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Books & Authors

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



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 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.


Books & Authors

Fiction flourishes in contradiction: Pak author Mira Sethi



In a country where assertive self-expression can be frowned upon, how to be yourself? Maybe through sneaky networks of solidarity, by improvising identities as one navigates life…

While many of the characters in author Mira Sethi’s debut story collection ‘Are you Enjoying?’ (Bloomsbury India) are professional performers, even those who are not, can be skilled chameleons.

“To live in a society with strong views about what constitutes ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’, means, as a citizen, having to alter and contort one’s authentic self in order to survive. Roshan, the queer chai-boy on the set of ‘Breezy Blessings’ says to Mehak, the actress: ‘About drama, you know nothing.’ She may be the actress, but as a queer person navigating middle-class Pakistani society, he understands everything about drama, and how to communicate effectively via code, innuendo, signal,” Mira Sethi tells IANS.

As the characters in the stories strive for personal freedom, the author asserts that they are in fact trying to throw off the straitjacket imposed by society — how does one negotiate personal freedom in a traditional society?

“I wanted to show both the resilience of my characters, but also the vulnerability of people caught between the pull of the past, and the lure of modernity. Family – the imperatives of fathers and mothers – is a major theme in the book; there was a desire to portray how the burdensome pressures of family (the past) interact with (modern) aspirations of young, urban people,” she says.

Taking around six years to write the book, ‘Breezy Blessings’ was the first story she wrote.

“I would email myself snippets, thoughts and observations. It was only after I wrote the first draft of ‘Breezy Blessings’ (in my gmail inbox!) that I opened a Word document, and began taking myself seriously as a writer,” the writer-actor says with a smile.

Stressing that she draws from the sights and sounds encountered in life – the power dynamics on the set of a show, the ways in which Urdu and English are mixed and her lived experience as an observer and participant in Pakistani life, Sethi works best in the mornings, before she has interacted with anyone, the space when her mind is blank slate.

“I sometimes won’t shower until 5 or 6 pm until I’ve had four good hours of writing. Flow-state writing is hard to achieve, but I find I’m able to do it if I start first thing in the morning. Of course, then getting up to make breakfast is an interruption.”

Talk to her about the brilliant fiction in English from Pakistani origin writers in the past two decades, and she feels that fiction flourishes in contradiction.

Adding that Pakistan is a society in transition, and there is a lot of tension to be harnessed in the space between the laws of the state, not to mention the ways in which they interact with individual desire and autonomy, the author adds, “Young people get their news – and their aspirations – from social media and television. Their desires are secular, but the frameworks into which these people are born are traditionalist.”

Ask her about the experience of growing up in a progressive family in a religious country, and Sethi, daughter of well-known journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, who has also been seen in Pakistani serials including ‘Silvatein’ and ‘Mohabat Subh Ka Sitara Hai’, says, “Identity politics play out in unusual ways in a country like Pakistan, where labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ can mean different things depending on their context. I’m happy my book has been able to navigate the dignity of people who often don’t fit in.”

But has she felt the ‘burden’ of being born to famous parents? “Not when it comes to writing fiction,” she smiles.

For someone who feels that she would be a poorer writer if it weren’t for acting, there is another book brewing, “I believe so, but I’ll find out when there are words, stumbles and fumbles on the page.”

source: The Statesman

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Books & Authors

‘Eid in the Days of Plague’: This short story is born of the imagination in a time of grim reality



It was an old settlement, yet darkness enveloped it. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. There was a temple on the hilltop opposite the station. If one viewed the settlement from the courtyard of the temple, a minaret was visible.

This was the minaret of the local Jama Masjid, and it was shaped like a rocket. It felt as if this rocket would take off on its own towards space, never to return. There were two small bulbs at the mouth of the rocket. One red, one green. These would be used till some years ago to declare the timings for sehri and iftar.

A mosque had now been constructed in every alley of the settlement, and each mosque had four to five loudspeakers. So now the blessed sound of the azaan would reach every home. In fact, so many sounds would reach each home that sometimes the pious would fight with others in their family at the time for sahri or iftar about whether that sound of the azaan was from their mosque or not.

On the other hand, the electric supply would play hide and seek with the settlement. This can also be explained thus that the administration played hide and seek with the enclave. This is why the bulbs on top of the minaret continued to be of use. The bulbs were connected to a generator that a welfare organisation had donated to the Jama Masjid.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the population of the settlement was still quite low. In those years, an epidemic of hate broke out in the city next to the settlement.

During this time, the rakshasas that had run away from Lanka at the time of Lord Ram’s attack also descended as the wrath of the city. It is said that the rakshasas have been wandering around the subcontinent for years and whenever they descend on a city, it comes under the sway of blood and fire. Nobody knows who is behind this veil of blood and fire.

Under the attack of the rakshasas and the outbreak of hatred the city had turned into Lanka. Arson was all around, corpses were everywhere. Thousands of people succumbed to this epidemic of hate. The foreign journalists analysing this pandemic of hate were of the opinion that those people succumbed more to this outbreak whose honourable names included Arabic sounds.

Thus, once the epidemic of hate came to an end and the rakshasas headed towards a different city, those with Arabic names migrated away from the town, leaving their hearts behind. Most people from the city came and settled in this enclave. These people founded the Jama Masjid. Although this is also a fact that this settlement is only an hour’s commute away from the city, but the distance between the lives of those who live here and the city is that of a century.

Pardon me, I was saying that the enclave was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan.

Musarrat Jehan had once gone to the temple on the hilltop opposite the railway station and stared at the settlement for long. She had felt as if the enclave was a refugee camp. Looking at the rocket-shaped minaret she had remembered that its shadow fell on her home every evening. Looking at the mammoth shadow she would often feel that the minaret was really a war missile under whose presence the whole settlement was safe.

Two expert linguists lived in the enclave. Their opinion differed from everyone else. They would say that if most people in a settlement had names constituted of Arabic sounds then it is safe from the epidemic of hate, but the chances for plague increase.

The majority of the people in the enclave were not familiar with these linguists and those who were did not take them seriously. The truth of the matter is that even both the linguists did not take each other’s linguistic opinions seriously, but, coincidentally, both agreed on the linguistic theory about the plague.

Pardon me, I was saying that the settlement was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan.

Musarrat Jehan used to love someone and would meet him on the sly. Twice the boy had taken her to the famous beach of the city, where he had treated her to paani-puri.

There were many turns yet to come in this tale of love, but one day Musarrat, her lover, and her lover’s friend – all disappeared. After three days, under mysterious circumstances, their bodies were found covered in blood, miles away from the enclave. In fact, they were not found, but reported on TV. The mediawallahs were saying that these people had joined the enemies of the country.

Some people were saying that government officials had gauged that these people had caught the plague. It was therefore dangerous for them to have remained alive. There were as many accounts and interpretations as there were newspapers and channels.

Begum Sughra was incapacitated with grief. After a few days when the shock lessened, a few old men and members of political parties of the settlement began to visit her. They would ask Begum Sughra and her relatives many questions in confidence: Did Musarrat refer to the days of the epidemic of hate? Did she give the message of the dissolution of borders? Did she read those books that have the false stories of rise and fall inscribed in them?

With every envoy there would be one or two government officials or spies of the state machinery about whom no one was aware. In fact, one spy did not know about the other. Their faces would be lined with such deep lines of grief that the residents of the building would feel that they must be some relatives of Begum Sughra. Not only would these despondent-faced spies memorise Begum Sughra’s statements word by word, they would also draw a sketch of the expressions of everyone present in their minds.

Following Musarrat’s demise, the theory of the linguists gradually became common knowledge in the settlement. At the corners of the enclave, at tea stalls, colleges, mosques, shrines, and squares, people would include each other in this secret with whispered tones that if most people in a settlement have names constituted of Arabic sounds, then it is safe from the epidemic of hate, but the chances for plague increase.

After a year, Sughra Begum heard that among the people of the settlement and those who knew the settlement this story was commonly accepted that Musarrat had caught the plague and the cause of her mysterious death was also the plague.

Sughra Begum had accepted Musarrat’s mysterious death as Allah’s will, but this she could not accept at any cost that, post-mortem, Musarrat should be connected to such a disease that can be the cause of the destruction of the whole enclave.

She decided that she would go to court to discover the cause of Musarrat’s mysterious death. When she made an announcement about this, some people came forward to help. Most of them were from other places. The officials of the place where Musarrat’s corpse was discovered far away from the enclave tried their best to prevent these busybodies and Begum Sughra’s lawyer from the going to court or to entrap them in its intricacies.

Consequently, the case got stuck in the judicial morass.

Despite this, every now and then, Sughra Begum’s hopes would be raised that the judgment would come in her favour and that Musarrat’s soul would find some peace. But then this hope would turn into a desert of hopelessness, over which she would spread a mat and offer namaz night and day and pray to Allah for his help from the void to prove that Musarrat had not caught the plague. The desert was soulless. Begum Sughra’s prayers became ever longer. Her knees would cramp, and her toes would go numb. The prayer mat was now starting to smell of her tears.

I digressed again –

I was telling that the settlement was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan. It was the last night of the Ramzan. Begum Sughra had spent the whole month reciting the Qur’an and in worship. Seeing the waxing crescent of the Eid moon, she turned towards her bed, and her eyes suddenly teared. A flood of Musarrat’s memories rose in her heart.

Every year after the sighting of the Eid moon, most girls from the building would gather on this very bed to get mehndi made on their hands from Musarrat. Musarrat would sit at the edge of the bed and by turn draw flowers and paisleys on each of their hands. The girls would secretly request Musarrat to inscribe an English letter amongst the flowers and paisleys.

Musarrat would demand to know details about their secret love in exchange for inscribing that letter, and the girls would coyly tell many details about their lovers.

Rounds of tea would begin and sweets would appear from the neighbours’ homes. It would be one merry gathering.

But since Musarrat’s mysterious death, once this news spread that she had died of plague, the building’s girls gradually stopped coming to their home. Silence reigned here now. As if everything had died with Musarrat’s mysterious death. Even the flowers on the curtains on the windows had wilted. The colour of the ceiling had faded. Plaster was peeling off the walls in many places. A hinge on a door had come loose. The house had become a grave in which Sughra Begum had been interred alive.

Sughra Begum sat next to the bed and sobbed copiously for long. She did not even remember that she had not turned on the tube light. Darkness had deepened inside the house. Despite the night of the first moon, every corner of the house was shrouded in a speechless calamity and a feeling of deprivation deepening the gaping dark.

If one looked from the courtyard of the temple on the hilltop opposite the railway station, then a strange halo of darkness appeared atop Begum Sughra’s building. It felt as if there was a black hole there, where all light was getting buried. Above the sharp rays of twilight in the sky, the crescent of the new moon was swimming in grief. People had not even gazed upon it to their heart’s content when it sank.

The crescent moon had not only seen the misfortune, despair, and deprivation spreading over Begum Sughra’s home. It had also seen such hellish darkness over many homes in many enclaves across the country, where the residents of these houses all carried this grief and clamour that why was this being said about their family members – who had disappeared or whose mangled corpses had turned up many miles away from their homes or those who were in the state’s custody – that they were affected by the plague?

Translated from “Taauun Ke Dixon Mein Eid”, published in 2014.



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Books & Authors

HR-turned-Author, Jyoti Jha Releases Cover of her Upcoming Masterpiece!



Books are not only a source of inspiration but also an act of escapism into a parallel world. However, there are certain books, that speak to their readers through the realities of life. ‘The Realms of Human Emotions’ by Jyoti Jha is one such book that provides an immersive experience to the readers impactfully drawn from the spheres of human emotions from regular living.

Emotions define us as human beings and influence our existence around the relationships we dwell with. One that can be dealt with various aspects of feelings, perceptions, attitudes, and intentions, and intricate relationships entangled around those. Through this book and the compelling and captivating stories, the author is all set to entrance the readers exploring those emotions.

An HR-turned-Author, Jyoti Jha who has recently signed a deal with Literia Insight is delighted to release the cover of her upcoming masterpiece ‘The Realms of Human Emotions’. The artistic portrayal of colours and the succinct title are prepared to intrigue the readers to delve into the layers of human sentiments through various stories, setups, characters, and incidents.

Talking at the eve of the release of the book cover, Jyoti Jha shared her insights on the central theme around which the stories in the book revolve. In the words of the author Jyoti Jha-

“Emotions that compel our actions and influence our decisions, and yet we often have uncertainty around expressing our emotions and acknowledging our feelings.

With this book, I attempt to explore the layers of human emotions and communicate to the readers through different characters drawn from some factual accounts and diverse figments of imagination sketched across the stratum of the human psychosomatic canvas.

The stories in the book intend to portray human experiences that continually strive to find a balance between the outer hurricane of sentiments and an inner vortex of fervours.  At the same time endeavouring to align individual emotions that delicately blend with the relationships around them.”

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