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Goodbye Mr. Shanbhag, a gentle man from a gentle time

File photo of T.S. Shanbhag.  

Rather like the protagonist in James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips, the legendary owner of Premier Book Shop was just Mr. Shanbhag. I didn’t know his first name for long. Then the Internet supplied the information: Sarvotham. It means ‘the finest’. Few names are so appropriate. And now he’s gone, taking with him a chunk of my growing years.

I was in school in the 1970s when I first walked into Premier. I had a gift coupon. Other bookstores in the area looked on schoolboys not as customers then or for the future, but pesky juveniles who needed to be followed around suspiciously and asked questions till they left the store in sheer annoyance.

At Premier, Mr Shanbhag waved a genial ‘hello’ and carried on with whatever he was doing, leaving you to your devices. Loyalty came from being treated like adults.

Importantly, when he occasionally sensed that only a shortage of funds prevented this schoolboy from buying a book, he either gave ridiculous discounts or didn’t take a payment at all, saying vaguely, “We can do that later”, looking like a version of Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth.

In fact, when I first read the Blandings novels, it was Mr. Shanbhag who appeared as Lord Emsworth in my imagination. And I gave him the qualities of the fictional character: an engaging geniality, a certain vagueness, and general goodness. Over time I realised this characterisation wasn’t entirely wrong, although the vagueness was. He was sharp, Mr. Shanbhag, he knew his onions.

Premier was the most welcoming and wildly stocked bookstore and meeting place for both young lovers and storied intellectuals, many of the former hoping to grow into the latter in time.

Through our school and university and working lives, Mr. Shanbhag watched us grow while he himself hardly changed. He didn’t lose more hair because there wasn’t much to lose. His full-throated laugh never softened. Nor did his sense of mischief diminish.

Mr Shanbhag personified a Bengaluru that stood out for its hospitality, grace and charm. He was a standard to measure the changing face of the city against, and remind ourselves of what once was.

When I got married and paid him a visit, he remembered my wife from her schooldays too. We might have crossed each other in the aisles of the bookstore as adolescents.

On that first occasion, I used the gift coupon to buy Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I have no idea why, except a friend had a theory that when you get a gift coupon you should pick a book you wouldn’t otherwise pay for.

Mr. Shanbhag did not flinch when he saw my choice. A quarter century later at his bookstore, he pulled out something from a pile and asked if I wanted a recent edition of the same book. I was startled he should remember. “Actually, I haven’t read the last one I bought here,” I managed to mumble. Mr. Shanbhag broke into his familiar laugh. It was a soundtrack from an age of innocence.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 5:34:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/goodbye-mr-shanbhag-a-gentle-man-from-a-gentle-time/article34517895.ece

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