When is the right time to write about Penang?
After is when.
After the initial fascination that magnifies the slightest of contrasts into exotic singularities has worn off. After overcoming the shock of being surrounded by people speaking my language, of having to watch what I say; of not looking too out of place in a large gathering of people not discussing immigration issues. After the joy of seeing an Indian restaurant at every street corner has been washed away by the watery sambar, after realizing that tea with condensed milk is not such a great idea.
Now is when. But what?
Surely not the architectural dichotomy of George Town, fostered by arcane rent control laws. Through which the massive, utterly characterless Komtar sits right next to the modern Prangin Mall, and seedy, unpainted establishments occupy most of downtown. Nothing we haven’t seen before, right? Even though blind massages aren’t exactly the norm in most places.
Not the Odeon theater, that burly begrimed behemoth, the last man standing in an ocean of multiplexes. We went to school at Salem, remember? The city of Sangeeth and Gowri and Rathna and great memories. Can’t come close, the Odeon.
So Chowrasta it has to be.
A few blocks down the street from the ubiquitous Komtar is a nondescript market called the Chowrasta Bazaar. There is enough traffic on the street to make trying to get a picture of the facade hard, and the traffic is unruly enough to make trying to get a picture of the facade hazardous.
If one wades through the Ice Kacang vendors who glare nastily at camera sporting semi-tourists, up the flight of bright red painted stairs, through the Malayalee clothing stores; taking care to avoid going down the other flight of stairs – also red, but not as bright – one ends up at a dark corridor lit by naked fluorescent lights.
Cut through the corridor, and there they are: Books. Stuffed between shelves, strewn on the floor; in old Marie biscuit boxes and out of them; well kept and ill kept; Roth and Bellow, Tagore and Rowling; collections of tomes bound by rope; pieces of a single shattered tome spread around the store. And a couple of antique clocks keeping watch.
Chowrasta houses among the better stocked used book stores I’ve come across.
I went in there again last week, and – still not used to speaking in Tamil with strangers – kicked things off with a “Hello!” to Anwar and a friend of his who run the first store along the corridor. Like Anwar, most of the storeowners here are Tamil; and Anwar says that he entered the business for the love of books. Hmm.
He is polite enough as he escorts me into the store, trying not to show his bemusement at my unusual requests in English: “Only hardcovers, no textbooks, only fiction, only English.” And in anticipation of the fawning old man I encountered on the last visit, “I will pick the books out myself and ask you if I need help.”
Anwar’s little room is packed with books, packed enough that walking through it without stepping into a pile of books almost impossible unless you are Anwar.
Minutes pass on Anwar’s collection of antique clocks (or not. They might’ve been broken). And I navigate through the maze, looking for something non-Brown, non-Rowling(with all due respect to my co-author), not torn, non ketchuped.
And minutes pass on Anwar’s collection of antique clocks, as he waits for me outside the store. A bored Anwar finally decides to chat with his friend, in Tamil.
“Where is he?” the buddy asks Anwar.
“Who knows. The jerk has been in there for a while.”
“Maybe he is looking.”
“You think? You think he is looking for items?”
Anwar then brings me his fetching collection of items. Some with pictures, most with text. A few familiar ones – Charles Devereaux, and a few of the usual anonymous suspects, but the rest don’t ring any bells. I look, then avert, then refuse, and then present what I had collected so far to him. A first edition Bellow, a Proulx, Stephen Fry, a old Hobbit that’s still intact. A Bagley, and a Camus, and ask him to price them.
Anwar is still talking to his friend as he prices my books.
“Wonder why he said no. Should I try again?”
“No lah. He doesn’t look like he’ll spend the money.”
And then Anwar gets back to me: 200 Ringgits is his price, a great price for the twenty odd books I had picked. I pay him the money, and take leave. “Thanks. You got a good store. I will come back sometime later.”
I said that in Tamil. And Anwar gives me a hundred Ringgits back.