Taj Vivanta has sent her a legal summons over the bookstore’s relocation.

Dont write off Nalini Chetturs Chennai book shop Giggles just yet
Features Human interest Tuesday, May 23, 2017 - 19:23

It is a particularly muggy Saturday evening in Chennai and Nalini Chettur says there’s no oxygen in her head. The intrepid owner of Giggles; The Biggest Little Bookshop, in the news last year because it was being relocated from the premises of the historical Connemara hotel, now Taj Vivanta, which is being renovated. It marked the end of an era and an institution.

One year later, she’s still there. The clogged bookstore, which only one human being could enter at a time and at considerable risk of being concussed by a cascade of books collapsing on her or him, is now cleaned out and reveals not only a large space but also lovely single bookniches on the wall on the right. Most of the books are sold, but she still orders books because she cannot resist reading new titles and though Taj Vivanta has sent her a legal summons she still maintains that they have been civil and nice.

She’s unflappable as ever and though she’s feeling really awful with the heat, the low blood pressure problem and dehydration, she wants gossip on Indian writer Dom Moraes and remembers how he once came into the bookstore because someone had told him Nalini Chettur would have a pepper mill or know where to get one as that is what he wanted.  She imitates his legendary stammer to a T and wants to know if he just put it on or genuinely stammered.

She says she is sad to learn that scholar David Shulman’s wife is not doing too well health-wise and waxes eloquent about his Tamil: A Biography. She then asks me what’s new on the literary and publishing scene. “Are you looking forward to Arundhati Roy’s new novel? Is it going to be good?” I tell her I hated the first novel so I am not holding my breath. She says she loved the first novel and does not like her non-fiction. I tell her I love the non-fiction.

For 42 years now, this extraordinary woman has run this biggest little bookstore: little in size but simply global in the treasures that the little room contains.

Over the year, thanks to a media campaign, she’s received extraordinary help from Broke Bibliophiles, an online bookstore and book club for book lovers in Chennai and she’s made friends with all the young people, some of whom, like Solomon Manoj and Deepan Anand, have bought hundreds of her books and helped her out through the years. “I got help from the strangest of places,” she says and she recently celebrated one year of the Broke Bibliophiles Club and her friendship.

There’s hope yet for humanity in the world.

Nalini Chettur is actually many kinds of institutions all rolled into her tall and still utterly elegant frame, unblemished by over seven decades on the planet. She is the first woman to run a bookstore all alone in an industry dominated by men; she’s unmarried; she lives alone; she’s fiercely independent. Even as the combination of low blood pressure and unchecked eyesight means she can barely see, she still has the best grasp of the publishing industry and literary trends among booksellers anywhere in the country and she can still get you a book faster than any of the corporate-run, or indeed any, bookstores across the country. And now she has a bunch of young people to help her with the running of the store, as she nears her 80th birthday. But her jokes about death notwithstanding, she’s far from ready to give up. She’s still full of spirit and fight and still as excited about new books.

Before she walks carefully to her auto and reluctantly relents to my holding her by the elbow to guide her to it, she kisses the shut door of her bookstore goodbye. ‘It is a magical bookstore you know,” she says. “It will survive.” Only as long as you do, I say. ”No, no” she says, “Way, way beyond and after me.”

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