Life on Pavements: Memory and Instinct helps Mahalingam understand Books

Very few people are able to give back to society what they never got from it. Mahalingam, as this 68-year- old second-hand bookseller, is known, studied only till class three. But he understands books instinctively. His memory is his saviour. He can read 20% of the books’ covers. He says, “I am able to sell books at cheap rates. Many students come here to buy books and I am aware that they do not come from economically strong backgrounds. So, when they are able to buy low-cost books to study, it makes me very happy. I feel as if I am doing a duty.” Shail profiles a man with a mission, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” ~ Virginia Woolf, English writer and one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century

Introducing to you Mahalingam, from Red Hills, in Chennai, all of 68 years, a second hand bookseller by profession for the past two decades.

“My actual name is Vinayaka,” he said, “my parents gave me this name since I was born after a very long time to them but everybody knows me as Mahalingam” he said, and smiled sweetly.

Why you chose this profession, I asked him.

“To be honest with you, I never started off working in this job. I was a hydraulic mechanic for about 25 years and much before that I was a blacksmith.”

Oh! That’s lots of years of work. So, when did you actually begin working?

“I think when I was about 10 years old. I studied only till the class three.”

Only till the 3 rd standard and you are selling books? How are you able to manage it?

“Oh! My brain registers everything. Earlier it used to be difficult but over the years I have learnt” and he shows me some books, “see, this is for MBA, that one is for Accounts. Now, I can read 20% of books’ names.”


I marvel at his grasping, understanding and memorising power of books, their names and titles.

But, you have worked with machines and machinery so, why did you give it up? Surely, that would have brought in more income?

“Yes, it did but my body could not take the strain anymore after so many years of work. This work of selling second hand books is less strenuous and it fulfils something I have always been yearning to do.”

What is it Aiyya (elderly gentleman), I ask of him.

“I could not study much but I wanted my children to study. Thankfully, one boy of mine is working in Aircel and another in Airtel. One has done Oracle and the other one has done MBA. My daughter has not studied much but she cooks delicious dishes (he says with pride).

But, this was only till my family. I could see other children, who were not doing as well as mine due to lack of funds.”

Lorries, cars, and bikes zoomed past us by as he spoke.

“So, when I got the opportunity to do this work, I just jumped at the chance. I am able to sell books at cheap rates. Many students come here to buy books and I am aware that they do not come from economically strong backgrounds. So, when they are able to buy llow-costbooks to study, it makes me very happy. I feel as if I am doing a duty.”

What do you have to say of book reading now as compared to say ten-fifteen years ago?

“See, earlier, there was not too much of television programmes and all that. So, people would buy a lot of books. Today, laptops and androids have caused great harm especially to people in my kind of business. So, either they read books on their computers and smart phones or don’t read at all. Basically, many people do not know the value of books today.”

Do your sons ever tell you to stop working like this on the pavement?

“No. No. They know that I have brought them to the stage they are now only because of work like this. In fact, when I was young, my mother had to slog hard in a mill to get a kilo of rice.”

And your father?

“He was a homeopathic doctor but did not earn much. He cured many people like children and women but at that time, homeopathic medicine was very cheap and he couldn’t charge much. But, I am proud of my father. Even though I could not learn homeopathy from him I did learn about same basic roots and herbs from him. And, he was a strong man. He lived till the age of 101 years.”

So, what you earn here is sufficient for you?

“Yes, see, in the mornings I come here around 4am to sell newspapers and then later sit down to sell my books. So, if the day is good and it does not rain, I make enough money. Some days it is 6000 rupees, some days it is only 600 and on other days, nothing at all. But, I am content.”


What do your friends do?

“I don’t know. Till the age of 25 or so I used to hang around with friends. But, once we all got jobs and got married, we got busy with our lives so there is no contact at all.”

Don’t you feel the need to unwind, to relax sometimes (hinting at a smoke or drink)?

“No. Once my work is done that’s it. I used to smoke earlier but gave it all up after my mother passed away.”

Do you feel God has been kind to you?

He smiled. “More or less.”

I persist. Do you visit temples often?

“No, not that often. You see, I went through a phase when I suffered a lot. My wife had three abortions. We had no children. That time I became a sort of non believer. Then, much later, I was asked to go to a particular Amman Koil (Devi Temple). Only then, were we blessed. So, yes I believe in God but that’s it.”

I looked around. I did not see any fancy picture of any God or Goddess around his books. I realised it was delicate ground I was treading on, so I left it at that.

His advice to the current generation.

“Youngsters need to be careful to not make too many mistakes in life. They should know the importance of money. Basically, if you work hard you will definitely do well.”

Happy to share his story, I thanked this graceful gentleman and made my way back home.

©Shail Raghuvanshi

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