Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 1, April 16-30, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

S.A. Govindaraju – Remembering a Book Collector

He came into my life in rather interesting circumstances, sometime in the late 1990s or maybe early 2000s. I had begun writing on music and Chennai history a couple of years earlier and was forever in searching of out-of-print books. The era of digitisation had not yet begun. One evening I got a call from a second-hand bookseller. A historic educational institution of the city had discarded several rare books in its library he said. They had been sold by weight and rather inexplicably landed up at a fisherman’s shack by the Marina. I was asked to go there to see what was available.

I delayed my visit by a couple of days and when I did, there were just a few books. I picked up a couple and by the rubber stamps on the opening page got to know the tragic history of the collection. They had been put together by a famed lawyer of Madras who was known for the care he took of his library. He had donated the entire collection to the college, which after a few decades decided it was better off without the books. Which is how they had ended up in that shack. But luckily for them, a collector had turned up and bought them all, or most of them anyway. That was SA Govindaraju. And knowing him, he must have bargained hard.

Having got his address and finding that he lived not far from where I did then, I paid Govindaraju a visit. He was warm in his welcome. The book shop was in the car park of the multistorey building in which he lived. He had converted the parking facility allotted to him into the outlet. It was like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. The books were piled high all around and Govindaraju sat near the entrance, welcoming people in. Having a cup of tea with him was compulsory before you discussed books and this came piping hot from his flat upstairs. In appearance Govindaraju was not unlike the man in the Ananda Vikatan logo – almost completely bald, with a beaky nose and a wide smile. He loved having people over to visit him and more importantly, discuss books.

S.A. Govindaraju. Picture courtesy: Mylapore Times.

He had begun life as a Labour Officer in Binny’s and was very familiar with the world of Pulianthope, its worker villages, the strikes, and the settlements. He spoke warmly of the directors of Binny in its twilight years and their efforts in trying to resurrect what was anyway a blighted enterprise. Once he quit Binny, he joined Simpsons, which at that time was a byword for union activity. He was on the premises at Sembium when Pratap Chandran was murdered in cold blood in the India Pistons plant. Post retirement, he became a labour consultant and then turned to his love for books. And art. And stamps. And newspaper clippings. And …. He was in short what S. Muthiah would refer to as a magpie collector. When Muthiah began writing A Sivasailam’s biography, he roped in Govindaraju as one of the resource persons, especially on Amalgamations’ labour history. Muthiah himself grew to be very fond of Govindaraju though the two rarely ever met. It was always “your friend the book collector,” when the Chief spoke of him.

Govindaraju prided himself on his collection of books on art first and foremost. On coming to know that I was not interested in them he would focus on books on Madras but every once in a while he could not resist bringing out from the recesses of the shop some stunningly beautiful book on art, with a price tag to match. I would wave it away and we would continue chatting on the city. Despite all the seeming confusion in the shop, Govindaraju would know exactly where which book was and fish it out in a jiffy. He had books published by Higginbotham’s dating to the 1870s which I am sure even that venerable institution does not possess in its collection. Just how efficient his retrieval system was became manifest to me when I wrote an article in The Hindu on Lt. Col. D.M. Reid and his contribution in ensuring that Fort St George got a museum in the late 1940s. I had mentioned in the article that Reid had written a book, The Story of Fort St George. Within a few hours of the paper being delivered, I received a call from Govindaraju. He had a copy of the Story of Fort St George. Would I be interested in it? Of course I was, and that morning I went to his shop. I bought the book and when I opened the cover, I found it had been autographed by the author. It was truly a treasure and I still have it with me. His collection of Swadesamitran covers, Sunday supplements, and news clippings, was extensive too. I purchased some of them for my research purposes and a few of the Sunday covers were framed and adorned the stairway in my house. My father became very fond of one of them – it was three days older than him!

Govindaraju became an enthusiastic participant in Madras Week celebrations. He attended the talks and one year even mounted an exhibition of the rare books on the city that he had. His prize possession was a tram ticket dating to the 1950s. He would always show it to interested visitors. When I wrote the history of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2009, he and his collection came to be of immense help. It was from him that I got the book on Binny by F DeSouza, the Parry’s book by Hilton Brown and also several issues of Best & Crompton’s in-house magazine. I gifted him a copy of the MCCI book when it was released. He was delighted. Over the years, he was discovered by the Press and electronic media, and many went to interview him. He was always his patient and cheerful self with all visitors.

In the last ten years, my visits to Govindaraju became fewer – I had begun to depend on online editions much to the old man’s disappointment. “You don’t know what you are missing,” he once said, and I must say I agreed with him. I would rather turn a page that click a button. And then one day he announced that he was selling his collection. There was if I recall correctly, even an article about this in some newspaper. He had had enough he said and as he was getting along in years, he wanted to reduce his possessions. A buyer was found, and the collection changed hands. I visited him shortly thereafter, expecting to find an empty shop with Govindaraju seated in the middle. He was there all right, but the shop was still bursting with books, papers and everything else. Astonished I asked him as to what happened, had the deal fallen through? No, he said. He had just sold his collection when he came to know that another collection was on sale and so he had bought all of it. I was simply stunned.

The outbreak of COVID meant that I could not visit Govindaraju as often as I would have liked. We kept in touch over the phone. He was slowing down physically he said but I could make out that his mind was as sharp and cheerful as ever. But this time he was determined to sell his collection, which he did. Govindaraju passed away in November 2022. He was 86.

With books themselves on the wane and everyone including myself becoming dependent on the digital version (you have to admit they are really convenient especially while travelling), people like Govindaraju will become rare. Second hand book selling is one of the many dying vocations. Many who are in it rarely have any knowledge about what they possess. Govindaraju was unusual in that he knew the contents of his collection, and also their worth. He will be missed.

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