I spent the day with mum yesterday and besides devouring some topshe macher bhaja and malai chingri at 6 Ballygunge Place, we also spent time at the Crossword outlet in Indiranagar. The food at 6 Ballygunge Place was good as usual though richer and oilier than home-made Bengali food. The service was better than usual, which means it was passable. The chhanar malpua was awful and I had a swift vision of my grandmother’s plump little hands churning kheer in a wok to make malpua.
The Crossword outlet has been called claustrophobic by some. It is considerably smaller than other chain book stores and I can imagine it feeling crowded and cluttered on weekends when families from nearby Defence Colony descend in hordes. On a Wednesday afternoon, there wasn’t much crowd though and I enjoyed the rather cozy feeling of being in a bookstore that one can take in with one glance. I tend to feel lost in huge book stores and invariably wander from one section to another, purposeless and a little overwhelmed. Surrounded by abundance, I find it hard to look at the particular. I flit from book to book, unable to concentrate or figure out what I really want. At Landmark, I battle the large bookstore syndrome by singlemindedly heading to the Literature section and not allowing the rest of the store to crowd in on my peripheral vision.
In contrast, Crossword was easy to settle into. There were cozy nooks where one could sit and read and the wooden counter with large cookie jars gave the place a nice, warm feeling. I read a bit, breathed slower, quietened. The only thing missing, in my opinion, was appropriate music.
Places should have distinct moods. A place is not so much about the four walls, the floors and the things in it as the identity it creates for itself through a set of symbols – visual and otherwise. This is what binds us to places. The things they stand for, the things they remind us of, and the parts of ourselves that they somehow open.
Bookshops, for me, are quaint and old-world. Harking back to one of the first things humans discovered. Keepers of history, reminders of revolution, treasure houses of dramatic tragedy and tragic comedy. Like muffins, woolly rugs, warm slippers, steaming mugs, curling up and winding down. In keeping with this mood, the music that plays in the background should be warm, mellow, comfortable.
Shakira and Britney don’t quite fit the bill (although I can’t be sure that’s what was played as they all sound the same to me). I have nothing against popular music. I am the great, original defender of the right to popular culture; I love Bollywood, for chrissake. I like pop in the car and hip-hop on the dance floor. In a bookshop, not so much.
I feel similarly about cafes. Most cafes don’t please me as I have carefully modeled my idea of the perfect cafe on a strange combination of a black and white Italian movie whose name I have forgotten, a dream I once had, and a conviction that I owned a cafe in a past life. Which is why although the Earl Grey was perfect at the Coffee Day across the street, I just could not enjoy it. I almost felt a sense of peace breaking over me every now and then but it always went poof before settling on my head. Then I realized that there was some electronic / techno music (I confess I am unaware of the finer distinction between the two) playing in the background. No amount of steaming Earl Grey can help me feel mellow and relaxed when there is techno music in the aural vicinity.
I know that these places are trying to attract young people with time on their hands and cash in their hip little pockets. Presumably, Shakira and techno kings are the grooves that move their soul. But this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, isn’t it? The store owners play the music that they assume is liked and people don’t hear enough of anything else to figure out if they like it more. Or perhaps, they don’t really like this music and the store owners are assuming things. Perhaps, if Crossword or Coffee Day decided to play jazz for a change, they would suddenly find people looking up and saying, “You’ve got it right finally. You’ve got it right, after all.”