25 February 2018

The quiet scatterers of light whose names we don’t know

Pic by Saman Hewage

The final resting place of most authors is a dingy used bookstore, using a dusty shelf at the back end. Of course, whether they are dead or alive, the books they write are often as fresh and alive as they were when they were written, and yet there’s something different about encountering known authors or discovering unknown ones in a used bookstore.

This is why every now and again I visit the row of used bookstores on D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha.  To meet authors long dead and let unknown authors say hello to me.  And the one I remember from my early days is ‘Premadasa Book Shop.’

That was a shop that visited me before I visited it. ‘Premadasa Book Shop’ came as a stamp more than one old book that was lying around our house.  I didn’t know why they had to stamp the legend because other books didn’t have such things. I can’t remember names now, not of the books or the people mentioned, but they clearly were gifts from one unknown person to another.  

Later I got to know that it was about borrow-return-for-a-small-price kind of operation.  Later, whenever I visited, the notes scribbled by the gifter to the gifted on some of the books intrigued me. Some had dates.  And multiple notes, when gift came to be gifted again.  I would calculate and try to figure out how old these people would be.  Some must have passed on, some may still be alive, I told myself.  And I wondered why a gift would be discarded in a used bookstore.

And I would speak to whoever it was at the store. They knew books like good librarians do. Most times, they left me alone and only inquired if they felt I was a bit lost. If I said ‘I’m just looking around,’ they would let me do just that. If I asked for a particular book or an author, then they would open up.  The book or books would be fished out, other books of the same genre would be mentioned and a sample offered for perusal.

Time passes so slowly in libraries and bookstores anyway, but time in places such as ‘Premadasa’s’ is quaint, slices of antiquity that blur into one another. The buzz of traffic along that sometimes very congested road recedes and then the bookstore expands into a universe of soft delights.

I’ve never asked them their names. They were all, without exception, nice people, these street-librarians whose knowledge on a wide range of subjects is enormous. We just talk books. Authors. Subjects. Related subjects. And of course price. Whenever I purchased anything in any of these bookshops it was with the intention to return, i.e. re-sell at a lower price, but I never did that. 

Books that have been touched by many hands and have touched many lives one way or another are treasures. To be kept. I think that’s what I felt at the back of my mind. 

I don’t think of these places all the time. In fact there have been years I’ve not spared one thought for them. Work, displacement and other things push them out of focus. Whenever I pass that roundabout, however, my thoughts go to old times and I resolve to make a visit. Soon. ‘Soon’ doesn’t happen. It’s always been random, my visits. 

This morning, February 24, 2018, I did visit. It was not to buy books, but just to stand there and remember. What I’ve written is what I did remember. Why I went, was because a few days ago, my friend Saman Hewage sent me a picture.  A picture of a place that many would pass by without a thought. He could not. 

Then there was a text message. ‘Machang this is sad. The guy who used to sell used books at Gamini Hall. A person who served us silently.’

H.M. Vipul Herath died a few days ago from a heart attack. He was 57. He was the son of Mr Premadasa, the first owner of the shop. He’s been there at that shop talking to people like me for years. Saman was correct. He served us, that’s him and I, silently. Countless others too.  And when he did speak, he educated us. Showed us new universes and introduced us to new treasures.  

How desolate that place is now! It was early morning when I got there. The shop was closed, as it has been since he passed away. The adjacent shops were just being opened. The flag in the photo Saman sent me is gone. I poster announcing the death remained. I noticed the sign of the shop. 

‘Premadasa Book Shop’ was in two parts, truncated at the ‘K’.  Some of the letters were missing, erased, the ‘D’ was half gone.  The name is etched in heart though, that of Saman and of mine. Perhaps others too.
I am not good with faces. I didn’t remember the face. I remember the kindness, the knowledge, the courtesy.  And the service. Vipul Herath lived. He’s no more now. 

Where do the proprietors of used bookstores go, what is their final place of rest, I ask myself now. Not to a dusty shelf at the back of a dingy used bookstore. They go to places they’ve never been, houses they’ve never visited, people whose lives they have little knowledge of, but they travel all over the world with many people, scattering the light of words and thoughts as they go.  We meet them but don’t recognize them.  We don’t see then, but they are there.  Like Vipul Herath. Like his late father-in-law.