Tag Archives: chennai

That old book smell


Nothing can smell better than an old battered book. What’s better? The smell of an old battered book from an equally old book collection – right off the streets!

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The old book store, in Mylapore, opposite the iconic Kamadhenu theatre is a treat to book lovers and students. On a mountain of books sits a woman busily throwing at her customers the books they want.

The piles of engineering textbooks can be slightly unnerving for a non-science person, but when the clutter is cut through, the variety of classics and comics this mountain spews at you is amazing.

This platform book shop was started by Alwar nearly 50 years ago, now an old, bearded, almost saint-like man. Today, his smart assistant Mary runs the shop . Perched atop the mountain, Mary first curses us for interrupting her during peak time. But as we wait and simply watch her in action, she warms up to us.

The rains in the city have ruined some of the books and given some others a brilliant odour. As I wait for our elusive subject to talk to us, I come across an ancient copy of The Awakening, a novel by Kate Chopin written in 1899. The novel itself was explosive in content for the time and age that it was published in.  This feminist classic was made more precious by the notes of a previous owner.

The old book shop wasn’t merely an experience of street shopping. The shop itself is a story waiting to be discovered – stories that the books tell of the hands they’ve passed and the lives they’ve seen.

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Where God is made


Amidst the noise and bustle of Madras city is a small winding street that took me into Koyanvan Pettai meaning ‘Potters’ Lane’. Every year, much before the festivities of Ganesh Chaturthi begin in the rest of the city, the potters of Kosapet (as it is now known) gear up to make thousands of Ganesha idols.

 The lanes are spotted with many idols, in various stages of improvement, each stage carefully constructed by different members of the family.

 The streets look like a painting, stained with colours from previous seasons. I entered one of the houses. The lady of the house Vasantha invited me in. A transistor played old tamil songs in background as Vasantha and her three children deftly shaped the idols. The process is complex but yields beautiful results.

The making of the idol

 The variety in the shapes, sizes and style of the idols are fantastic. In these houses, Ganesha becomes a cricketer, an IT geek, a tailor or a student and the artisans have learnt to adapt tradition to modernity.

 Idol making is a community tradition, passed on through generations, in every household of this locality. The kids of the community pride their knowledge of the art, the women carry it forward.

There was a time when making these idols was a family occupation. The men however have been forced to look at other avenues as the community receives no aid to keep their art alive. “It is frustrating,” said Vasantha. “We don’t have money or facilities, but we are trying to save our tradition,” she says.

 As I left, Vasantha asked me to come back for the festival this month, and come back every year after that, as she hoped her art will live on.

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