Surveying the mournful responses to the disappearance of the neighbourhood bookstore, the author discovers that he, frankly, doesn’t give a damn.
There is a moment in the brilliant novel The Leopard by Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa where the Jesuit priest Father Pirrone bemoans the changing times and declares rather melodramatically, “You’ll see. They won’t even leave us our eyes to weep.” The novel, if you haven’t read it, talks about changing times unlike any other I have read. Of waning power seen through the eyes of an aristocrat. Written by an aristocrat.
Reading the overly sentimental pieces about Yodakin and most recently Fact and Fiction to save disappearing independent bookstores in Delhi, I was reminded of the same book. Aman Sethi pierces into this more intelligently in his article in Kafila on a similar phenomenon of Hauz Khas village. He asks something very pertinent: “What do the changes we celebrate, and the changes we mourn, tell us about ourselves?”
I, however, took all this personally. It made me look back at my adult life, a large part of which was spent in Delhi.
Bikaner, where I grew up, known for its bhujia and rasgullas is not a place where one would generally discuss books. My mother was the only person in the family who had read some books. But she was married into a family where reading books was forcefully discouraged. And so gradually she stopped. Had to.
Through sheer hard work — giving tuitions, hobby classes — she became the headmistress of a school she started with 20-odd students. All those years she was busy and did not notice her son slipping into the closet with his books. I started reading anything I could get my hands on. There wasn’t a bookstore in my town and online retail was futuristic at best. The only place you could get lucky with books were stores that sold textbooks and stationery. Often stocking pirated books — Arthur Hailey, Sidney Sheldon etc. I re-read the few books my mother decorated the shelves in the drawing room with. One was, quite symbolically, a book on flower arrangements. During vacations, when we visited relatives in Delhi or Chandigarh, I would buy second-hand books with the little money that uncles and aunts would give us kids.
When I ran away to Delhi with dreams to make it big, the one most exciting fact was the large number of bookstores I could wander into. I was mostly broke — not the rich kid out-of-pocket-money broke — but broke to the extent that I had to search for every single coin to make the bus fare. On a weekend when I was not working the several odd jobs, I would look forward to going to a bookstore and spending hours reading books. I had not yet discovered Khan Market and Basant Lok had intimidated me with all the fashionable kids and the expensive TGIF bar. The other book stores: Midland in Aurobindo Market, Teksons and The Book Mark in South Extension and some others were the ones I found myself invariably visiting.
Also they were mostly air-conditioned and a good escape from the heat outside. Books would seek me out like mystical epiphanies. My flirtations were limited to broken passages I would read here and there. I could barely pay the rent so buying books in these book stores was a luxury beyond reach. My Reebok shoes, bought at a factory outlet, were expensive but then they had to last a couple of years; the cheaper ones betrayed you sooner if you walked a lot in the city. Later however, Om Book Shop came up with 90 per cent discount, which was sort of a lie, but it meant I could finally buy new books.
I started dating someone who took me to Khan Market. It was different in those days. I remember entering The Book Shop. It was beautiful. Too beautiful. I left feeling inadequate. K.D. Singh, the owner of the store who has since become a friend, sat quietly across the counter. I told him some years later how the shop intimidated me.
That was also the time you could buy a movie ticket for ten rupees if you queued up really early at the Priya cinema. These would be for the very front row seats. After watching a movie once, I wandered around the market. It still had a functional fountain next to another one of Delhi’s once-cherished ‘independents’: Nirulas. At some point I saw the beautiful display window of a store called Fact and Fiction. Entering the shop, the door made a noise. A bell jingled and my heart started thumping hard. There was nice jazz music (or what I then thought was jazz music) playing and a grumpy old man was flipping through something. I tried to smile at him, but he didn’t look up. My small-town pride compelled me to leave immediately. It took me some years to return. I was a changed man then, but the bookstore remained arrogantly the same. Change is always welcome perhaps only for someone down below.
I made my way in Delhi through strange suspicious routes. I learnt the language of negotiation and the ways to work the system. What seemed like success to people back home in Bikaner was considered climbing the social ladder by people in ivory towers. Ways of seeing.
My Bikaneri English, the v for example sounding like w (Vanity became wanity), gave much humorous pleasure to many friends I made in this city. A city full of dynasties: political, social or cultural. Where writers’ sons and daughters became writers, publishers the same and often artists as well.
The steps on the ladder, the social one I supposedly was climbing, are slippery. You have to hold the ladder tight lest you fall. I made my way into this maze of Delhi cultural life. I worked for a handful of foreign cultural organisations, some Indian ones too. I became friends with people who once intimidated me. It was a Dickensian moment. Pip in the big city. I started frequenting book launches. I even became friends with Wikram Seth. My v, I guess, stubbornly refused to climb the ladder.
Through sheer accident (and some hard work I would like to believe), I got a fancy job in publishing. I started hanging out with people who worked with books. People who wrote them, who edited them, who designed and who marketed and sold them. And it gave me a totally new and fresh view of books and the world around books. Some not very pleasant sides emerged too.
The market started to grow and, as more writers came on the Indian literary scene, there was a rigid classification that also came with it. Who could be published and who could win awards, who attended festivals, who wrote columns for national dailies? The hegemonies of power, knowledge and language spilt over generously and viciously in the literary world too. I don't say this as a mute observer but as an active participant in this tamasha.
Some years ago I took a friend of mine, a Hindi speaker, to one of these bookstores and asked if they stocked Hindi books. The bookseller didn’t even look up from his computer screen and made a sound that could only have meant: no, get lost! I would not even dare ask about other Indian languages! Thanks to Flipkart, my friend who lives in Rajasthan can buy books today, even Hindi ones, without being judged.
The point I am getting at is a complex one. It has to do with what is inherently wrong with a city like Delhi. It has always been like that. But perhaps now the divisions are somewhat blurring and the cracks are visible. What was one once said of academia and the media is still sadly true for publishing. It remains a largely upper-class upper-caste domain. They might publish Dalit writers or Ravinder Singhs, but the gatekeepers are still a tiny elite English-speaking privileged lot inheriting either wealth or the water-tight elite networks. Most people in decision-making positions, often members of IIC and IHC, are born into families of intellectuals or riches or both.
I know the implications of me writing this. The stench of my own privilege is bubbling in my words. I have now started to frequent these places. I have come to love the books they publish and stock, and yet I dare to diss them. But isn’t that the whole problem we are all faced with in this game of snakes and ladders? The master, the king, the boss, the rich call the shots and always remind you of their munificence. Unki thaali mein khaate ho aur ched bhi karte ho? (You dare to make a hole in the plate you eat?) A friend offering me respite, a publisher in fact, recently put this upside down when he told me, “hum to us thaali mein thookte bhi hain.” (We even dare to spit in that plate).
And to add to this the harsh fact that most people in the city would never see the insides of these shops for their sheer preciousness makes this whole exercise vulgar. Visiting these stores, one cannot miss noticing the odd worker at these bookstores, always on alert, a small stool positioned at the corner of the shop for him. What would someone like that who makes his or her living from such spaces make of this discussion?
That young children outside Fact and Fiction selling little drawings they have made would perhaps never be able to read or write is what we must be discussing, I am guilty of furthering this somewhat banal issue.
But then mourning the loss of such elite spaces in a city like Delhi and with such hubris is shameless. To say, as the piece in NYT’s India Ink blog does, that, “India needs to support its independent bookstores, for the same reason it seeks to preserve its architectural heritage” is offensively vain. And for what? So that the writer’s father can afford his fees in a fancy Delhi school? To call the marketing people in publishing ‘inept’ is not just a crass generalisation, but blatantly racist. For this refers mostly to small-town middle-class (a flawed term to describe different grades of privilege we have in India) people stuck in the same cycle of getting somewhere others have been born with. It is the inherent nature of a feudal structure that allows for this sort of nostalgia in the first place. That one would single out the ‘corner book store’ as the victim is not just a fallacy; it is a joke. The regal Prince of Salina in The Leopard says at one point that “(the) Sicilians think they’re gods” and “their vanity is stronger than their misery”. The king, now as then, speaks for all.
Someone needs to make these sahibs and bibis understand the dynamics of a changing India. It is quite messy, we know. The book stores that are being mourned are very much a part of the monstrous capitalist enterprise that has invaded the social lives of every city and town in India. They equally represent the problem as does the invasion of multi-brand retail. Both speak of a certain wealth and culture that keeps many away. They consider online retail a ‘threat’, but have they heard of Nikhil Sablania who sells books on Dr. Ambedkar, Dalit and Bahujan issues online? Books one would not find in these supposedly ‘eclectic’ fancy bookstores.
It is no surprise that the New York Times would give space for such self-indulgent drivel in its India section. It speaks of exactly the same nexus which decides whose nostalgia matters? What I have written here can also be considered partly self indulgent. And I must confess I did buy my copy of The Leopard from Fact and Fiction.
A more interesting fact though is that today if you go to Fact and Fiction, a popular day club called RPM just a floor above the shop has middle-class youth, mostly migrants from small towns to Delhi I would guess, pounding hard with their feet as the bookstore ceiling shakes. Perhaps this is some twisted form of justice, a curious irony that many hearts that thump in the face of unbending hierarchies around us, can dryly relish.