Chronicles Of A Bookshop’s Death

A bookstore is likened to a temple of words providing food for minds and sharpening intellectual curiosity of readers. Premier Book Shop (PBS) on Bangalore’s Church Street was one such for 38 years till the owner weighed down by age and poor eyesight and unaffordable rent had to call it a day in 2009 to the great disappointment of the city’s book lovers.

Incidentally, a couple of years before the shop closed down, many citizens came forward with donations when a sudden huge rise in rent in the area threatened PBS closure. But as the curtain came down finally on PBS, Bangalore lost a piece of its soul. Not that other book shops offering greater convenience than what was available at PBS are not there in the tech city. What, however, distinguished PBS was its owner cum bibliophile T Sarvotham Shanbhag who not only packed 500,000 books in a 15 feet wide and 25 feet long rented space forcing his obliging customers to manoeuvre carefully so that mountain of books didn’t collapse, but he could immediately recall where he had kept a particular title. No help from a computer, all packed in his brain, he knew precisely what his clients were looking for in a sea of books.

Shanbag had a fairly large devoted clientele, including academics, readers with special interest be it autobiographies, history or cinema, bookworms and students. Such was his passion for books and his inclination to help customers, many of whom were his friends, that he would play the role of a guide and a friendly local librarian for most part of the day at the shop. But what did make the globally respected magazine The Economist to feature Shanbhag who died earlier this year at 84 in its obituary page?

In his own country, Shanbhag’s passing went unnoticed in newspapers and magazines. Maybe, some publications in his home city took notice of an era that came to an end with Shanbhag’s death. The best way to answer the question will be to make some random references from The Economist obit: “What had also died with him, many felt, was a rare part of old Bangalore… In that small corner of the city he had made a sanctuary (for booklovers)… Customers often complained of leaving with many more books than they had meant to buy; or coming in for a book on cricket, and leaving with one on Marx… No action gave him so much joy as putting a book that was wanted into someone’s hand.”  

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The print and electronic media in Indian subcontinent is obsessed with politicians, film personalities and cricketers (not pugilists, wrestlers and badminton players) that it has little time for all others including the ones like Shanbhag who in a quiet dignified way enrich society, cerebrally.  The media in this part of the world has become like any other product that instead of shaping minds will concern itself with widely fancied subjects, whatever their worth.

Unlike The Economist, which found worth noting that Shanbhag would take delight in some child visitors to PBS would one day become “writers, poets and historians” or the man who fancied the works of Albert Camus would distribute books to libraries in the city at the time of closedown of his shop is passé for editors (honestly proprietors) in this subcontinent. Whatever Indian editors might fancy, historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in his twitter on Shanbhag passing that “I owe much of my education (such as it is) to books bought at Premier Book Shop… My wife and I both grew up reading books bought from Mr Shanbag, and so did our children. His warmth and kindliness did not preclude a mischievous sense of humour.”

Make a rapid search of The Economist issues over any given period, you will be surprised the kind of people with nothing but driven by a passion to do good unto others selflessly have lived among us to make the earth a better place. Once they are gone you will be tempted to remember what Einstein said about Gandhi: “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

The homage that the globally read magazine pays to the likes of Ethiopia’s teacher of the poor Asfaw Yemiru or Ingrid “Ganga” Stone who drawing on God’s Love translated into a budget of $23 million could organise food for 2.5 million sick and housebound New Yorkers during the Covid lockdowns or Nawal El-Saadawi of Egypt who relentlessly campaigned against oppression of women in her country “from genital mutilation to routine marital thrashings, from puny inheritance rights to the wearing of the veil” braving state repression and death threats from fellow citizens for out arguing God. Consciously or unconsciously all of them had something of Gandhi in them.

But The Economist obituaries are not all about saints. To give one example, in its April 24 issue, it featured Bernard Madoff, who ran the world’s largest ever Ponzi scheme based on money received from new investors to take care of any redemptions and pay existing investors. But Madoff who died in jail at the age of 82 was responsible for causing a loss of $85 billion to clients that included universities, HSBC, Nomura, Royal Bank of Scotland and individuals of such fame as Steven Spielberg and noble peace prize winner Elie Wiesel. Isn’t there a warning in that obit that even the very successful people could be taken for a ride by an uncommonly suave and intelligent individual bent on prospering by committing financial crimes.

Saints and sinners apart, The Economist would pay tributes in the obituary page to men like Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II and Kenneth David Kaunda, founding president of Zambia. Candour marked the obituary on Prince Philip as it says “marriage brought the young, rootless prince a home, a country, a passport, a new religion and the first real stability in life.”

The piece is warts and all. Read this: “In public his job was to walk two steps behind his wife, trying not always to make a small talk.” At the same time, the obit speaks about the prince’s role in urging the queen to “spread her wings with the words ‘Come on Lilibet.’” Soon after he moved into Buckingham Palace, he invested the palace administration with professionalism. The prince, the obit says, “was good at getting things done: his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme for teenagers now operates in more than 140 countries.” As for Kaunda, the magazine says he lived by the two commandments that his parents passed onto him: Love God, and love your neighbour. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you. He was a transformed man reading Gandhi while serving jail sentence. The Economist writes Gandhi’s writings “went straight to his heart. He resolved to live simply, give up drink and smoking and take back his country (from British colonial rule) without bloodshed.” But the crowning glory was his decision to step down graciously from power after he lost the 1991 election. Kaunda was only the second African president to do so. His mission was to bring conciliation to the continent, marked by Zambia becoming a refuge for “anti-colonial strugglers from all over southern Africa.”

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Sarvadaman Ray
Sarvadaman Ray
2 years ago

The truth

2 years ago

We need to recognize and remember the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary work. Hope to see obits of folks who are not just “saints and sinners”

Krishna Rupam
Krishna Rupam
2 years ago

Indian media’s obsession with politicians will never go. So don’t expect newspapers and magazines here to make efforts like The Economist to find out people in other fields making sterling contribution to enrichment of society and write about them when they are alive or gone. Excellent article.

Dheer Kothari
Dheer Kothari
2 years ago

Fascinating story!

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