Once upon a time I used to enjoy hanging about bookstores. Wandering junkie-like for hours through the piles of books – picking one out, mentally criticizing something about it – mildly, dispassionately – and putting it down. Ferreting out a delish-looking book in a eureka moment, then finding it priced beyond my purse, and leaving it carelessly on the table. Etc. You know the routine. I would be relaxed inwardly, looking forward to spending an hour in the glass-panelled cafeteria upstairs with the books I would eventually purchase. So I took my time with the foreplay.
No longer such joys for me.
The beginnings of my misery might be located, unhappily, in what some consider crippling good fortune. The novel I had pounded away in grave secrecy for months had found a publisher. And before you ask, the advance was minuscule. But still – it was official – the manuscript had sold, and thereafter I walked about bookshops with the burden of my phantom pregnancy. Every now and then as I inhaled the smell of new covers and paper and books, I was assailed by an unreasonable but intense terror that someone else had somehow already written my novel and beaten me to its publication. Then, of course, there were petty – and completely ridiculous jealousies – on my part that is, about other newbie authors.
Anyway, in the middle of this phantom indefinite pregnancy (the book would come out some time, they told me, in the near future – make what you will of that), the husband’s book was published. It’s called The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power – and is a fabulous, path-breaking book on the subject. Well, what do you expect me to say? I’m a dedicatee.
Fresh from the printer’s oven, six copies were sent home by post. After beholding the book from every conceivable angle, I slid on some shoes, grabbed an auto and rushed madly to the nearest bookstore. It was one of those shiny chains in a fashionable mall uptown – but for the moment it would do. I panted up the stairs hysterically, the husband (henceforth referred to as TH) following sheepishly in my wake. I charged in, went straight to the ‘New Releases’ section and, to my crushing dismay, did not find it displayed gloriously in the middle of an applauding circle of avid non-fiction (and nuclear energy) enthusiasts. It was afternoon. The store was empty save for lovers looking for quiet spots. The book was not there.
I went to what was misleadingly called the ‘Help Desk’ and asked about the book. I spelt it out a few times and hinted that it was a very important contribution to human knowledge.
‘What? The Upside Book? Of what??? No, no such book exists. It does? You are sure? Well, we don’t have it.’
‘May I place an order?’
‘If you insist.’
I may have picked a fight at this point but TH dissuaded me and suggested I call the publishers.
In five minutes I had recovered my poise and bounce. I hung up the phone importantly. With the air of somebody in the know explaining to somebody not, I told TH, ‘Oh, the author’s copies are sent straight away from the warehouse. The books have just been dispatched to distributors. It’ll be at least two weeks before they get to stores.’
All was right with the world again. In all the excitement the phantom pregnancy was forgotten and I happily bought some books.
The two weeks went off slowly. Very very slowly. Then came D-day, and after many forays of hysterical eyeball exercise, scanning the ‘New Releases’ section and subsequently the shelves of umpteen bookstores, I found the book. A largish pile, with my name on the dedication page. It was an anti-climactic feeling.
Outside it was summer in Calcutta; people were milling about the floor in their lazy Saturday morning looseness of limbs. I was on my own. TH had refused to entertain my sadism any longer and did not accompany me on these outings. More fool he, for missing the pile. I admired it moodily. Whenever groups of people drifted towards the ‘New Releases’ section, I picked up the copy on the top purposefully and began leafing through its pages. As if the secret recipe to the elixir of life was contained therein. Not one person was impressed by my acting. They hemmed and hawed and bought other things.
Finally, crushed, I took matters in my own hand and took the top-most book to the counter. At my chatty best, I went through the process of buying it. ‘So,’ I asked jokily, ‘how is the book doing?’ ‘Very well,’ the guy replied sweetly. My heart soared. ‘I sold three copies myself. Yesterday.’ My mouth became bitter and dry instantly. It couldn’t have been true. I had popped into the shop late last evening to pick up some gum. Till closing time, The Upside Down Book hadn’t been there.
I drank my coffee in bitter silence. Why don’t people buy books? We are a country of over a billion people – and no one wants to know anything about nuclear power? In spite of what James Lovelock says – that’s it’s the only practical way of combating climate change?
I ordered a pastry and came up with some wildly ambitious marketing ideas that naturally were far too original to be implemented. Mildly cheered up I made my way towards the exit. And perhaps, if one were to be hopeful, maybe the guy at the counter had been wrong about the day. Maybe he sold 3 copies today! Except, a sane voice told me, it was eleven in the morning. The store opened at ten. What were the odds that 3 human beings interested in nuclear power would come to the store within an hour of the book’s display? But who knows, stranger things happen.
While leaving, on the spur of the moment, I casually asked a fresh-faced assistant in a red t-shirt who was wandering about vaguely looking for work, ‘Hi, do you have any books on nuclear power?’ (The already purchased book, you would note, was safely hidden in a packet.) What the hell, I was suddenly feeling magnanimous; I would buy another copy if required. That is, if she hung around me after directing me to the pile. How many times does one get to be a dedicatee?
‘Sorry,’ Ms Red shirt smiled professionally, after I repeated the question. ‘No such books.’
She flounced off to show some people where the Chetan Bhagats were kept.
Pragmatically I decided against clawing my hair or bursting into tears or shouting at the nincompoops. Instead, I went downstairs and got the bill and the book matched against each other. The owner was walking around. He was a bald man with a happy face. ‘Hello,’ he said, and looked at my purchase. I wasn’t in the mood for any conversation. Naturally, he was.
‘This is a new book.’ He pointed at The Upside Down Book that I was now re-packing into my bag. ‘Yesterday, we’d got three copies on trial in the morning, and you won’t believe it, all three sold out!’ I looked at him in amazement. ‘So we ordered twenty copies after that.’ Oh God, ohgod, ohgod!!! The man was rambling on, ‘Chetan Bhagat, also doing very well! You didn’t buy?’ ‘No thanks,’ I replied, and scattering smiles left and right, went into the sun. It’s a rare world - three strangers had come and bought the book. People who didn’t know TH or (the dedicatee) – from Adam!
So now, while my phantom pregnancy stretches languidly, I still go to bookstores and buy books. But no longer is it the same; no longer am I what I once was. I still pick up books casually but no longer do I discard them as thoughtlessly. As each book whispers to me, ‘Buy me. Only 7.5 per cent royalty will go to the author. And you know the years she’s spent on this?’ Meekly, I apologize to the book and gently keep it down, ‘I know, I know. I wish I could take you home with me. But my advance was too small. Sorry. Really genuinely sorry.’
And then the next book starts talking.
(I wrote this last April when Saurav's book was just out. This year, events repeated themselves with great synchronicity, a few changes here or there!)