x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The printed word still rules - see for yourself in Chandigarh

On holiday in Chandigarh, I noticed an extraordinary number of bookshops around town.

A tiny lady grinned toothlessly at me as she sat cross-legged on the pavement, sheltering from the harsh midday sun under a gnarled banyan tree. A tarpaulin sheet lay spread in front of her, barely visible because every inch of it was covered with books. Catching my eye, she swooped upon Dan Brown's Inferno and endearingly croaked that it was half price.

On holiday in Chandigarh, India, I've noticed that there are an extraordinary number of bookshops, newsagents and libraries in every corner of the town, far more than I'm used to encountering. The wizened lady was peering up hopefully, so I had a quick spot of browsing in the makeshift shop. Books here are recycled again and again, and the second-hand tomes confirmed that each copy had been well thumbed through and loved.

What I certainly wasn't expecting was the number of pirated books she had. Living in Dubai, I've heard of fake Chanel handbags often enough. Well-heeled friends grumble that it's impossible to have Louis Vuitton or Coach gracing their arms because "everyone assumes it's a dud I got for a hundred dirhams in Karama".

Oily mannered salesmen knock at doors persistently trying to force pirated DVDs on you. However, I had never come across pirated books - it's heartening to think that somewhere, books are a precious commodity so highly in demand that cheap copies are mass produced. I'm against piracy, of course - writers should definitely get royalties and publishers should stay afloat, I suppose, for the good of writers.

This quiet Indian town, I've found, is a haven for bookworms. The nearest library is a 10-minute walk from my grandmother's house, an unheard-of luxury for me. Masses of clever-looking students sit ramrod-straight in the research rooms, scurrying out occasionally to the reference sections to fetch authorities on population dynamics, Marxist theory or molecular biology and other such riveting thrillers. The whole pile spans three floors of a factory-like building and quite made me miss our homely little Old Library in Mall of the Emirates.

Designed by Le Corbusier, Chandigarh is neatly divided into Hunger Games-esque areas called sectors, and sector 17 is the shopping hub. A bookshop here is locally famous as the place to go to for the title you want. It was threatening to burst at the seams with towering stacks of books.

I don't think the Dewey arranging system was a priority - Paddington Bear and Darwin's On the Origin of Species happily rubbed spines in higgledy piggledy disorder.

You had to hand it to them, I thought, as the assistant listened listlessly to what I was looking for, then lazily picked it out of the dizzying whirlpool of a thousand seemingly jumbled-up books.

Last week, the spoof newspaper The Onion published an obituary for "Print", confirming that "the method of applying ink to paper to convey information to a mass audience" passed away at the age of 1,803. I'm not so sure - my stay in Chandigarh has revived my faith in the robustness of the printed word.


Lavanya Malhotra is an 18-year-old student in Dubai