The Keeper of the past

The Keeper of the past

A lot has been written about the Old Curiosity Shop nestled away on Mount Road, but the almost 80-year store still has many a tale to tell: tales of heartache, of love, of joy; while its caretaker, the trove of its secrets has stories and treasures of his own.

Picture yourself if you can in a room full of artefacts: verses in Arabic burnish the red brick wall; nautical compasses, figurines, Russian dolls and cuckoo clocks peer at you from off the shelves; the smell of antiques hang heavy in the air.  Behind the counter sits a man; thick rimmed glasses, wide-eyed and gushing with enthusiasm. To M. Lateef, the keeper of The Old Curiosity Shop, the store and he share a common history. “I’ve always been fascinated by the different. Even as a child I looked for new experiences every day and only meeting new people can satisfy the thirst for the new,” Lateef says.

Narrating his journey into antiquary, Lateef reveals specifics into his adolescent hobby of philately. “We used to get quite a few bank managers who were regulars at the store. I would ask them if I could visit them at their offices at the end of their working day and go through their dustbin.” A rather odd request. “Bank managers get a whole lot of mail and I was interested in the stamps. I have quite a large collection of art stamps, some even of nude art. I was always fascinated by the likes of Da Vinci and the human form.”

Take a stroll around the shop and you are allowed a peek into the life of the caretaker and the collector. An original letter from India’s then President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan lies hidden behind some curios. Walk further in and you pass by a polythene-covered camera which probably belongs to era of the twin-lens Rolleiflex or Leica M6. But a closer look reveals Hasselblad 500 C/M, a slightly different variant from the one used by the crew of Apollo 11 on their moon landing. Ask him the story behind the now lens-less camera and Lateef answers the query only on the condition of anonymity of its former owner. “Years ago, a young lad walked into my shop,” he says smiling, “Today, he is one of the biggest fashion photographers in the country. He wanted to sell his Hasselblad for a digital camera. When I saw the camera I knew we were a perfect fit for each other – for me as a collector and for him as a photographer entering the publishing business.”

The Old Curiosity Shop, earlier known as the Kashmir Art Palace, is a museum in its own right. Lateef tells us that he has never catalogued all the articles in the shop and there are centuries-old objects that have remained in the shop ever since its beginning.

It is certainly hard to convince the man who holds all these antiquities and their stories dear to choose his most prized possession. After a little coaxing, out emerges a suitcase which is packed to the brim with fountain pens. The first out of this mystery box is a Mont Blanc, seemingly normal but missing the nib barrel. Twist it and out comes its gold nib. “This is particularly prized by collectors; it is a Mont Blanc No.4 safety pen. It dates back to the early 1920s,” Lateef says with a glint of pride. His next pick is the Waterman’s Bicentennial 1789-1989 fountain pen. Waterman, considered the father of fountain of pens, released the Bicentennial in 1989 to commemorate the 200 years of the French revolution. “The Bicentennial is one of the oldest ‘limited edition’ pens and is quite rare,” he adds.

The caretaker also guides us to his collection of comic books ranging from Blondie to Johnny Thunder to Flash Gordon to Detective Comic’s lesser known Swamp Thing. With Dare Devil becoming the latest TV pop culture rage, the first thing to catch our eye is the May 1944 issue of the Dare Devil comic. “This is a very rare comic. Dare Devil wore a dual colour costume unlike in today’s comics,” he explains, sensing the excitement and awe in the room.

While most of the clientele are repeat customers, Lateef is more than glad to share his knowledge with first-timers who step into the store. “It’s a constant learning process,” he laughs.

The Kashmir Art Palace, aptly renamed by the shop’s early English clientele, is an enigma and delight, leaving you intrigued and spell-bound by the beauty of the past. But, then again if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be The Old Curiosity Shop now, would it?