It was a boon to be born in a time when there was no boob tube ( or even youtube!) . Ones only companions were books and I grew up devouring them day and night . In fact if ever I had been featured in the final stanza of Old Mc Donald's farm it would have gone here a book , there a book, everywhere a book book , but as I had no claim to such fame I just drove my mother nuts by bringing the book to the dining table at every meal.
Actually, she had not discovered that I had devised my own plastic jacket for the books and read them in the shower too. Then my long suffering parent would have preferred to climb up the gum tree to bringing up the brat. Truthfully, my parents were very supportive of my reading habit and their monitoring extended only up to making sure I was not reading any "indelicate" stuff. In fact, at time when most parents thrust classics into unwilling hands , my parents actually bought me the Classics Illustrated comics to inculcate a love for the classics later. That is how I read Silas Marner, David Copperfield, Tale of Two Cities, Ivanhoe and many others in comic form when yet 6 or 7 and later read the classics in original . For such as me , whose life blood was books ,there was in the lovely city of Madras a Xanadu called Moore Market.
The Unknown Madras
There are historians who can answer the query why it had that name -for a long time I thought it was after Shakespeare's famous Moor : Othello. It would have been apt of course but i learnt it was derived from Lt. Col. Sir George Moore president of Corporation of Madras who opened it in 1900. Although the mystrey of the name wore off , the magic of the place never ever did and not pondering over etymology, for me it was sufficient that it just existed.
When I left Bombay I was devastated to be separated from the little second hand bookshop tucked away in a little alley off Crawford Market . What an unknowing fool I was : cribbing about my future not realising Fate was lovingly leading me to the very Heaven of old books.
My first visit to Moore Market was with my Mother. We walked out of Fort St. George along the pavement along the General Hospital ( yes, there were such things then in this city) and crossing over to the other side in front of Central Station entered the intriguing world of Moore Market.
The market had several shops that stocked all kinds of toys- from plastic dolls , to winding tin cars and buses that had crude keys sticking out of them.Somehow no one had heard about lead poisoning way back then and parents had no qualms picking these up for their little children. There was a special area where one could buy cloourful birds in round cages and glass fish tanks with some mundane and some exotic fish. The shops were all quite crowded with new and second hand goods. Some even swore there were stolen goods available but I wouldnt know as I was not looking for them.
There was a clothes shop , too, called London Stores which put out on plastic hangars white lacy tops and bell bottoms in all colours. It also sold nighties and veils and white gloves for Christian brides. I did not let my mother pause and look at any of these, constantly dragging her further with the liturgy- where are the book shops Amma , where are the book shops. When I spotted the first one , pulling my hand out of her protective grasp I ran towards it. No lover would have run that eagerly toward the beloved.
My mother was not too perturbed , she knew I would freeze in front of the first shop with books piled high just drinking the scene in. As they say Mothers know you so well. So there I stood drawing deep breaths , inhaling the musty smell of old books , the smell of glue and printers ink.I didn't know anything about sniffing glue for a high but I sure felt ecstatic. I twirled and twirled in front of the shop in glee and shuffled from one foot to another calling to my mother to hurry .
Photos that are made
The first shop was not too big but it was heaped with old magazines, comics, text books and hundreds of fiction books. Classics and pulp did not keep respectful distance from each other but mingled freely. I was delighted .There was no sterile atmosphere of books neatly arranged in shelves like a prima donna - more like a natural beauty in disarray. While I pulled out a Nevil Shute from the pile ( I had just moved out of Agatha Christie) I stumbled upon an old copy of Kipling. While trying to move a medical text book out of the way I unearthed an outdated almost-mangled copy of Mayor of Casterbridge.
It may have looked deplorably out of shape to some but to me it was precious. I absolutely loved Thomas Hardy.If I had not discovered that he died in 1928 I would pined away with unrequited love for him but I decided to console myself by reading and collecting every work of his. I knew passages from Far From the Madding Crowd ( of course it helped that it was my school text) but my passion went beyond the call of school duty.
I had clandestinely read Coffee ,Tea or Me and Stone for Danny Fisher borrowing it from a friend who had a brother in college but i did not dare pick up any book of that genre with my mother around. Instead with the cherubic smile still plastered on my face I picked up couple of PG Wodehouse and the fat tome of Leon Uris Exodus. I had developed, thanks to my wonderful world history teacher, an insatiable desire to read as much as I could about the Third Reich and the Holocaust.
The historical turmoils of nations in the early 20th century and the ensuing events fascinated me and the human tragedy that followed overwhelmed me. While I revelled like a little piglet in the mush , my mother was busy fingering rather lovingly a book titled Good Earth.Upon my asking her about it , my mother stood there and with tears moistening her eyes told me about the author and an incident from her biographical book Exile. I needed to read her i said and my Mother smiled and bought both the books for me.
My mother coaxed me to visit the other book shops as well. Some had explicit adult magazines discreetly tucked away, although I could partially see their cover .The shopkeeper hastily moved them out of sight and stood like a sentinel guarding the approach to that pile . A far cry from those disgusting devils who hock these outside schools these days. Mother and I moved from shop to shop and from her little purse my mother parted with more and more money as I picked more and more books. She did not refuse to buy me what I wanted although I must add she bargained and browbeat the shopkeeper till in sheer exasperation he gave in. She also appealed to their social conscience about making a child happy. Between a Mother's appeal and altruism the shopkeepers did not have a chance to overcharge.
I often went to Moore market alone while I lived in the hostel , sometimes to buy text books or reference books; more often though to treat myself. But till 1980 I never knew that Moore Market was linked with my Kismet. What I say now will be vouched by my closest friends as absolute truth for it is a story so fascinating that it deserves to be told.
Living inside Fort St George
The year was 1980 - I was studying law in Bangalore. My grandfather living with my uncle in Madras was seriously ill and wanted to see his favourite grandchild and so I came with my Mother to see him.He recovered and before returning to Bangalore I could not resist a trip to Moore market . I went alone, ostensibly to but law books but also to add to my collection. I bought several and books and also bought the text on international law by J.G. Starke that I really needed .I was very pleased because the book was second hand but it looked spanking new. It has a plastic dust jacket on it and did not have any thing marked or scribbled in it. I returned to Bangalore, studied from it , completed my law course and came back to Chennai to enrol as lawyer after a reluctant shot ( to fulfil my father's dream) at the Civil services.
In the first year of practice I joined the Master course in law at the University of Madras. Young lawyers tend to hang out together in the canteen and the juice shop and i had a few good friends to do that with.Among many one finds a special person who means a little more than others and that person came into my life in the second year of my legal practice. In the March that year he proposed to me and I accepted it after some serious thought ( although i must confess I did wait for him to do just that) even though I knew the heavens would fall on me.
I had not told my parents yet putting it off till my second year Masters exams could be completed to avoid hysterical episodes at home . While I was studying for my last paper I discovered that the particular point I wanted to clarify was not in the book I was using and remembered reading it in the book by Starke which I had used for my bachelors degree. I took down the book from the shelf and shaking the dust off it , opened it . I felt a hundred thousand lightning bolts crash on me as i stared at the title page for across it was the signature of my fiance with the date 26.7.76!
Picture perfect: Photographic Society of Madras
It was his book , used by him when he did his law which had through Moore market found me. I had bought the book in Moore Market in 1980 - six years before i had even met him!!There was a Karmic force bringing us together. For four years the book had waited for me in the shop . Its what movies are made of and we scoff but he and I were meant to be. He later told me he had leant it to a friend who never returned it to him but he did not know it had been sold. Serendipity : alive!!
When Moore market went up in flames in 1985 i lost more than a book market i lost the symbol of my romance.
Ulfat mein taj banne woh bhi tumhne yaad hoga
Ulfat mein taj gire woh bhi tumhne yaad hoga
(loosely tranlated : taj - being both the Taj and crown)
In love you will recollect Taj has risen
In love you will recollect crowns have fallen
My personal brickwork Taj - the Moore Market - turned to ashes that terrible day and i shed tears for my concrete Cupid.
Geeta Madhavan is a Chennai-based lawyer specialising in legal aspects of terrorism. She holds a doctorate in International terrorism, the only woman to achieve this feat in India. She is also the first Asian to win a scholarship for advanced research in International Terrorism at The Hague Academy of International Law.