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Sarah and I have finally found a used bookstore in Rishikesh. This is a welcome fact: we were beginning to worry that there were no English books in the area that weren’t about yoga or Hindu philosophy. Now we shall be preserved from boredom and remain connected to the world, regardless of what other chances we encounter in our time here.
Used bookstores are our lifeline. This is true for both of us, although for different reasons. Sarah is an avid reader; books are her choice form of entertainment. She pounces on a good memoir or work of fiction and sucks it dry in only a handful of hours, hardly pausing to breathe while her nose is between the pages.
I also enjoy reading, but in a different way, and typically on different subjects. For me, a used bookstore is an icon of the intellectual ethos of a place. It is, after all, where the loose ideas roll when they are discarded. I sniff around the stacks, looking for clues as to the presence and magnitude of different ideas. I browse like a spider, connecting old ideas in new ways, and ensnaring new ones to digest later. I am always watchful of what enters my web, careful of what memes and what theories I allow to sink into my soul and become part of my being.
The Rishikesh bookstore is good for both of us. Though it is little bigger than a walk-in closet, its ingenious proprietors have crammed enough books within to keep us interested: plenty of fiction for Sarah to enjoy, and plenty of non-fiction for me to scrutinize. Every square inch of the interior is sagely utilized, with walkways scarcely wide enough for one person to squeeze through, and even still, books spill out onto the sidewalk.
It’s fascinating to see such a used bookstore, such a familiar shop, lodged between stands and stores peddling all manner of items for sacred Hindu ritual. I can’t help but think that the books are, in some sense, sacramental objects as well: sacred vessels for the religion of the educated elite from foreign lands. I foresee many pilgrimages to this little shop, as long as we remain in Rishikesh.
Incidentally, the bookstore happens to be a favorite hang-out for Americans. In our two weeks in Rishikesh, we have seen maybe five Americans. Two of those we encountered during our fifteen minutes in the bookshop.
The first fellow was particularly fascinating. He had an impressive mane of gray hair erupting from his head and face, and wore an orange sweat suit that made him look like either a sadhu or an escaped convict. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted people to run in fear at his approach, or drop to his feet and beg for spiritual aphorisms.
“I have these books, about six kilos,” he told the store manager, “Right here. I need to send them to America.” His English combined an easy-going West coast accent with the unmistakable drawl of someone who has smoked too much pot over the last forty years. I kept expecting him to inexplicably end his sentences with words like “man” or “dude.”
The manager politely explained that it would cost 2000 rupees to send his books. Washed-out hippie-ji was floored.
“2000 rupees!” he exclaimed, “That’s like…50 dollars! I’ve only got 100 dollars left. C’mon, man. Couple weeks ago, you said 1000 rupees.”
“Prices gone up,” said the manager. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Does it hurt your business, man, when prices go up?” countered the man in orange. He tried to talk down the manager’s price for several minutes with no success. His anger gave way to depression.
“Shit,” he said. “Shit. I really gotta read these books, man. My guru at the ashram, he gave me some books to read, and these are like, the continuation. I gotta read these books! Some of the shit in there, can’t even wrap my mind around it.”
He fiddled with his books, turning them over as he contemplated his situation. “These are printed in India, too, so to buy them in California would cost like…shit.”
After several minutes of agonizing, he decided to go back to the ashram and get rid of some of his clothes to try to make room for his books. “Man, next time I come to India, I’m brining nada!” he announced as he left.