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Born To Read by Fiza Pathan

July 8, 2014

Born To Read

This June, I opened up my very own circulating library for children, teenagers and young adults called Born to Read. By the grace of God it is doing well and I’ve converted all (and when I say all I really mean ‘all’) my students into readers. The idea of opening a library in my tuition house came to me last year in October and from that moment, I have been dealing with book sellers to get my readers the books they want and need to read. My family was very enthusiastic about my venture and supported me throughout.

However, in the midst of all the bookishness…I remember the time I met a man called Tenaska Forte who was 43 years old, a drunkard but a book lover of another order…and I fell in love…not with him, but with his books.

Tenaska was a road bookseller at Marine lines who sold second hand books, novels, textbooks, journals and certain literary magazines. I met Tenaska when I was in my second year of Junior college. I was searching for a particular foreign textbook on the life of Carl Jung. I ransacked all the book stalls I could find, but no one could get me the book. Remember this was the time before Amazon and Flipkart and so I was desperate. My exams were just around the corner and I needed the book for my Psychology paper. It was then that one of the kind book dealers of Bandra (West) where I stay gave me a card. It read:

Tenaska Forte

Book Seller

Marine Lines

“Will this guy get me what I want chacha (uncle)?” I asked eagerly as if I was asking for Smack or Cocaine.

“Tenaska is no ordinary man,” chacha said, “He is the god of book sellers. If he can’t get it for you then nobody can. However, I’m sure he has what you are looking for and more…much more.”

Hearing that, I grabbed hold of the card, called for a taxi and started off towards town. At Marine lines I was dumbfounded. I found book sellers selling books on the footpaths. Mountains of piled up books were arranged neatly on the streets under amateur sheds. Being new to the town area I had trouble finding Tenaska’s side of this towering paper backs…but I did find him at last.

He was parked opposite the Somalia building, piles upon piles of books stacked all around him…he was reading Othello when I came and stood infront of him, my hands upon my hips. At first he ignored my presence and I was nauseated to smell the stench of old rum all over the place.

“Are you Tenaska Forte the bookseller?” I asked meekly. I’m no good at introductions. He looked up from his torn and tattered book. His eyes were honey brown and he had a body frame of a rather tall skeleton.Tenaska then dropped the Shakespeare play onto a stack behind him and bowed down to me like a gentleman of old and said,

“Never say are you Tenaska Forte the bookseller but rather always say are you the bookseller Tenaska Forte, for to me books come first and I a humble slave to them come last.”

“Whatever,” I mumbled and ask for the Carl Jung book. I did not fancy him at first, I hate people with pride though I’m a proud and haughty person myself…but Tenaska was different…he heard the name of the book, went straight into the recesses of his book mountain pile…and came out with three copies of the same book, the book which no book stall had.

“Choose your weapon,” he said as he handed the books over to me after dusting them with a grimy cloth which was perched on a stool where he rested his feet. I was dazed with happiness. My search had finally come to an end. I was finally going to pass in Psychology. Seeing the joy on my face, Tenaska smirked.

“Edition 1998 and 1999 is for 200/- whereas the 2001 edition is for 350/- take it or leave it,” announced Tenaska with an upturned nose. I bought the 2001 edition, but that was not the only thing I bought from this weird street bookseller. I spent the whole evening with Tenaska going through his pile of paper backs one after another…everybody in the great stream of literature was here…Ayn Rand, Plato, Aristotle, Richard Bach, Franz Kafka, Thomas Kempis, Sigmund Freud, Voltaire, Thomas Hardy, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinos, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Thomas Moore, Madam Blavatsky…everyone!

I let the taxi go and perused through the books buying one soiled gem after another while Tenaska Forte gave me a brief summary of each book and announced in the end the price of each book. When it grew dark he called for a taxi and placed the books that I bought in the luggage compartment…I had bought thirty seven books that day──real treasures which I cherish even today in my private home library.

I arrived back after a few weeks for some more and that was when Tenaska Forte called for two glasses of hot tea and some Marie Gold biscuits. I perused and he spoke about each book as if he had already read them…which was true as I found out later. When I asked him  how come he knew so much, he remained silent and sipped his tea from the dirty glass with an impish smile upon his face.

He never was a great talker about his personal life. I know him now for eight years and he still has not opened up to me. The only time he opens his mouth, which reeks of rum, is when he has to give a brief synopsis of a book and state its price.

Tenaska never drank in my presence for the first year that he knew me, but from the second year onwards he started to chug down his rum from his bottle as I went through his collection seated on a chair provided by him.

“What do you want to become after graduation, a psychologist?” he asked one day…the first personal question he had ever asked me.

“No,” I answered, “I want to be a teacher and then maybe someday an author.”

He smiled and I smiled back. He told me that his father was once a Hindi professor and his mother a Marathi fiction writer.

“Then…why are you selling books on the street?” I asked quite stunned. He did not answer my question but instead took a long gulp of his rum. I never asked him about his situation again. Tenaska Forte was now my official book dealer. I stopped visiting other book dealers and only picked my books for college from Tenaska. The books I bought were cheap, in good condition and intellectual. Danny Roe, my Hijra friend was introduced to Tenaska by me and soon Danny and I both only started buying our college books from Tenaska along with some books on fiction and philosophy.

“This drunkard is great, I love his stuff,” Danny used to tell me as we sifted through the books back at my place.

“Don’t call him that!” I would protest in mock anger flinging a book at Danny. Danny would giggle cutely, grab the book and then stick his tongue out at me.

Many years have gone by now. Danny is suffering from blood cancer, I’m an author and I own a tutorial but Tenaska Forte…well, he still is there in town…on the streets surrounded with his books.

There was a scare once when he was rushed to the hospital because of a liver problem. Danny and I paid the hospital fees when we realized that Tenaska had nobody in the world to call his own. He was apologetic when we went to meet him. It just did not seem right to him to meet us anywhere where books were not around. Danny too confirmed Tenaska seemed so odd without his mountain pile…he seemed pretty vulnerable, but now by the grace of god he is back in business, selling his books at cheap prices with a bottle of scotch whiskey at his side (he has been making a lot of profits).

Tenaska Forte helped me to start my own library Born to Read by directing me to the right book dealers and sellers. He is fifty years old now and is like family…but he won’t visit Danny’s or my home…he has not yet spoken of his past and his family, but I’m sure he will soon for I’m coaxing him to write a guest blog post for me just like Danny did.

Tenaska Forte, a man of letters stuck on the roads of Mumbai, wrestling with past ghosts which haunt him still and yet to drown his sorrows in whisky or rum is not enough for him…there has to be a book at the side of him, mostly Shakespeare to smoothen the rough waters of the life of this very remarkable street bookseller who seems like he more than you or me was born to read.

Copyright © 2014 Fiza Pathan

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  1. Mr. Forte sounds like a remarkable man albeit one with a problem. I hope he finds a non-poisonous substitute for his alcohol and finds a life where Shakespeare can be seen and not just read.
    I do hope you get your guest post Fiza.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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