When I heard of the passing away of Ram Advani, the grand old man of books at the age of 95, I was not shocked. I knew he had fractured a hip and was recovering from surgery and the loss of a beloved wife just about a year ago. He had little to live for, yet his legion of admirers feel he should have completed at least a century. To understand this puzzling statement, I must take you back to the Lucknow of the 1950s, for even though I was just a child, I have a very clear memory map of those times.
Lucknow was then a gracious, nawabi city. Its skyline was dotted with the stately domes of the famous university (a beautiful example of Indo-Saracenic architecture), the Chattar Manzil and the Medical College on the banks of the Gomti, the two Imambaras and the Kesar Bagh baradari, which housed Wajid Ali Shah’s harem (Parikhana). It had quaint Lakhnavi names for its Zoo (Bandariya Bagh), Museum (Murda Ajayabghar), the Bailey Guard of the Residency (Beli Garad), and Loreto Convent (Bhaktin Iskool).
However, there was also a “sahiblog ka shahar” and its heart lay in the Hazratgunj area. “Gunjing”, or strolling in Hazratgunj, was a popular activity in the evenings. My memory map records its landmark shops: Benbows, Kashmir Fruit Mart, Avadh Cocogem Stores, Chaudhury’s, Kazim Ali and Sons and Capoor’s on the left hand and the India Coffee House, Kashmir Emporium, Ramlal and Sons, Ranjana’s and Modern Silk House on the right. However, what we most looked forward to was the Mayfair complex that had a beautifully air-conditioned film theatre that only screened English films, with Kwality’s on the ground floor and Ram Advani Booksellers on its right. Later, the British Council Library took the first floor and became our favourite hangout on hot summer afternoons.
A cosy, intimate space
Ram Advani’s was always a cosy, intimate space with mellow teak bookshelves that exuded the delightful aroma of printed paper and a respectful hush, the hallmark of every good bookshop. It never felt like a shop because Ram Advani presided over it as if he was sitting in his home. Dressed immaculately, glasses dangling beneath his patrician face framed by a French beard, he was the book lover’s best friend. Somehow, he managed to distil the best of Lucknow’s nawabi andaz into that little space and even as the city went through social upheavals and morphed into a goons’ city, this little oasis kept its still, calm centre inviolate. It was widely accepted that no research scholar or writer of the city could afford to ignore it. Ram Advani would offer books, information and point the person in the right direction. There was nothing about the city’s history, sociology or anthropology that he did not know. What a pity that he never wrote a portrait of the city himself.
Every important writer on Lucknow, from Rosie-Llewlyn Jones to William Dalrymple and from Paul Brass to Ramachandra Guha, mentioned him in the acknowledgments’ page. He kept abreast of each book that mentioned Lucknow and when I wanted to send my book to some friends of my mother’s generation because they featured in the memoir I had written, they wrote to me saying that “Ram Bhaiyya” had already sent them copies of it.
After we left Lucknow, the bond remained because my mother was friends with his sister’s family as well. We left Lucknow in 1957 for Nainital and for a few years, Ram Advani and his family would come to stay in a cottage above our house in summer. I remember Rukun, his publisher son, as a very lively Dennis the Menace-like little boy and his baby sister Radhika, then called “Bitiya”. In 1968, my parents moved once more to Lucknow but by then I had joined the Allahabad University and came briefly in summer to Lucknow before heading for the hills.
I still made one mandatory pilgrimage to the bookshop but my last meeting with him was perhaps three years ago in the India International Centre’s dining hall. I kept getting odd bits of news from my cousins in Lucknow and heard he had lost his wife last year. Then, this year, he fractured his hip and was more or less confined to his flat (on the third floor of a building that did not have a lift).
Just a week ago, I was in Lucknow to attend a prayer meeting for a beloved aunt who had also passed away following a hip fracture at 97, but there was no time to visit or call him. The truth is I did not want to acknowledge that a whole generation of grand Lucknow personalities was going, going, gone. In my memory map, he is still there in his bookshop surrounded by his treasured books.