In Letters to a Young Poet , Rainer Maria Rilke advises Franz Xaver Kappus to conduct a test to find out whether he has the calling for poetry: “…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?... If you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”
Abhishek Kumar Jha, one of the two founder editors of Bookstalkist (the other being Jeevanayagi Ganapathy), says that Letters to a Young Poet was the inspiration behind this website, started in February 2015, which now has a five-star rating on Facebook.
Bookstalkist lives up to its name — it tracks literature, creates literature (in English and Hindi), and teases out the literary side of every common reader. Jha, it seems, had heard the “I must” when he asked himself the question that Rilke exhorts.
In turn, he and his team — composed of like-minded, book-loving young comrades — inspire readers to become writers, by thinking through givens and voicing their opinion.
The website has book reviews, interviews, pieces of ‘social fiction’, ‘letters’ — musings on random topics — and a section named Bookmarkish, featuring articles on socio-political issues. In one such, Jha writes of the ‘secular façade of Indian politics.’ He points out the way in which successive governments at the Centre, irrespective of political colour, have pandered to religious leaders to get hold of vote banks.
Jha quotes from a letter by Vivekananda, where the swami strongly objects to attempts to connect him with politics. “Swami Vivekananda believed that it would take ages to bring religion into politics. It has, however, not taken much time for the impostors of religion to enter politics. Politics on the other hand hides its love for pseudo-religion under the shroud of ‘secularism,’” Jha writes.
I ask Jha whether Vivekananda is a role model, since I see quite a lot on him on the website. “Vivekananda has been a source of constant energy behind my initiatives so far. Bookstalkist aims to work towards an improved society and we are in congruence with his ideas and methods.” Interestingly, our present prime minister fashions himself as an inheritor of Vivekananda’s vision. Is he aware that Vivekananda once famously said that one would be nearer to heaven by playing football than by reading the Gita ?
Bookstalkist’s own devotion to a robust rationalism is reflected in the online magazine they now publish, the description page of which declares impressively, “The fulfillment of the Indian dream of an ideal democracy will be a function of rational journalism… We intend to be the foot soldiers of ethical and rational journalism and in this pursuit, we have let literature be our guiding light, our North Star.”
Labour of love
The e-zine discusses books, authors, literature, connections between literary worlds, their social, economic and political significance, literary events, and it interviews significant people. You meet some of these people on the website too, which has Tagore, Ambedkar and Orwell sharing space with diverse people like puppeteers and a roadside bookseller, who now owns a premium bookstore in Bengaluru.
Jha and Ganapathy pull this venture off while holding day jobs as software professionals in Bengaluru. So, for these millenials, lunch breaks and weekends are not ‘chill’ time but more work, albeit a labour of love. Weekends are also the time for ‘Yard of the Bards’, a group session organised by Bookstalkist at public places in Bengaluru, where socio-political issues are debated through poetry and discussions. They hope to expand to other cities soon.
Jha says they do not have an official workspace yet: “Sometimes we work from home, at times from parks, sometimes in cabs during travel, sometimes from cafés, and at times even over phone. Most days, we meet in the evening, discuss, and then work for a couple of hours before closing the day.”