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Will the pandemic enable us to imagine our cities with more bookstores?

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How many bookstores does Delhi have? Sadly, no one knows, and it is hard to even hazard a guess. In any case, it would again depend on definition. For example, do you include all the shops that sell school textbooks, or other specialised books such as law books? That number would run into hundreds, if not thousands. Do you include the pavement sellers who spread out their wares in major markets? Again, the number would be in the hundreds or thousands. Do you include shops that sell books by the weight, or those that sell thrillers at fixed prices? Hard to put a number to these.

Even if you have a narrower definition of bookstore, as a shop that sells a variety of books for the general reader and the scholar, or stores that specialise in a niche within this (for example, stores that sell exclusively or largely children’s books), and which source their books from the trade, we don’t really know how many bookstores the city has, but it is safe to hazard a guess that now the number is no longer in the thousands or hundreds, but in the tens.

We know something else as well. That bookstores are not spread evenly across the city. If you want to buy the latest bestseller in English, you’ll have to go to central or south Delhi, and if you had to buy a Hindi book, you’d have to go to the area around Darya Ganj, near the old city.

If you live in West Delhi, as I’ve done for nearly a quarter century, or if you live in east Delhi, across the river, you’re not in luck. You’ll have to trek across town to get to a half-decent bookstore. You’d be marginally luckier if you lived near the North Campus of Delhi University, where you’d find a few bookstores that stock at least the more popular authors. But again, if you were looking for, say, slightly less popular literary fiction, you’d have no choice but to go to, say, Khan Market.

Look at this differently: for a population as large as that of Bulgaria, there simply aren’t any bookstores worth the name.

The birth of our bookshop

Hardly surprising then, that when we at LeftWord Books decided to open a bookstore in Shadipur in West Delhi, people thought we were mad.

Most of all, the locals thought we were mad. Why would anyone want to open a bookstore in Shadipur, which is basically a working class/lower middle class neighbourhood? The neighbourhood has no boutiques, no fine dining restaurants, no art galleries, no fancy electronics stores, no upmarket grocery stores, no pets shops – in other words, none of the kinds of businesses that provide bookstores with their footfalls.

Our neighbours are a wholesale tailoring shop, a (now shut) pharmacy, a milk booth, and a shop that sells rolls, biryani, and other fast food. None of them provides us with footfalls. But, as our neighbours discovered to their delight, our customers do provide them with business, particularly the fast food shop and milk booth. The local tea shop, a few hundred yards away, also does good business when we hold events.

Events, in fact, have been an important driver of sales for us. When we got this space in Shadipur, we didn’t do it alone. We tied up with three other organisations – the Jana NatyaManch, the theatre group of which I’ve been a part for over three decades; the All India Democratic Women’s Association; and the School Teachers’ Federation of India. We banded together and pooled our resources, so our bargaining power increased, and together we were able to purchase the entire four-storey building, with each organisation getting a floor. Jana NatyaManch set up Studio Safdar, an independent arts space, so anyone who came to Studio Safdar would enjoy the bookstore and vice-versa.

Studio Safdar is named after Safdar Hashmi, who, along with a worker-spectator, was killed when Jana NatyaManch was attacked while performing a street play on 1 January 1989. We inaugurated Studio Safdar on his birthday, 12 April, in 2012. With 1 May round the corner, we decided to launch the bookstore on that day and call it May Day Bookstore.

The ambition at the time was to create a left-wing cafe-cum-bookstore. While the cafe idea has remained more or less a pipe dream – we operate the cafe only on special occasions, including May Day every year – the bookstore is now an established part of Delhi’s intellectual landscape.

Building a different books space

What sets May Day Bookstore apart from any other “regular” bookstore is that we carry a highly curated list. We are biased in two, somewhat overlapping, directions: we stock books by independent publishers; and we stock left-wing authors and titles. We almost never stock the latest release or bestsellers from mainstream presses. We figure that if people want that, they can go to any bookstore in central or south Delhi. Or they can find them online.

If they are making the trek all the way to come to May Day Bookstore – and the “trek is more psychological than real, because we are excellently connected by public transport and much closer to centre of town than most fancier locations in south Delhi – then we’d better give them something that will woo them. And what better to woo book lovers than with stellar books you don’t generally get to see in bookstores?

This, to my mind, is the key to a great bookstore – that it provides us with the joy of discovery. Sometimes we find titles or authors we weren’t looking for or thinking of, and sometimes we find titles or authors that we didn’t even know existed. Any bookstore that gives you that experience again and again is a bookstore you’re likely to keep going back to.

Then something else happened, serendipitously, which aided this process. A friend called one day and said he was trying to unload his late father’s books. His father had been a professor and had a great collection of books in his chosen area – history and sociology – apart from general books. I asked my friend to donate them to a library – wouldn’t his father’s university be delighted?

Turns out, no. Most libraries are acutely short on space, and it’s no longer easy to donate books to them. My friend was not only willing to donate his father’s collection to us, but also urged me to start a used books space at May Day. I was sceptical. We had no financial bandwidth to buy used books, no matter how cheap, and I had no idea how to manage the used books business. (We didn’t even know how to manage the main bookstore, but we had plunged in regardless and were now learning the ropes.) My friend felt there would be many others who’d like to donate books. Pushing against my resistance, he sent out an email to a small group of his friends asking for donations of books for the store.

I was flabbergasted. That one email was forwarded multiple times by scores of people, and we were flooded with requests for pickups of books. Fortunately, we were approaching 1 May, and we turn that day into a bit of a festival anyway, where books, music, ideas, coffee, all come together. Over the years, May Day Bookstore has become a niche store that people seek out – as articles here, here, and here show.

Over time, the used books section has become a big draw, particularly for young people. What’s been even more heartening is that many youngsters, who would initially come to buy only used books because they are inexpensive, also started browsing, and then buying, new books. Over the years, scores of students also volunteered at the annual May Day gala, helping us sort, price, and arrange books, and dealing with the huge footfalls we get that day. Volunteers, in fact, have become the bookstore’s chief ambassadors, and for the past few years, we’ve had people applying for volunteering even before we made the public announcement.

We’ve also noticed something else. Everybody who comes to May Day Bookstore ends up buying something. We hardly ever have a person who visits us but doesn’t buy. Not only that – because May Day is located in a neighbourhood that most people don’t visit for anything else, almost all sales are for multiple books. Nobody makes the trek to only buy one book!

When the pandemic hit

Thus it was that last year, about seven years after being set up, the bookstore made a profit – a tiny one, admittedly – through the year. We finally had a little bit of money that we were going to spend on air-conditioning the space.

Then the pandemic hit. We shut the store when the All-India lockdown began, and only opened in a very limited way a full three months later, in late June, because by then we had started getting orders online and those had to be serviced. For three months or more, however, there was literally no earning. Even though we are now back in business, footfalls have been low – never before have we felt so elated if we get one customer in the entire week!

That is only to be expected, given that a large proportion of our regular customers are young people and students, dependent mainly on public transport. Then there’s also the genuine health concerns. There are two reasons we haven’t gone under. One, we don’t pay rent, since we own the space; and two, the online business on leftword.com has kept us going.

Our neighbour comrades also had it tough. The AIDWA office remained shut for over three months, even though they were engaged in providing relief to victims of the February communal violence in Delhi, as well as to workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The same was true for STFI. Their members now had to teach online, so their office has also remained shut for months.

Jana NatyaManch moved its activities online, but Studio Safdar, used by Delhi’s theatre groups for rehearsals and performances, has been shut for over five months. Shadipur itself has also suffered, since a large number of enterprises depend on the labour of migrant workers to stay alive.

What of the future?

What does the future hold? It is hard to say. But there’s a couple of points I’d like to make.

One, the printed book, which is really the first industrial artefact of mass communication, is not going away anywhere. In fact, while a number of other technologies have become archaic and redundant or niche, and in some cases even extinct – think of film of the analogue era, for both still and moving images, or analogue voice recording technologies like tapes, or the short-lived personal pager from the mid-1990s – the printed book has remained more or less unchanged through the centuries.

Printing technologies have changed radically, of course, but the final artefact they produce, the book itself, is basically the same object that existed half a millennium ago. In other words, the printed book is a highly resilient artefact of the industrial era that shows no sign of being edged out by the digital era.

Two, because agglomerating e-commerce sites work on the basis of big data and algorithms, it is hard to chance upon books and authors that you may be interested in, but that do not notch up big sales. This is particularly true of books and authors that go against the grain, that challenge the zeitgeist. As it is the online space is so full of noise and an information overload. All this means that there will be need for carefully curated niche bookstores, that cater to specific tastes.

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Books & Authors

Bookshelf: Books that spotlight children’s mental health

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In these unprecedented times, when isolation fatigue, gloom and the fear of losing a beloved has also come to grip children, taking care of their mental health is of paramount importance.

Here’s a list of books that address the various emotions children struggle with, and can be companions to them during the hard times.

‘The Room on the Roof’ by Ruskin Bond

A classic coming-of-age story which has held generations of readers spellbound! Rusty, a sixteen-year-old Anglo-Indian boy, is orphaned and has to live with his English guardian in the claustrophobic European part in Dehra Dun. Unhappy with the strict ways of his guardian, Rusty runs away from home to live with his Indian friends. Plunging for the first time into the dream-bright world of the bazaar, Hindu festivals and other aspects of Indian life, Rusty is enchanted, and is lost forever to the prim proprieties of the European community. Written when the author was himself seventeen, this moving story of love and friendship, with a new introduction and illustrations will be enjoyed by a whole new generation of readers.

‘Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile?’ by Sanjana Kapur

Bhaiya does not feel like playing these days. Could it be because of his new monster friend Dukduk, who is always hanging around him. No one in the family takes Bhaiya seriously. But Chiru knows there is more than what meets the eye. A story about the lingering effects of depression. The book is illustrated by Sunaina Coelho.

‘Hearts Do Matters’ by Anita Myers

What the world needs now in these times is love. ‘Hearts Do Matter’ supports children and adults through the losses and grief in their life. It teaches us that even when loved ones cannot be with us, we can feel their presence in our hearts. The new release is a beautiful picture book about a little girl who has a very special relationship with her mother. Her mother promised she would always be with her, and she shows in the book that she kept her promise in the most loving way.

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Flowing Musings and Journal Entries of a Lazy Author – Sabarna Roy

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Sabarna Roy is a much awarded, critically acclaimed bestselling author of 6 literary books: Pentacles; Frosted Glass; Abyss; Winter Poems; Random Subterranean Mosaic: 2012 – 2018, and Etchings of the First Quarter of 2020. He is the lead author of a technical book, which has been published from the European Union and has been translated into 8 major European languages.

He has been awarded the Literoma Laureate Award in 2019, Literoma Star Achiever Award 2020, Random Subterranean Mosaic: 2012 – 2018 won the best book of the year 2019, the A List Award for excellence in fiction by the NewsX Media House, Certificate for The Real Super Heroes for spreading a spirit of positivity and hope during the COVID-19 Pandemic from Forever Star India Award 2020, and the Certificate for Participation in the Indo Russian Friendship Celebration 2020.

1. Intuition is the key to understanding and unlocking of any kind of mystery. Whatever enables the power of intuition is good for the human race. And, this power is also genetic but requires intense nurturing. Educational institutions especially would have to pitch in in this effort. Munich University where Albert Einstein had studied and many other great intellectuals did, was/is a place, which is famous for nurturing intuitive geniuses. What makes an institution so special? I wonder but get no specific answer. There are many things operating at the same time: autonomy and non-interference of the political establishment, the liberal atmosphere, the quality of the faculty and infrastructure, the faculty-student ratio, the faculty-student relationship, the way classes are delivered, the syllabi, stress on creative and thinking capabilities rather than on the mugging and examination mode, permissibility of various opinions to co-exist, and, possibly many other things. In India the reverse is happening now; well, it has happened earlier as well but now things are taking a very worse shape. Take the examples of: Trinamool’s interference in every administrative step in the cases of Jadavpur University and Presidency University in Kolkata (earlier the Left Front had literally killed all the educational institutions worth its repute in Kolkata barring JU and Presidency College, which are now being gobbled up by the present dispensation) and the primeval comments of Dr. Subramaniam Swamy when he was mooted to become the VC of JNU.

2. In my late youth I saw her for the first time on a train. Immediately thereafter I started conjuring an indescribable companionship with her. I chased her for years. Later I came to know she is a happy mother of two bonny sons. She would not give me any attention for she had a secret lover too.

3. In Fallen Man, I made Rahul – my protagonist – to retreat into the mountains with his old mother, having been defeated in life in a growing metropolis.

It was a childhood dream I nurtured in my soul that when I would grow old enough I would live with my mother alone in a high mountain.

But then life has very different things in store for you!

You become a different man as you grow up and confuse yourself with the choices that life offers you.

4. During my University days in the dry summer months (March 15 to May 15) I had a strange obsession of roaming around the labyrinthine deserted alleys of North Calcutta in the afternoons when the scorching sunshine would cause havoc on my shoulders and back, and middlemen, traders and housewives and children would be enjoying a desperate siesta in their cool and shaded bedrooms. Occasionally, to rejuvenate myself, I would smoke a cigarette and drink a cup of syrupy milk tea at a forlorn street-corner.  Where did this passion stem from? When I look back now it seems it was an effort to transpose my loneliness onto the parched, dilapidated and crumbling ambience of Calcutta that was gradually withering. During these walks I have come across strange faces looking at me from the shadowy iron-grilled openings of the tall windows of old mansions (probably tenants forcibly occupying spaces of decaying rich families because of the laxity the Rent Control Act provides to tenants – coming to think of it a pretty smart colonial way of redistribution of wealth). Some of the grotesque faces are etched on the walls of my consciousness till now. Mementos of memory in a loner’s studio. This was also the time when I was introduced to Bismillah Khan’s shehnai and D V Paluskar’s bhajans. Rendition of shehnai recital is a tradition at Indian weddings – presumably a happy occasion. But Bismillah saab’s rendition had an underlying melancholic glory, which attracted me early on. In the bhajans of Paluskar (although I was a non-believer at that time and remain so till date) I could recognize the echoes and angst of the lonely faithful devotee, which left me in awe. My afternoon walks would be accompanied by Bismillah saab’s wind instrument and Paluskar ji’s voice playing in the dark recesses of my mind. Background score!

5. You demystify one cloud. Another appears. You demystify this cloud, that cloud appears. Between this cloud and that cloud there are other clouds. And, then there are many other clouds. The series is relentless and unending.

Human beings are secret islands. Their actions are not completely comprehensible. Why they act in a specific way, is a secret that lies deeply embedded in their own souls! Yet we trust human beings – islands of secrets – in due course of time. Specifically and generally. The science of trust is by and large a very mysterious science.

6. Some erotic stories do not kick-start in our lifetime although they have the potential spark to generate enormous electricity. On the other hand there are many erotic stories that wither away in the long run with time like leaves die. We all go through a mixture of such stories in our lives. The stories that did not start linger in our mind like dolorous reminders – what if! Mind you, the potential of those uninitiated stories to change the course of our lives, including how we evolve as persons, is very high compared to the initiated stories of erotic love.

7. Reverse jump cut – in the past – 25 years – almost – approximately – a full-moon night – after midnight – on the terrace of a G+3 newly built apartment block – on the fringes of the city violently pushing against the margins of a crumbling suburban landscape – full of dreams – a series of conquests – a bright disc of silver hanging in the sky – an elderly friend of mine and I – a telescope in between us – a gazer of stars and galaxies – well, planning to show me what is a sky and infinite continents of space – a wise man – hating my absolute love for rock music – dismissing it as ‘boyish elitism’.

A night redefined!

We smoked hard. We smoked hard – only nicotine fellas! We discussed Dakghar. We recited Wasteland. Death was looming large on our sub-conscious.

Then he asked me to take a drooling walk to the phallic instrument chilling in the night – his love and work of love.

“Boy you could look at the moon both ends from! This end from it looks like a shining piece of nut. And this end from it blazes on you like a scorching sun … So you see; there is nothing right or wrong!”

I asked parched in smoke, “Is there no perfect way of life on earth? Ideals to follow? Creating and adding on to the civilization of men? No right and wrong! Live like dogs, do we?”

He whispered in my ears, “You hate dogs, don’t you? There are ways. There are no ways still. A creative man must learn to suffer multiple takes on life. A creative man must strive for his absolute solitude to unburden his load on us. He walks through the world but returns to his cave. Your cave is this universe of galaxies, constellations and pacing heavenly bodies. You are a banished soul attempting to be a part of this colossal space. Don’t you feel like that? How tiny you are, my boy!”

We fell silent for a long time – looking at the sky – and then we fell asleep! Dreaming: this sleep will take us away …

8. Sanchita Guha aka Mimi, my very talented saali, wanted me to write my own obit page in her friend’s blog. I thought about it and concluded that I would never remember a wasted monkey (and, fat) like me. So why would anybody else remember me! Secondly, I would neither like to be remembered because I just do not qualify the minimum credentials. I have been cruel, selfish (now that my children are grown-up I have also started hating children: angels of light and hope), self-centered and vulgar all my life. I have never stood up for anybody or even myself (that is the biggest crime I have done). I have never been overwhelmed by the sufferings of fellow human beings. I have always looked the other way. Contrarily I have put on the mask of a concerned gentleman looking for an eager audience. I am not gentle in any case; I am arrogant. I have not enjoyed my life for I was never passionate enough. My comparison of myself to a monkey is misplaced, I am factually worse than a monkey. And monkeys are not bad by any stretch of imagination, Mimi would agree with me.  Am I a godzila then? Animal lovers like Mimi would protest my comparison of wretched me to the varied heavenly animals on this planet. I have no consistent body of work. I cannot sing. Nor can I play any musical instrument. I cannot even dance. In the name of love, I have done duties by actually organizing them through others. Secretly, I have always wished to own a company of slaves who would be at my beck and call. I am a good womaniser (although I am fat) and I have neglected even this talent of mine. What a perverse waste of your only life?

9. If we would make museums out of our memories they would serve as very good benchmarks to understand our own lives. And some of them would be works of art, which could be appreciated by one and all. What stops us from making personal and private museums? Effort, of course, because you would require tons of it and patience in doing so. This idea struck me when I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence a few years back. We as a nation and also as a continent are not much inclined towards museum construction, refurbishment and maintenance and also paying a visit to a museum. Our major museums are poorly maintained and attended. Museum is a habit of the West – mainly, Europe. Our own museums unlike the public museums should be reconstruction of our own lives, revolving around all kinds of incidents and anecdotes: happy, pensive, important, unimportant, passionate, compassionate, all. This will have substantial anthropological value and would require training, which should be inculcated at the school and high-school levels. Museum construction requires a meeting of various kinds of skills. This will throw up a serious branch of training not to be trapped in the mugging-and-examination mode and would seriously become a fountainhead for many hidden talents to flower. At the end of the day, we take resort to serious art because we want to comprehend our own incomprehensible lives. What better way could there be if we could recreate it with our own hands and brain?

10. Nowadays I cannot argue beyond a point of making my case, that is all; I have just lost the steam. Another proof that I have become an old man. I love listening to various points of view instead. I will make my opening move and then withdraw. There was a time when I was a reasonably good debater. Well, long time back … maybe. I also do not feel the emotion of anger nowadays. There is more or less a feeling of resignation. In general, I am always searching for words while talking in a group. But I am very comfortable while writing. One thing that I love is silence: locked inside a chilly, deathly-silent room with random thoughts passing through my mind like a north-westerly wind. Silence excites thoughts.

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‘Bikhre Sapne’ by Author M. Murtaza – Dreams Did Not Fall In Place But The Story Did

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Author M. Murtaza is already a known name in the realms of Hindi literature. Murtaza stirred the Hindi literary world with ‘Ankur’ – his first Hindi novel which got published in 1985. Post that he had penned many masterclasses like “Gosha E Noor” (Urdu 2002), “Roshni kaa Minaar” (Hindi 2003), “Tasawwuf” (Urdu 2010), and “Baagh ki Khooshbu” (Urdu, 2019).

Each of the above-mentioned books got critically acclaimed due to apt reason. So, when a writer of this calibre comes up with his next book, it is bound to have a lot of expectations from the readers. M. Murtaza lived up to that expectation in his latest book ‘Bikhre Sapne’. The story is about Raajan – a resident of Shivpur village and his mother Rukmini – a poor widow. The different episodes of the lives of Raajan and Rukmini are beautifully narrated – some are heart melting while some are gruesome.

Just like his other works, Mr. Murtaza treats the plot and the characters of the book ‘Bikhre Sapne’ in a cinematic way. The readers can surely hope to see this story getting transformed into a movie soon. The narration is so good that it’ll create a strong case as a screenplay with an immediate effect.

The two most important points which click for the book are the simplicity of the language used to narrate the story and the holistic nature of the characters sketched. These two aspects work as the manual for any aspiring Hindi writer.

The only aspect which could have been better about the book is its cover page. The publisher could have been a little more careful on this aspect. However, as a whole, ‘Bikhre Sapne’ qualifies as one of the books which readers from all walks of life will cherish for a very long time.               

Buy “Bikhre Sapne from Amazon for just Rs.301

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