Change is a fact, progress a judgement.
We returned from Bangalore a few days back, having celebrated Maya’s first birthday with our parents, friends and relatives. The trip was unlike any other to Bangalore. In the past, we spent time finding good places to eat and eating at our already favorite haunts – such as MTR, Red Mount, Queens, Mainland China, Brindavan, Taj Residency and Taj West End, poring over music collections in Planet M and Music World, walking up and down M.G. Road and Brigade Road, catching a Hindi movie and spending countless hours in bookstores such as Blossom, Strand, Gangarams and Premier. This time, I squeezed in a hurried dinner at Brindavan mixed with quick stops at Strand, Blossom and Planet M. Tired after an all day meeting at work, I didn’t want to travel the congested roads again on another day and I couldn’t even muster the energy to walk upto Premier.
The next day over dinner at a friend’s place, his wife laid the local daily, Deccan Herald, in front of me, the paper opened at the sad news that Premier bookshop was to shutter its doors, in 10 days. Shocked and saddened, I resolved to make another trip just to visit Premier and bid adieu to it’s owner, Mr. Shanbhag.
When I visited Bangalore as a child, M.G. Road and Brigade Road were magical places, next only to my grandparents’ place in Rajajinagar. Dinners at restaurants like Rice Bowl, Topkapi, Princess and Peacock, breakfasts of succulent idlys submerged in sambar and crisp masala dosas at Koshy’s (the one on Brigade which closed a long time ago), James Bond movies at Lido, other English movies such as Jaws, Italian Job (the old one starring Michael Caine) at cinema halls such as Blumoon, Bludiamond, Galaxy and Rex were major highlights of the trip, moments savored for the rest of the year, till we came again. When I was younger, Sapphire, a toy store at the corner of Brigade Road and Church Street was the place to load up on toys. As I grew older and reading became my passion, bookstores became my mecca.
Bangalore must be unique among all the Indian cities when it comes to bookstores. The best ones crowd around M.G. Road and Brigade, but are not uncommon in other parts of the city. For example, I remember a small newspaper stand along Sampige Road in Malleswaram where I’d attempt to retrieve the latest Phantom comic (a futile search most often as they’d be sold out). Many articles have been written about Bangalore’s love affair with books.
In my early years, my father took me to only Higginbothams. A stranger to used books (anything used for that matter) and side roads, he stuck to big names and main promenades (still does). So Higginbothams was all I knew of a bookstore in Bangalore for a while. Unfortunately, the store would usually be closed when we got there. It would shut early (around 6 or so, if my memory serves me right) in those days and would also be shut during the afternoons and Sundays. And so trying to go there after my father finished his meeting or on a Sunday would only render me speechless and in tears. Since my reading became all-consuming when we lived in Kerala, I took to loading up on my books in Cochin, at a bookstore along the main highway to Bangalore.
Soon after, Gangarams opened and with it a whole new world. I had started reading the Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (I still remember Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews). My father befriended one of proprietors of the store and I’d call from Kerala, before we left, to ask him to reserve some of these books. Once, I think because a trip to Bangalore got canceled, my father even had them ship the reserved titles to our home in Kollam (called Quilon in those days by non-locals).
As I grew into college and my reading grew into Gary Zukav and Fritjof Capra and my own footsteps led me away from the main roads, I discovered Premier bookstore. Just off M.G. Road, it quickly became a hallowed place. Premier had two aisles running through the store, with books piled way high on either side of the aisles. There was a method to the madness, but I found it to be more fun to browse as if the books were stacked at random. Browsing books became my own little treasure hunt, for who knows what I might discover (I discovered Noam Chomsky on one such browsing expedition in a London bookstore). In Premier’s aisles, Sartre and Ayn Rand elbowed J. Krishnamurti and Robert Pirsig, Desmond Bagley vied for attention with Robert Ludlum while Rudy Rucker and Paul Davies challenged Gary Zukav and Fritjof Capra. Book after book, title after title, description after description, my eyes scanned. My heart felt like it’d burst sometimes. How would I ever manage to read them all ? My father would give me a fixed sum of money (generous, but still limited compared to so many that I wanted to buy) with which I had to buy books and my other love, music cassettes.
At Premier, under the piles and piles, I unearthed Mark Tully, Ramachandra Guha and Pawan K Varma, obscure titles such as Environmentalism of the Poor and bestsellers such as Fooled by Randomness. What made visiting Premier even more lucrative was that Mr. Shanbhag offered upto 20% off the list price. Always amicable, he knew whether a book was in store or not and knew exactly buried under which pile a book was. Many times, I went in looking for a specific title and came out with something else in hand; the new find seemed more intriguing.
Visiting Premier took me back to my dead grandfather’s library, a fact I did not realize until much later. Similarly piled, rows of what seemed obscure titles, books on science mixed with books on Indian spirituality, similarly crowded in a small room, with a bed in one end of the room, on which he lay, holding forth about any book I chanced upon. There seemed no order to his collection either. I dearly loved my mother’s father, loved his love of books, bathed in his affection and pride in my reading. His first grandchild, my mom (and grandmother) says I was his favorite grandson, even though he always professed his egalitarian love for all his grandchildren. A part of my childhood died when he died. My mind is still scarred from my last image of him, lying shriveled with disease in a general ward in a hospital on the outskirts of Bangalore. I drove to see him with my cousin one night, still immature about things like death, still wallowing in my youthful pride. I almost ran away when I saw him. I scarcely recognized him. In his last days, his eyes almost gone due to cataract, he had been unable to read even with a strong magnifying glass. He’d sit on the porch of the house, trying desperately to read the daily newspaper. I’d be too impatient to read for him for long. I wanted to browse the books when my cousin was at school and play with my cousin when he returned. I had too little time to spend reading some boring paper. I remember him trying to stop passersby, imploring them to read him a section of the paper.
Premier bookshop has not only merited articles in mature dailies like The Hindu, but also a short documentary film, sponsored by San Francisco Film Society. A teaser of the documentary is available online.
On the day I went to Premier to say my last goodbye, I found Mr. Shanbhag beseiged by two women pleading with him to not close, that they’d help him relocate. Deccan Herald had quoted him as saying that he needed to undergo an eye surgery and he then wanted to go spend time with his daughter in Australia. The phone rang and Mr. Shanbhag answered. “No, the book is not in stock right now”, he said, “But, if you come in a week’s time, I can order it for you”. He was shutting the shop in 10 days and still ordering books for delivery in a week’s time! “You just can’t say no”, said one of the women, who appeared to be a journalist (she made notes of the comments his customers said as they departed). Many expressed their sadness at the closing of the store. I shuffled around the bookstore, looking for something to buy, something I might enjoy reading, something obscure and interesting at the same time, a final purchase that represented all that the bookstore stood for. I finally spotted “Writing A Nation: An Anthology of Indian Journalism”, edited by a Nirmala Lakshman. Just the book I wanted.
As I paid, I offered my hand to Mr. Shanbhag. “Thank you for the pleasure all these years”, I said, “I’ll miss you. Bangalore will miss you”. He took my hand and smiling his usual happy, twinkling-eyes smile, said “Thank you. I haven’t seen you in a long time. Oh, wait! You live in the US now”. I was touched that he remembered me, after all these years.
And I left. Another part of my life vanished with the closure of Premier. A part seemingly protected from the vagaries of time and age. My grandfather’s house is gone, a place I can no longer visit to relive my childhood. My grandparents themselves are gone. Little by little, my reliving of my past is going, fading with age, with change. But we’re creating a new past, a past for our child, Maya.