Saturday, February 28, 2009

Strand's Shanbhag passes away

Mumbai sure will be left with a vacuum in the world of book sellers and books with the passing away of Mr. T N Shanbhag, founder and owner of The Strand Book Stall at Fort. Mr. Shanbhag expired yesterday(February 27, 2009) at 1:30 pm and was cremated at the Chandanwadi crematorium at 11:00 pm.

Many know that Mr. Shanbhag started his book stall as a kiosk in the erstwhile Strand Cinema (thus the name) in Colaba on November 20, 1948 and moved it to its present location in 1954. Geeta Chadha who has written a chapter "Mirroring the Precinct", in the book Zero Point Bombay on The Horniman Circle precinct writes: "Having been humiliated in a reputed bookstore of the time for touching a book, the young Shanbhag wanted to start a bookstore where the access to ‘Saraswati' would not be restricted to the elite, but would be open to a wider section of the people. Shanbhag approached Keki Mody, the owner of Strand Cinema with his idea, and that is how the Strand Book Stall came into being on the premises of the cinema hall." Ths idea came to him during the screening of "Cheaper by the Dozen" at Strand Cinema.

Ask any book lover, reader, aficionado,buff,bookworm and he would have many names for the Padmashree Award winner of 2003 … favorite book seller, saint of books, twinkle eyed gentleman, humble book man of Mumbai and so on….

I knew him from all the frequent visits, over the years to the Strand Book Stall and also because his wife’s sister who we lovingly called ‘Mau’ was our next door neighbor. I remember him telling me that he was the first one in the world to sell a book at a discount (that too of 20%).

I have seen him, many a times forego much more than 20% for students and others who did not have enough to cover the bill. The additional book was always thrown in. This would never have happened in any other book store. He always used to say that Saraswati can never be bought or sold. He had in-depth knowledge of any book that you wanted which made you feel that he must have read each and every of the lakhs of titles in his store and I am sure he must have.

People used to throng and look forward to The Strand Book Festival at Sunderbai Hall held in January of every year, where discounts used to be higher and one could get ‘real’ deals on many books(Strand Specials). This was the first year that I did not see him at the Book Festival and his wife mentioned to me that he was at the Cumballa Hill Hospital but was recovering.

Last week, I had attended a lecture by Dr Frank Conlon on the Books Sellers and scholars of Bombay and any such discussion would have been incomplete without the mentioning of Mr. Shanbhag. In fact, the Mumbai book scene is going to be incomplete with the passing of Mr.T. N. Shanbhag. Mumbai has lost a city institution and a precious part of itself. Mr. Shanbhag will truly be missed by the city especially by those like me who have spent hours browsing in the little book store wth a soul.

Read Ranjit Hoskote's article"Honouring the bookman" written for the Hindu in 2003 here

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The whole slum knows Gachkya

I have known Gachkya for the past twelve odd years. The first time we got a call for a dog with a skin problem, the caller said “woh, mutari mein baitha hoga”. (He will be sitting inside the Urinal*), aur uska naam hai Gachkya”. (And his name is Gachkya).

He was called Gachkya because of his skin problem. The first time I remember being overpowered by the ammonia smell, having to carry out Gachkya who was sitting in the corridor of the Urinal and treat him. Promptly after being treated he would run back to occupy his position.

So it became a ritual if Gachkya was on the first aid list to go to Nariman Point, checking first in the toilet where he would be always sitting, being overpowered by the ammonia smell, carrying him outside, treating him and seeing him trot back right into his toilet. This carried on for years and recently he has thankfully moved into the narrow gullies of the slum behind the toilet.

He has always been a very sweet and quiet dog allowing us to carry him around for want of a better position for his treatment. He always does a little run of the criss cross gullies just to tease us, wagging his tail in tow. It is a game that he has mastered over the years. People never ‘shoo’ him away no matter where he is sitting, inside the Urinal or in the slum gully.

Gachkya is a resident of the slum opposite Tulsiani Chambers in Nariman Point and last Sunday when I saw him, he was as patient, as quiet, as friendly and as sweet as ever. Gachkya must be at least fourteen years old.

* Urinal here means a toilet with only urinal facilities.

Also cross posted on Mumbai Street Dog Photos

Monday, February 23, 2009

Shere Khan

In Marathi, a cat is called ‘Waghachi Mavshi’ or a tiger’s aunt. Well, here is a white cat that is true to his name. Shere Khan hangs around with some hawkers who sell shoes and socks on the P M Road footpath. He loves sitting on the cycle seat and will pose for you when you flash your camera. According to one of the elderly hawkers there, Shere Khan appeared one fine day, five years ago and took to all the hawkers who dote on him and feed him.

So next time if you are on P.M. Road in Fort, look out for this white ‘tiger’ who would be sitting on a bicycle allowing you to pamper and admire him at the same time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bombay's Book Stores - Old and New

Today, when I saw Dr Frank Conlon at the Durbar Hall at the Asiatic Society, I remembered where I had seen him last. It was at the St Xavier’s College in February 2007 where he was giving a lecture on The Tramways of Mumbai. This time, he was talking about “Bombay’s Book Sellers and scholars”, a talk organized by The Asiatic Literary Society.

Dr Frank has written many Bombay centric articles including "Dining Out In Bombay", "Industrialization and the Housing Problem in Bombay, 1850-1940” and the book, "A caste in a changing world : the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans, 1700-1935".

He first came to Mumbai in November 1965 and frequented many book stores and libraries. He remembers book stores like Taraporewala and Sons and New Book Company on D.N. Road, Thackers and Chetana on Rampart Row, Alavi Book Depot and Kokil on Mohammed Ali Road, N.M. Tripathi on Princess Street, New and Second Hand book store at Kalbadevi, Popular Book Depot on Lamington Road and Bombay Book Depot at Prarthana Samaj and the Strand Book Stall in Fort.

He says that the above stores were started by people who had genuine appreciation of books. Real books shops are an ‘endangered’ species today and various compulsions have closed down many including Popular, Bombay, Thackers, Alavi and Kokil.

He added that today’s bookstores like Crossword might be fancy, have sofas, carpets, air-conditioners and coffee shops but the people working there have ‘no engagement with the product’ and going to such stores is not the same for those who feel and have a special affection for books.

Strand Book Stall

He spoke about some of the people behind the stores. Everyone knows about Mr. Shanbhag of the Strand Books Store. He didn’t go into the details but here is an extract from my post on the Strand Book Festival. “It all started when Mr. T. N. Shanbhag (recipient of the Padmashri in 2003) put up a little stall which sold books at a discount. It was located near the erstwhile Strand Cinema (thus the name) in Colaba and opened on November 20, 1949 and was moved in 1954 to its present location. Mr. Shanbhag was telling me all this and added that he was the first one in the world to sell a book at a discount (that too of 20%)”

Popular Book Depot

He then spoke about the Popular Book Depot and G.R. Bhatkal and his son Sadanand. The Bhatkals were seen as the pioneers of the book and publishing business.

I have had the good fortune of knowing Sadanand kaka as I call him and remember going to the green painted Popular Book Depot on Lamington Road as a kid. The store had a long counter and perpendicular to it, at the back were rows of shelves full of thousands of books. I remember going past these rows to the back and climbing onto a steep ladder to go to Sadanand kaka’s office.

Popular book depot was started by Sadanand Bhatkal’s father Shri Ganesh Bhatkal in 1924. Eminent jurist , the late Nani Palkhiwala in a speech rendered for a G.R. Bhatkal Memorial lecture in September 1995, says that Shri Ganesh Bhatkal helped him in three inestimable ways. He used to allow Mr. Palkhiwala to treat Popular as a public library. During his career as an arts student(1936-1942), he was allowed to sit and browse through books at the shop for hours together and also take home books ‘on approval basis’. He also remembers that he would at times continue reading even after the front door had been closed and later coming out by the back door.

I was truly saddened when Popular closed down in the eighties and so did Bombay Book depot which was a leading Marathi book shop. In fact, Sadanand kaka’s brother Ramdas kaka that ran Popular Prakashan, a publishing house was present for Dr Conlon's lecture.

Dr Conlon ended his lecture by mentioning scholars and institutions that have made a big difference in researching various subjects on Mumbai and feels that today there is an upsurge on the number of people who want to research on Mumbai.

Stores that are still around

Mumbai has various books stores where you can satiate your literary appetite. The new age book stores like Crossword with their flagship store at Kemps Corner and many branches all over,Granth at Goregaon and Juhu, Oxford at Churchgate and the newly opened Landmark at Andheri. All these and the various neighbourhood book stores

There are niche book stores like Marine Sports Books Store at Dadar for sports books, Computer Book Shop on D.N. Road for computer books, Sterling Book Shop at V.T. for management books,Gandhi Book Centre at Nana Chowk for books on Gandhiji,Hindi Granth Karyalaya at C.P. Tank for Hindi books , Ideal book depot at Dadar and Majestic at Girgaum for Marathi books, Lakhani Book Depot at Girgaum for text books and Bhavan's Book stall at Chowpatty and Andheri for Religion,History and Phlosophy.

Single books stores which have been around for a long time like Danai at Khar(which also has opened a branch at the Taj Land's end), Nalanda in the Taj Mahal Hotel at the Gateway of India, Shankars outside Cafe Mondegar on Colaba Causeway and Causeway Book Store which sell books left behind by foreign tourists at over-rated prices.

And the old age ones like the Strand , off P.M. Road, FBH ( Fort Books Distributors) at V.T. who supply a lot of books to all the Mumbai book stores and regularly hold exhibitions all over the city. You would get new and second hand books at the New and Second hand books shop at Metro, Smokers Corner at the Ballard Estate end of P.M. Road and of course the road side book-sellers around Fountain, Churchgate, King's Circle, Bandra and at 'raddiwalas' all over the city. All these stores would always give you discounts on the books.

But in the sea of the Crosswords, Oxfords, Granths and Landmarks … the Strand remains my favorite.