Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places. The working day today was full of mediums and lows. Hours spent watching someone copyedit and then watching someone check someone’s copyediting pass about as quickly as you might expect, especially when you can’t correct the mistakes they’re making, and there was trouble in the UK with one of my journals. At lunchtime I perked up a bit as we went for a walk around the block at Chennai, and saw the famous cricket stadium, the large and ornate marriage house where all the Indian movie stars get married, and, of course, an awful lot of dirt.
Side note: India no longer smells of sewage to me. Has an unfortunately-timed drain problem been fixed, or do I now smell of sewage?! I do, at any rate, smell different enough now to notice the smell of home from the towel I brought. I was glad to be reassured that Tim and I smell pretty good on a regular basis.
But back to the point. Nisha and Viji, the HR Manager, had insisted on accompanying us, and it was a good thing they did, because plunging across the road into oncoming traffic requires a particular kind of Indian courage. Once you’re on the road, I found, you’re pretty safe, as vehicles just honk and flow around you, but choosing the moment to dive into the path of the taxi stream is a delicate matter. The first few times I shut my eyes and let Viji pull my hand, but I stopped doing that quite quickly because you never know what you’ll be stepping in once you reach the other side.
Anyway. Back at the hotel, I was tired, blistered from my unfortunate shoe choice, and painfully homesick, which my daily conversation with Tim rather exacerbated than alleviated. Meeting Margaret for dinner, I think she could tell I was unhappy (marvellous woman) and suggested we visit a bookshop adjoining the hotel, which had been recommended to her by a friend. So off we went, and within five minutes found the bookshop – a tiny square box of a room, usually only wide enough to fit perhaps four people abreast. At least, that was my estimation, because when we arrived we found the statuesque, purple-saried proprietor and her diminutive assistant sat outside the shop on stools, and the whole of the shop was stacked with books. I mean, floor to ceiling, quite literally – a wall of books – and they couldn’t get more than a foot inside the door. More books were piled on the pavement outside. I’ve never seen anything so bizarre and wonderful. Not old, random, second hand books either, which is what I’d been expecting. The first one I spotted was last week’s winner of the Booker Prize. Apparently they were moving to the next premises along for ten days while their building had an extension fitted on the back, so they’d piled up all their stock nearer the door so they could move it across the next day. It was a good thing, the lady explained from her basket-weave stool, because they needed to have a thorough sort and now was the ideal opportunity. How they would even begin to remove these wobbling, ceiling-high stacks, let alone start putting them in alphabetical order, I can’t imagine.
We spent the next hour sat on stools of our own, poking through the book-towers and listening to the lady’s recommendations. She had an astonishingly varied and rich literary knowledge, and every time she thought of a new book we might like, yelped at her silent assistant to find it for us. He must have memorised the position of every book, because although it sometimes took him a while to wedge the desired volume out of the stacks, like removing a brick from a wall, he always found it. The lady was so full of suggestions that the poor man spent the whole time unearthing her recommendations. It was the most comforting thing in the world, to sit in the dusk on a basket stool facing the magnificent wall of beautiful new books, discussing their literary merits with a shop owner who apparently knew and had read everything she sold. I decided that my ideal career path would be to end up owning a cramped little bookshop with treasures piled up in corners, and to sit on stools and make recommendations to the customers that came in. The books were cheap, too, and we’re going back tomorrow. There is no hope for me.
P.S. – a funny coincidence: Tim told me last night that he’d heard from an Indian friend of ours that it’s traditional in the South of India to serve meals on large leaves, then the flavour of the leaf infuses the hot food. I told him I’d never been served food on anything more exciting than a plate. Until last night, when we visited the second restaurant in this hotel, The Rain Tree. You approach it through a dripping forest of jungle marked with lit stone totem poles. Once inside, the water fountains hissing quietly beside the table, you’re presented with a menu inside a wooden box, the food arrives in ornate brass urns, and you eat from a brass circular tray lined with a palm leaf. I can’t say the food tasted noticeably leafy, but it was delicious.