The smell of paper and the sound of flipping pages is something that book lovers can’t part with. There are ebooks (free-books) but it’s very difficult for an old timer to change old habits like smelling the book before opening it.
And that’s precisely the reason book shops are still popular in Shimla. At least one of them still is.
It has the ambience of a library in the middle ages where only emperors and scholars were allowed. For it seems time stands still inside Maria Brothers, a bookshop on The Mall road in Shimla, dealing exclusively in rare books and artifacts. Hardbounds with broken backs, dog eared leaves with well thumped pages which have not been left undusted, neatly laid out on the table and spilling out of shelves, these rare books would excite any bookworms appetite.
The decor is one of antiquity. Paintings, old maps, artifacts and musical instruments both local and Tibetan along adorn the walls. And it has been so since 1954. However only the books, maps and prints are for sale.
It all started when Amarnath Sood began dealing in old books in the early 1940’s. He managed to set up his own bookshop only in 1946. Onkar Chand Sood his cousin joined him and the two pulled along till 1954 when Onkar decided to set up his own shop devoted to just rare books and artifacts.
“My father did not invest in property or drive luxury cars but cultivated his hobby of collecting books” says Rajiv Sood inheritor of the prized collection. It was this dedication that founded Maria Brothers.
Anybody with a passion for books is bound to step in but will be able to purchase the book of his liking only if he possesses a fat purse. For the deceptive whisper with which Rajiv tells you the price often leaves you gaping and after a while longing for the book more than before you picked it up. The price could range from a four to a five-digit sum. Just an example “India and its Princes” an 1894 edition by M Griffith. Its price – Rs 18,000.
This must be one of the few bookshops in the country, which has so many rare first editions, and many others that have gone out of print. A Sanskrit-English dictionary by Munier Williams (1899 edition), a ten volume English translation of Katha Sarit Sagar, Shimla Past and Present (second edition 1924), Chiang Kai Shaik – Marshal of China (1940 edition) are just some of the many.
The shop has quiet a few books by Francis Younghusband, a great adventurer and traveler of the last century. In 1905 Younghusband had lead the first successful expedition to the forbidden Tibetan City of Lahasa. Other famous traveler’s whose books can be found here are Alexander Cunningham, Sven Heidan and Holich.
Some of the books could be lying on the shelves for decades without finding a buyer. “If a book has been out of print for more than sixty years and there is no claimant for the copyright, then the book can be reprinted by anybody” explains Rajiv the reason that keeps some books on the shelf for long years. “Only a connoisseur or a library would like to possess high priced first editions,” he says.
But the pick of it all is neither in the shop nor is it for sale. Far removed it is put away in a bankers vault. This holy book late OC Sood bought in the mid- fifties from a Tibetan monk who brought it to the shop on his back carefully wrapped in a holy cloth. The twelve-inch by thirty-inch book with leather parchment covers weighs over thirty kilograms. It is written in gold and silver inks and is an Indian medical text “Arya Astha Sahasrikas Prajna Paramita” of 16th or 17th century compilation in Tibetan script. Scholars were given permission to read the book in the 1960’s.
Where do books sell now? If I were to install food items they would. I am still in the business because I have a passion for books and like to meet people who share the same,” says Rajiv.
It’s this zeal that keeps Maria Brothers going.