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Higginbothams of Ooty

It took us some time to decipher that the name of the crossroad was Charing Cross. After all, it is an unexpected name for an Indian crossroad in Tamil Nadu, and the mildly opinionated chap driving us to our hotel had a heavy accent. Charing Cross turned out to be a triangular enclosure, with an imposing fountain (we later discovered that it was named the Adam's Fountain; it is three-tiered, the second one topped by four very colourful cherubs). Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon in the thick of winter, the roads were thronging with people and vehicles. Shops were bustling and business appeared brisk. Our driver skilfully negotiated the traffic as we passed woollens shops, gift houses, eateries, groceries and mobile-phone shops. 

We returned to the market later in the evening, after having deposited our luggage. Both my husband and I had been fending off a nasty bout of flu and needed to restock our now near-empty medicine pouch. Charing Cross in the evening (this was around 6:30 in December) was only relatively emptier. People milled around in caps and shawls and cars climbed the slopy roads in abundance. We headed towards a co-operative medical shop and refilled. 

The nippy weather, despite our present health issues, was remarkably refreshing. Walking seemed fun and I was in no mood to retire inside right then (much to the chagrin of my sniffling husband). The shop immediately next to the chemist's was a Higginbothams bookstore.

Let me describe the setup in greater detail. It is the beginning of December in the heart of Ooty. We are standing on the outer side of a line of cars parked diagonally in front of the shops on a wide, sloping road. On the top end of the road is the famous Adam's fountain, illuminated and spouting water. On both sides of the road, all kinds of shops are doing reasonable business, considering that in perhaps an hour's time they would have to shutter up (it would soon get too chilly to stay outside). People - mostly locals as early December is not exactly the peak tourist season -  are milling around mufflered and capped. Some are huddled around hawkers selling hot Americal corns and momos. Departmental stores are thinly crowded, with major bundles of people at the billing counters; most customers are wrapping up their day's shopping. Vehicles are still plying up and down the road.

Amidst that, we stood looking at the Higginbotham's store. It was nondescript, being a regular shop-space. The name of the shop - HIGGIN BOTHAMS P LTD. - is painted in big, bold letters in white, over a dark, faded blue background. There is no way you'll miss it. The facade is similarly ordinary - with glass doors set in steel-grey frames. But this is Higgijbothams we are talking about; the cover of the book will certainly not be the judging factor.

We walked in enthusiastically. Inside was old fashioned as well. Shelves reached upto a little over half the walls and from the ceiling were suspended tubelights. Steel grey seemed the running theme. None of this was exactly bursting with books and stationery, but on that cold evening, the shop looked cosy. There were the usual bestsellers and classics, put up lucratively towards the front of the store. Opening shelves also featured them strongly, and we noticed evidence of high traction in a few spines (my husband asked for Dan Brown's Origins and was regretfully informed that the store had run out of copies). Light reads abounded. Indian and especially regional literature also featured strongly. Stationery and gift items were there too, but what caught my attention was the kind of gifts they had stocked. There were picture postcards with sketches of wildlife on them, and I was tempted to buy a whole bunch of them.

It was a happy browsing time for us, till I laid eyes on a small stack of Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. There were probably four or five copies on the shelf. Against the deeply humbling grey of the shelf, the book cover stood out (you may read all about that in this post of mine). After several rounds, we filed out, armed with the book in a brown paper package.

While getting my book billed, I noticed a photograph slid under the glass top of the desk of the counter. It featured a red-bricked, tiled-roofed building. The facade of the building had chevron-patterned doorways and what looked like wooden panes (I'm not sure of the last detail). It looked like a fond snapshot, tucked away out of well-earned pride.

When I enquired, the man at the counter briskly mentioned that photograph belonging to the original branch of the store at Commissioner Road; they had shifted here now. He didn't seem any more conversational, and I didn't press either (I was behaving like a ruddy tourist anyway, gaping at everything). It all tied in, anyway, with the rich, ancient heritage of this bookstore chain.

I had visited the renovated Higginbothams at Bengaluru a few months back and had been quite impressed by their decor and mindfulness. Only now do I realise that I may have missed the older version of the glitzy bookstore by a couple of months. Books and bookstores have a personality after all. At Ooty, I felt reverent; at Bengaluru, I was chirpy. It is hard to say which evokes a better marketing response (from what I hear the austere Ooty Higginbothams is remarkably well-known across South India), but both have their charms. And after all, when you see books, even a roadside second-hander stall seems like home.

This little, ancient hillside bookstore, somehow, reminded me of my roots. It brought me back to my teenage years and revoked the anaesthetic feeling of being immersed in some of my favourite books. Oh, how would we ever do without them ? How insipid would life have been without the condiments of story-telling ?


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