The Bookseller of Chennai

(The Brooklyn Rail, June 2011)

The tiniest bookshop in Chennai, India's fourth-largest city, is located on the edge of the Taj Connemara Hotel, in the congested downtown. To get to the shop, you must first inquire at the hotel's front desk, where a clerk tells you to exit the lobby and make a left. At the far end of the parking lot, past a majestic peepal tree and within a few feet of roaring traffic, is a narrow strip of shops, one of which displays a small yellow and red sign: "Giggles, Biggest Little Bookshop."

Behind the glass window are teetering stacks of books, some of them 10 feet high. The door is ajar, and there is just enough space to stick your neck in. "How do you enter the shop?" I muttered on my first visit to Giggles a year ago. "This is the shop," a voice rang out from beneath me. I looked down to see a sharp-faced woman sitting on a tiny wooden stool, surrounded by plastic bags and buzzing mosquitoes. Next to her, on the cement pavement, was a purple mat containing a dozen or so books, both new and used. "Welcome to Giggles," the woman announced.

The voice belonged to Nalini Chettur, a pillar of Chennai's English-language literary scene, who opened Giggles with a thousand-rupee investment in 1974. "The main reason I started this bookshop was to educate myself," Chettur remarked. "My generation was sent to very British types of schools, so we didn't know much about India. We knew more about the West. So when I started this bookshop I thought I would focus on India." (Chettur was educated in Bangalore.)

While Giggles is chock full of popular and scholarly books on India, one is also likely to find titles by Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chettur notes with pride that her favorite author—the late R. K. Narayan—used to say: "If you want a real good bookshop, go to Giggles." Over the years, many writers have visited her shop, including V. S. Naipaul, Jan Morris, and William Golding. Contemporary figures such as Amit Chauduri, Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, and Ramachandra Guha have also stopped by the place that Guha refers to as a "crazy/lovely shop." One afternoon Satyajit Ray appeared in her doorway. "My eyes popped out," Chettur recalls. "Are you by any chance...Satyajit Ray?'" He said, "Not by any chance: I am Satyajit Ray." Ray bought three detective novels.

Who goes to Giggles? "Lots of doctors, civil servants, lawyers, and just ordinary housewives who love reading," says Chettur. To that list one can add tourists from the hotel and foreign scholars who study India, some of whom hold Nalini Chettur in very high regard and have warm memories of past visits to Giggles, which, until two years ago, was located inside the lobby of the hotel, in a space that is now a ladies' restroom. "Books are piled in precarious stacks and towers, like castles built of sand," Hebrew University Professor David Shulman wrote in his 2009 book, Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary. "You ask for a title and she sends her gofer burrowing through the stacks, hoping he will emerge alive."

On my second visit a few weeks ago, I found the shop hardly changed in a year: the books still formed leaning towers right up to the ceiling, and customers still could not enter the one hundred square-foot interior. Chettur was wearing a purple sari and in a cheerful mood. She was, as usual, perched on her wooden stool outside the shop, encircled by plastic bags stuffed with invoices from publishers, letters to friends, tupperware, biscuits and snacks, and special volumes she is safeguarding for customers—including a handsome paperback edition of Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. On the purple mat were Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India, Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, William Dalrymple's City of Djinns, Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, the Upanishads, and a photographic history of old Madras.

Chettur herself is a throwback to a pre-globalized India, an India without malls, text messages, and four hundred channels on TV. Indeed, the rise of market reform has led to stiff competition in the city's bookselling sector. Chettur is under pressure from established bookshops such as Higginbotham's, but also from newer U.S.-style chain stores such as Landmark, where one can purchase digital cameras, Hollywood DVDs, the latest Colm Toíbín collection from London, and jazz CDs by the avant-garde German label ECM. "I'm competing with the large bookshops," Chettur says matter-of-factly. "Five thousand square feet. Eight thousand square feet."

Her bookselling formula is built on personal intimacy. "You may have noticed," she says, "that I work without a computer." (She does not own a computer or a TV.) "So when you come and ask me for a book, I don't rush to tap the keys. I tell you immediately whether I have it, or whether I can get it. That's an advantage over the other bookshops, you see. I know my stock. They don't, unfortunately." She also knows what her loyal customers like to read, and her instrument for reaching them is the telephone; Chettur, who has never married and who lives alone after the recent death of her mother, opens the shop at 2:30 in the afternoon, and spends her mornings making calls to publishers and customers. "I'll say to them: ‘I've got three or four interesting books. Why don't you make a trip to Giggles?' And they like that. Nothing like the phone." Near her on the floor is a rotary phone, circa 1980.

Says Geeta Doctor, a freelance writer in Chennai who knows Chettur well: "What she offers is her friendship—with books thrown in." A few weeks ago, I found Chettur deep in conversation with a visiting Israeli dance scholar, who was seated on a second stool next to the proprietor, and who was sent to Giggles by a mutual friend, David Shulman.

Chettur's relationship with her landlord, the Taj Connemara Hotel, is perpetually strained. She hasn't quite forgiven the hotel for expelling her from the lobby, and she refers to past rancor with a hotel manager "who thought she was supreme. She even threatened to take some books and throw them into the garbage."Chettur and the hotel management seem to have differing views on how to run a bookshop. "For them," Chettur says with disdain, "a bookshop means travel guides, current fiction, Kama Sutra in different colors and sizes, postcards, greeting cards, and many gift items." By contrast, she sees quality books as her raison d'être. The hotel, for its part, refuses to put a Giggles sign in the lobby; it seems likely that many guests do not know about the existence of the bookshop. One hears about Giggles through word of mouth, or from Lonely Planet and other travel guides.

Some of Chettur's friends see her current situation as unsustainable. They note that more Indians are buying their books from online booksellers, and they dislike the idea of her sitting outside inhaling the fumes from the ceaseless traffic on Mount Road, one of Chennai's busiest avenues. They are keen to see her in a more spacious, air-conditioned shop in a different location. But Chettur has no desire for chilled air: "I prefer to sit outside because the air-conditioning makes me feel quite ill. It's polluted air out here, but I like to see the green spaces around the hotel." She is in no rush to relocate: she says she devotes each Sunday to reducing the piles and rearranging her stock, so at some point in the future customers will be able to venture inside the shop.

Chettur seems only partially aware of large-scale changes in the global bookselling landscape: she frets that the long-standing literary supplement of The Hindu now appears once a month, instead of fortnightly; and she expressed some curiosity about the rise of e-books in the U.S. But mostly she is unperturbed. She doesn't see hand-held reading devices as viable in India. "This is a third world country," she says. "How many people are really going to go out of their way to get a Kindle?" She adds, indifferently: "Maybe those IT people."?But Chettur has already felt the influence of the "IT people": her longtime "gofer" has just resigned to join a telephone call center, telling her that he could earn much more there than he could at Giggles; not surprising given that prices for nearly everything in Chennai are rising dramatically. Of his departure she says: "He became far too avaricious and lazy."

Yet, for the most part, Chettur exudes serenity. "I'm not a person who worries," she says. She quotes the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh: "Present moment, wonderful moment." She pauses to reflect on Giggles's 35-year journey: "This is just by chance, this bookshop. It just happened. I've been having a ball meeting people—meeting lovely people. That's the main thing."