When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.
With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.
I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.
Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.
Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.
Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.
I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.
As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.
Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.
The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.
Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.
Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.
CM Naim is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.