Essay by Jai Arjun Singh
The Bicycle Man in Delhi
The first bookstore in my life—and the only one I can claim to feel really nostalgic about—had two wheels and a nasal voice that called out "Maga-zine! Maga-zine!" late in the evening.
That was a thin man on a bicycle, bearing an improbably large selection of glossies tucked inside a small space behind his seat. He would come to our house in south Delhi’s Panchshila Park each day—my mother being a compulsive renter of movie magazines—and it was through him that I discovered Amar Chitra Katha’s Tinkle comics.
I was five years old. I know this because the oldest of the comics in my carefully maintained stack is dated July 1982.
Tinkle was a fortnightly then, and one could expect the latest issue to arrive anytime between twelve and fifteen days after the previous one. I suspect my earliest understanding of the passage of time developed during those days. On most evenings, I wasn’t too interested in the kitaab-wallah uncle’s comings and goings, but a little calendar in my head told me when nine or ten days had elapsed since the last issue; the next few evenings were laden with anticipation
The sound of the bicycle bell, the dash to the door, the disappointment when I realized that “today” wasn’t the day—or the thrill when I saw the cover of a fresh issue for the first time and quickly flipped through it to check if the final story was Kaalia the Crow, which I loved, or Shikari Shambhu, which I only mildly liked.
He sometimes played teasing games, claiming with a sad face that the latest issue was going to be delayed, then unveiling it just as I’d turned away balefully.
It might seem like pushing things to designate this slight herald a “bookstore.” But we bought every one of those Tinkles. I was just starting to learn that the books one found interesting were to be kept and hoarded and revisited and fussed over, not merely read once and returned (like the magazines that my mother exchanged every day). It’s a lesson I have never unlearnt; as I write this, a number of bookshelves, makeshift bookshelves, tables, racks, bed-boxes, and bed surfaces in my house are creaking in confirmation.
It didn’t take me long to learn that Bicycle Uncle was the mobile arm of a tiny shop—more like a stall—in the nearby Malviya Nagar market. Today this market occupies a low-rung position in a south Delhi filled with lavish mall complexes. But back then, it was mainly a muddy, winding maze of vegetable stalls, shops selling groceries and trinkets, artificial jewelry and countless packets of bindis—most of this of little interest to the child I was.
However, at some point during our walk through the back lanes, we turned a corner and there the book stall was with its egalitarian display: Amar Chitra Kathas sharing space with Archie comics and digests. Jataka Tales in one corner, Jughead Jones in the other.
The Malviya Nagar byways wouldn’t have done for “proper” books, though—sophisticated publications by Enid Blyton and suchlike. For these, one had to travel what seemed to my child self a very long distance: a twenty-minute drive to South Extension, the home of Teksons.
It feels strange now to think how central Teksons was to my early life. The shop is still around, in the same location, but I haven’t been to it in years or felt the slightest desire to do so. In the same way that one doesn’t get to choose one’s relatives or one’s earliest nursery-level friends, it became the bookstore of my childhood by default, only because my family so often went to South Extension.
It was here that I bought my first Christie, one of her most shiver-inducing books, Murder in Retrospect, which would chill the summer afternoons I spent in Ludhiana during a family trip. Here was where I felt indescribably proud lugging a copy of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage to the cashier’s counter: It was such a bulky book with such a grownup title; it was so much more respectable to be seen buying something like this rather than another Hardy Boys Case Files (which I might also have smuggled across to the counter).
It was at Teksons, too, that I bought my first proper dictionary, a pleasingly heavy Oxford publication that made me feel much empowered as a reader.
All this said, I am not sentimental about bookstores as physical spaces. Certainly, I don’t fetishize them like some of my friends do. This might seem odd coming from someone who has worked professionally as a writer on the literary beat for years, never used an electronic reader to date, and been a late convert to online buying. For much of the past decade, my job has entailed receiving unmanageable quantities of books, more than 90 percent of which I’ll never read.
Take it from me: When one’s own room starts looking like a particularly messy publisher’s warehouse, some of the romanticism associated with entering a store and smelling thousands of new books (or old books in a second-hand store) wears away.
What don’t wear away are the memories of early discovery—of the browsing process that becomes a gateway to new knowledge about the world and oneself. Or simply hearing the sound of a bicycle bell tinkling and knowing that thirty pages of fresh stories await.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist. He’s written for Business Standard, the Hindu, Yahoo India, Tehelka, Sunday Guardian, Caravan, Forbes Life, Vogue, Elle, and the Hindustan Times, among other publications.
His book about the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins India in 2010, and he’s edited an anthology of film writing: The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers (Tranquebar, 2011).
Read more at his blog Jabberwock.
This essay is an edited and condensed version of a piece that originally appeared as “The Bicycle Man” in Kindle Magazine.