British Book Depot: an unforgettable odyssey

British Book Depot has been an inseparable part of my life. A memoir tracing the oldest bookshop that held its daily durbar in Hazratganj, Lucknow, for 93 years

British Book Depot has been an inseparable part of my life. A memoir.

Saying a proper goodbye to your home is never easy. Especially when there are hundreds of memories sown into shelves where book spines once stood. Growing up in Lucknow, our family bookshop, British Book Depot, was my warm world that brought in a promise of different reads each time I bounded in.

In the pre-social media world, the living bulwark wrapped strong arms around all booklovers. The fragrance of crisp arrivals filled the air and we feasted like mini-piranhas, hugging clusters of new titles in Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Roald Dahl… series. The bookshop became my window to the world. I gambolled with Tintin and Snowy, flew through clouds in Blyton’s Faraway Tree, giggled with Noddy, peeped into little Indira Gandhi’s mind through Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter, played Lady Macbeth in front of the mirror. I tasted classics of war literature, through teen chronicles in The Diary of Anne Frank, sketched Gaul-ish roasted pigs with shiny apples in their mouths on reading Asterix and Obelix, reading through weekends.

I foraged in the musty-fusty silo at the rear post school, pulling out gems,
strolling through shiny-hardback-lined corridors, before picking up two (my daily ‘allowance’). “Read and return, there are others too who have to learn” boomed Papa, holding energising discussions with journalists, bureaucrats, foreigners buying Urdu poetry, sarkari personnel picking up coffee table tomes, children pestering parents to buy Tinkle and Archies, and scores who simply hung around, thumbing through unaffordable books.

My father belonged to the bookshop. His raconteur-ish finesse, talks peppered with Churchill, Wilde, Shaw…, recitation of shaiyari with enviable flourish drew in people. He was never a traditional bookseller, eager to sell. He traded in knowledge, encouraging people to read. My mother was his partner in crime, doling generous discounts on purchases. Humble students chasing IIT and KGMC dreams at coaching centres, Civil Services aspirants…thousands studied through British Book Depot since 1930, built careers, returned to thank Papa for his timely help (in allowing xeroxing of expensive guides), bringing mithai from their first salary, touching his feet, introducing their children. That was real-time social nutrition.

In retrospect, I feel I have scattered seeds around in my mind during childhood, walking through those thick forests of books. Time, experiences, learnings have nourished those seeds, saplings have grown into trees and each time I whisk myself to this secret, redolent universe, I spontaneously ferret ideas.

It was a collective sigh then the city let out when the oldest bookshop in the city finally downed its silver shutters earlier this month. We lost our fulcrum in our mother earlier, the pandemic and e-books changed the rules of reading, and admittedly, my sisters and I, busy with professional careers, couldn’t take over the reins of the floundering business. Disbelief and discomfort have been flowing in from all quarters since.

I watched the hollowed out, lonely shelves, disrobed callously of their rightful occupants. As I held my old father’s hand, his face crumpled, at the pain of letting go of what had been his life since 1939.

And I felt the final, sharp-shooting snap, as if I had permanently buried a part of me, deep down into the soil of my hometown. At 84, Hazratganj.

Shilpi Madan for Hindustan Times, Lucknow

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