat.
(b) Boiled veggies - mind-numbingly boring non-fiction, written in the manner of a text book. Indians seem to love textbooks. And the more direct, the better. Don't bother with creativity or making it fun, thank you. We are quite happy to read a book called 'How to improve your career?'
(c) Books that hit the stands years if not decades back, and have disappeared from the front shelves of bookstores around the world, except in Mumbai. Tipping Point is prominently displayed. As is Hot, Flat and Crowded. It is like they have no idea which year they are living in.
Some of the best books I have read in recent years are tucked away in strange corners. If Landmark had been my only source of books, I would never have come across The God Delusion, or Chabon, or Ishiguro. I would have been reading my fiftieth P.G. Wodehouse for the twentieth time. (Wodehouse is another author no one seems to read outside this country).
When I left the country, there were a small number of extremely talented Indian authors writing high quality novels, making truly remarkable contributions to the language. One day, I would tell myself, I will get good enough to publish a book of my own. After the visit to Landmark though, I have decided I want to truly stand out by being the only literate person in the country who has not written a book yet.
I spend a fruitless hour wandering around in the noisy aisles, stepping over piles of untidily stacked books. All I had to show for it at the end was Kingsley Amis' 1954 novel Lucky Jim, and David Leavitt's story of Ramanujan - The Indian Clerk. Great books, but not worth an hour of stress.
I get home two hours after I had left, silent and brooding. "Managing two kids by myself isn't easy" says the wife, when I ask her what she has been up to. "I hope you aren't going to make this browsing at Landmark a weekly ritual." "Not a chance, dear" I tell her with feeling, "I wouldn't do it to you."