Tribute: Ram Advani Comment

The making of the grand bookseller of Lucknow

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Since the day it opened its doors, Ram Advani Booksellers has stood as a bastion of independent bookselling in India

Ram Advani was born in Karachi on October 12, 1920 in a Sindhi Amil family of Khudabad, to Cherumal Advani. Shortly after his birth, his grandfather, who was a contractor, passed away. Ram spent his first eight years in Karachi, attending elementary classes in the local municipal school. With no interest in contracting, Ram’s father decided to move their family to Lucknow, along with two other Sindhi families.

The Advani family hired rooms on the second floor of the Mukherjee Building (now G.D. Punn building) in Hazratganj, and Cherumal Advani opened the Lucknow Bookstall — a bookshop — just down the street, where the Kashmir Emporium now is. In later years the bookshop moved to 34 Lal Bagh. Unfortunately the move did not help the Lucknow Bookstall. It continued haemorrhaging money, and was soon shut down. In the meanwhile, Ram began his academic career at St. Joseph’s Cathedral School. He went to Christ Church for his intermediate degree, receiving a good 2nd class, and later to Lucknow University. While he was climbing up the academic ladder, his father decided to join Thadanis, one of the two families who had migrated with the Advanis from Sindh, to run the newly built Mayfair Cinema.

A break in Rawalpindi

In 1942, while he was still doing his MA, Ram’s maternal uncle who had converted to Christianity, the Right Reverend Chandu Rai, visited Lucknow. Coincidentally, the Reverend also ran a bookshop in Rawalpindi at Ray’s Corner on 46 Edwards Road (now Bank Road) in Rawalpindi Cantonment. Or maybe there was no coincidence. It may have been a visit to the Reverend’s bookshop that may have inspired Ram’s father to invest in his first failed venture.

This time the Reverend’s entry would have a more lasting impact. He recommended Ram’s name to a frontier missionary, Bishop George Sinker, for employment at Bishop Cotton School in Shimla. In March 1943, Ram was offered a job as bursar secretary. He became the coach of the school cricket team, and until the end of the WWII, was a part-time history teacher. Among the students in the school were Ruskin Bond, Ratan Tata, Humayun Khan, and “George” Dundup Namgyal, the last commander-in-chief of the Tibetan troops against the Chinese Army.

Ram spent three lonely years, with no social life, in Shimla. Soon after the war, the new headmaster Reverend Frank Drake joined. Ram was offered a position to study at Oxford with an endowment loan from Bishop Sinker, in lieu of a bond to rejoin Bishop Cotton. Ram refused and instead handed in his notice. Freed of his obligations, he visited his uncle’s bookshop in Rawalpindi. It was there that he had a chance meeting with the disgruntled home secretary of the Punjab Government, who had to make annoying trips from Lahore to buy books. The home secretary proposed that Khuba Rai, another maternal uncle of Ram’s, open a bookshop in Lahore. A huge space was allotted in the famous Beli Ram Building on the Mall Road, and J. Ray & Sons — the Ray being an Anglicised form of Rai — opened its doors in November 1945. Ram was put in charge.

Ray & Sons to Ferozsons

In January 1946, the Muslim League agitation started in Lahore. It was not long before the Additional District Magistrate H.D. Shourie, Arun Shourie’s father, asked non-Muslims to prepare to leave. That one shop of Ray & Sons was burnt down on the Mall in Murree. As the word spread, a bookseller from Anarkali market in Lahore offered to buy Ray & Sons for 63,000 rupees, and later named it Ferozsons.

Ram rushed back to Bishop Cotton, and informed Reverend Drake of his intention to open a bookshop in the familiar environs of Shimla. Edna Wither, the matron of Loreto Convent School, which had shifted from Asansol to Shimla, offered Piccadilly House, next to Clarkes Hotel on Mall Road, as a site. On behalf of his uncle, Ram opened the Shimla bookshop, which also doubled as his home. The shop later moved to larger premises near the General Post Office, called the Rankins, right next to Grindlays Bank. With more public interaction, and entertainment at Devicos and Gaiety theatre, Ram’s second stint in Shimla was more enjoyable.

However, there was something still missing. In November 1947, Ram was asked by Khuba Rai to visit Lucknow and scout for a place to open a bookshop. Acharya Kripalani, the president of the Gandhi Ashram and also a family friend of the Thadanis, gave a small area inside the Gandhi ashram to open a bookshop, with the agreement that it would move out within a year. Two days before the shop was due to open on February 1, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. In the backdrop of that grim tragedy, Ray & Sons opened in Lucknow on February 15.

The shop became a retreat for the literati of Lucknow, and was frequented by teachers and students alike. One day in April 1948, a student of Isabella Thoburn College walked in. Darshi was a refugee from Amritsar and, coincidentally, had been born in Shimla. They were to meet again, this time in Shimla in the summer of 1949, in his bookshop. Ram took this as a sign, or maybe he was already smitten. He took Darshi out for coffee and later invited Darshi’s mother to meet Khuba Rai’s wife, both of whom knew each other from their Lahore days. He wanted to ask her hand for marriage, except that both of them were informally engaged to other people! Those engagements were discreetly called off and just after finishing her MA in anthropology, Darshi married Ram on March 4, 1953.

After the troubles of Murree and losses in Lahore and Pindi, Ray & Sons owed considerable money to British publishers, to an extent that they were blacklisted. Khuba Rai had lost everything during the Partition. This was directly affecting the functioning of the Lucknow bookshop, as no one was ready to give books on credit to the bookstore of Khuba Rai. On Bishop George Sinker’s advice, Ram proposed to buy the shop from Khuba Rai and paid Rs. 51,000 in instalments. Bishop Sinker asked Ram to call his shop simply Ram Advani Booksellers. Ram had thought of something fancier, but the Bishop wisely said he should just use his name and say that he was a bookseller. In 1953, the name of the bookshop was changed, and with the change of name and proprietor, books began to come in again.

Move to Gandhi Ashram

Thadani’s advice to open the shop inside the Gandhi Ashram was a masterstroke. It proved to be hallowed networking ground for all politicos and the who’s who of the newly independent India. From Nehru to Krishna Sinha, Feroze Gandhi to Suchitra Kriplani, everybody visited the Gandhi Ashram and also the bookshop. Soon the shop had outgrown the Ashram and new premises were needed. The lease to Lawrence and Mayo opticians in one corner of Mayfair Cinema complex was coming to an end. With Ram’s father managing Thadani’s Mayfair Cinema, a long-term lease was signed, in the presence of the ADM Lucknow.

The bookshop was a small room with neatly catalogued shelves of books. There was always Western classical music playing softly in the background. Ram followed a strict regime and was present for a few hours in the morning and evening every day. This continued till he was in his mid-90s. A keen golfer, with exquisite taste in Scotch, Ram floored his visitors with his soft-spoken courtly manners and charming ways.

Since the day it opened its doors under his name, Ram Advani Booksellers has stood as a bastion of independent bookselling in India. It became a routine pit stop for any scholar working on Indian studies, especially those with an interest in Awadh. Francis Robinson, Gale Minault, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Peter Taylor, Paul Brass, William Dalrymple, Ramachandra Guha all forged friendships with Ram through buying books. The shop went beyond books and conversations, into realms of Lucknow heritage. Ram Advani became an institution in himself.

The daily routine of visiting the shop continued until the sudden death of Darshi in June 2015. Ram’s health also took a turn for the worse after that. On the morning of March 9, 2016, Ram B hai, as he was affectionately known, passed away in his sleep, leaving behind a legacy of friends, followers and memories, from a lifetime of bookselling. He was 95.

(Shozeb Haider is a scientist specialising in Cancer Drug Discovery and Design at University College, London.)

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 8:18:24 AM |

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