With its turbulent passions amid social upheavals, The Last Devadasi: A Novel by Barbara L. Baer takes readers on a sensual feast in the 1970s palm-shaded trading city of Madras, now known as Chennai. The novel also honors India’s oldest bookstore, Higginbothams, by portraying the establishment in several passages throughout the book. “I view Higginbothams as almost a character in the novel,” says the author Barbara L. Baer. The following passages from The Last Devadasi depict a fictionalized Higginbothams.
Higginbotham’s the bookstore at Mount Road, Chennai is India’s oldest bookshop in existence.
Established in 1844 by an English librarian named Abel Joshua Higginbotham pic.twitter.com/4EUqPHi7GW
— A (@asyounot) September 27, 2018
When Celestine Marie got her first paycheck, she asked Salomé to take her to a book store.
“Don’t you want a new pretty frock?”
“No, I want a book to read.”
Inside Higginbothams, Celestine Marie stood dazed before the shelves.
“Dorothy Sayers! Georgette Heyer! Such lovely sad stories. All the girls read them because they’re the most popular writers. If you buy, then you can lend to me,” Salomé said.
“I didn’t know there could be so many books in one place. It is so much more than even the library in Pondicherry. Look, here are titles by Indian writers.” She stepped close and began to read names she had never heard. Salomé pulled her arm.
“Don’t waste money on an Indian. Only foreign writers are good.”
The sales clerk, a young man wearing glasses and a homespun tunic, approached.
“R.K. Narayan is our most famous Madras writer, Miss. You might begin with Swami and Friends, if you don’t mind my being so bold to imagine you have not been in Madras for long.”
“I love books but you have so many that I am feeling as if I am in a palace or fairy tale. Books are my favorite pleasure. I cannot make up my mind to choose.”
“Our store, Miss, is oldest in the country, more than 125 years ago it was open here. Prince of Wales himself made Higginbothams the official bookseller for his Highness.”
With the first 100 rupees she saved in her locked suitcase at the YWCA, Celestine Marie opened an account at Barclay’s Bank and deposited the payments that Sahib Jules made. She kept out ten rupees to spend at Higginbothams.
“I liked Mr. R.K. Narayan very much and would like to read another of his books. Also, if you have stories by Maupassant in English, I shall buy a copy.”
Rangan reached to a shelf and brought a small book entitled Malgudi Days to the register. “This is my favorite. In these tales, you will meet Indian characters who seem so real as if you are meeting them in life. We do have Mr. de Maupassant in English.”
During the days that followed, Celestine Marie found the only place she felt both peaceful and cool was Higginbotham’s bookstore where she went for a new volume or to talk with Rangan. He offered tea and stories of famous writers who had come into Higginbothams. She told him how different and strange it had been to read about young boys and their schooling in Swami and Friends, the small novel he’d recommended on the first visit to the book store.
“Ever since I began reading, ignorance only seems greater,” Rangan said when she came into Higginbothams. “Especially of Christians, as I am Hindu myself, so I am on a reading assignment to understand Mr. Graham Greene, who, by the way, was the first British to further R.K. Narayan’s career.”
“But you are not ignorant. You are well read,” she said.
“Perhaps one day I will know from Socrates onward. So little time, so much to read.”
“And I wish I could stay here in a chair with books all day, but I must return to people who are not so humble in their ignorance, if I may say so. Nor so quiet. They are always making a lot of trouble for themselves and for me.”
At Higginbothams, she almost missed Rangan who was locking the doors to close up. “How delightful to see you, come in Miss Celeste, you are always welcome.”