In her seventies now, Chettur has run ‘the biggest little bookshop’ in Madras for over forty years now. But now The Taj is throwing her out.

Nalini Chettur runs Chennais iconic book shop Giggles but is it the end of a chapterScreenshot: Youtube/Boishakhi Dutt
Features Saturday, April 16, 2016 - 18:47

Nalini Chettur is livid about the lack of professionalism in Indian publishing, book distributing and book selling. More than four decades in the business and the illiteracy, inefficiency and plain stupidity of the folk in all quarters of the book trade still incense her.

“Every morning, I start my day with a kindergarten class with booksellers. G-R-A-H-A-M G-R-E-E-N-E, I have to say with a word for each letter. They have tons of books by him on their shelves but they do not know who he is.”

Chettur has no computer, no email and a cell phone from the last century. But she will get you a book from anywhere in the country within a day or two. That’s called a reputation and that’s called a hard-as-nails professional woman whose professionalism is only matched by her love for books. It is a passion and a mad passion. There’s no doubt about it. ‘I’m not married but I have many children,” she says, chuckling over how that statement scandalised a Mylapore maami who’d asked, as is the wont of Mylapore maamis, whether she was married. “All these books are my children,” she told her. The maami was consoled.

In her seventies now, Chettur has run (as the board above her says) ‘the biggest little bookshop’ in Madras (the word she prefers) for over forty years now, more than the last decade from out of a small room in the side enclave of the Taj Connemara, now Taj Vivanta.

As for herself, she sits out on the pavement for lack of space in her shop. Customers have to slide in sideways and run the risk of a concussion if one of the several ceiling-high piles of books falls on their heads. “It is little because of the space and big because of the selection,” she says. The selection is indeed the most eclectic in any bookstore in any city in India.

Chettur is one of those rare people who know their books, a bit like the two Shanbags from Strand Bookstore, Bombay (the name I prefer as I was born and brought up there) and Premier Bookstore, Bangalore (the name I prefer, U. R. Ananthamurthy’s silly and ill-informed ego notwithstanding), now both gone, one dead; the other shut shop and in Australia. But Chettur is still going strong.

On your first visit, she sizes you up, literally and literarily. Then, she makes a booklist for you in her head. Then, if you become a regular and her friend, she will call you and tell you when a new book you might like on your favourite subjects, has come in.

They don’t make booksellers like this anymore. She is un-daunted by e-books, the internet and the giants in the field. Amazon called her once and she was horrified. “How dare they call me?” she says.

She’s not a Luddite. She just thinks computers and emails don’t seem to make Indians any more efficient and she likes the feel of books in her hands and the personalised interaction with real people. She is arguably the most well read person in the city but has time to blush over her crush on MS Dhoni and ask about what the new restaurants in town are and whether the food is any good. ‘I’m a senior citizen now but I prefer to call myself a middle-aged girl,” she giggles. She started the bookstore for a giggle and the name stuck.

The Taj is throwing her out now and using damage from the Chennai floods as an excuse. She was in the hotel for years; then they pushed her out; now they want her out of sight. Yet she is remarkably graceful about it.

‘I don’t want the end to be bitter” she says. In mid-March, they gave her till the end of the month to leave. That she could not stand. “I don’t like being pushed. They should have been nice about it and told me in January and I would have found a place and moved by June.” She’s looking for a place and moves past her barely concealed bitterness at the indifference of the city and the publishers and the booksellers and the world to her imminent departure with a smile and a recommendation of a new book.

She will offer you a small chair (same as the one she sits on and which can’t be good for her back but she can’t stand old people who call her to complain about their bones ‘Oh, get on with it,’ is her advice) and her new-found, trusty handyman, Samson, who was a packer with another publisher and whom she has trained brilliantly over the last year, will get you a too-sweet cuppa from the nearby tea kadai.

She will talk non-stop about the newest books, the continuing indifference to professionalism in the book trade and regale you with the most amazing stories about life in the city, its people, the time V.S Naipaul visited the bookstore, the airs of Shabana Azmi, old friends like Smita Patil and why Uma Chakravarti will never be invited to a meal again by her in the Connemara.

She’s a living encyclopaedia of the city and the country and the world though she pooh-poohs when I call her a global citizen. ‘I’m Indian,” she says, curt and firm.

There’s a sudden whiff of sea breeze in the otherwise stifling city air and the rancid smell of the Coovum, the smelly river she always complains about, and which she says “got back to me” by flooding her bookstore in the floods in December last year (she still got the better of it by putting the damaged books out on sale and calling it the Coovum Selection. “It had chosen quite a marvellous set of books,” she says).

‘I live for the sea breeze,” she says. “It is the best part of the day.”

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