The printing press at Lokvangmay Griha in central Mumbai’s Prabhadevi locale is abuzz with activity on a Saturday afternoon. A whiff of ink permeates the air, the throaty rumble of the Heidelberg offset printer echoes across the high-ceilinged space, and workers zip in and out, ferrying aluminium printing plates stacked precariously onto trolleys. The pages of the Urdu edition of the late rationalist Govind Pansare’s Shivaji Kon Hota? (1988) – originally written in Marathi – are rolling off the press, and will soon be cut to size, put in order, folded and bound.

Located within the premises of the rather nondescript Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan [named after the Communist and Parliamentarian] at the fittingly christened Leningrad Chowk, Lokvangmay Griha [or House of People’s Literature] was established in the 1960s. It was founded earlier, in 1953, by the Communist Party of India as the People’s Publishing House in Khetwadi in Bombay.

Sixty-three-year-old Charul Joshi, who oversees administrative operations as well as the printing process emphasises proudly, “The 52nd edition of Pansare’s book went to print just last month. It has been translated into more than seven Indian languages, and 2.75 lakh copies have been sold so far.” With Pansare’s assassination in February 2015, demand for his books burgeoned almost instantaneously. “At People’s Book House, 5,000 copies were sold within three days,” recollects Joshi.

A stream of Leftist literature

People’s Book House – at its current location off Horniman Circle – came into existence in 1973, under the aegis of Lokvangmay Griha. Entering the cubbyhole that the bookshop is, we’re greeted by a careful disarray of periodicals: People’s Democracy, a weekly mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India; New Age Weekly, that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Seminar, a 57-year-old monthly symposium of opinion, among others.

Books are snugly arranged on rows of shelves; we spot a few that are difficult to procure at brick-and-mortar bookshops in the city – Götterdämmerung over the New World Order (2003) by Stefan Engels, a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany; Joseph Conrad in Bakhtinian Dialogics (1995) by VK Tewari; and copies of the International Communist Current’s theoretical quarterly, International Review all at throwaway prices. Marxist-Leninist literature has irrefutably formed the backbone of the collection at the bookshop since its inception. “A large number of customers who would frequent the shop were highly intrigued by the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War,” says Joshi.

In her essay Mirroring the Precinct: A Spectrum of Bookshops, published in Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle (2008), sociologist Gita Chadha notes, “In those days, the bookshop [People’s Book House] attracted Left party workers, trade unionists and students of political science and humanities. Dropping into the bookstore before meetings, seminars or the launch of a trade-union agitation, to discuss issues or pick up the latest translation of Che Guevara or Pablo Neruda was a common practice.”

For several years, the bookshop was a thriving hub – a meeting place for Leftist intellectuals as well as a space for Bombay’s poets and littérateurs to congregate for interactions and discussions. Says Rajan Bawdekar, publisher and creative director of Lokvangmay Griha, “Writers and poets including Arun Kolatkar, Bhisham Sahni, Balchandra Nemade, Satish Kalsekar and Dilip Chitre often conducted readings at the bookshop itself. These were monthly occurrences, usually held on Saturdays.”

Mapping the Soviet manifesto

Through the 1970s, large consignments of books from Russia would arrive via cargo as well as at the Foreign Post Office at Ballard Pier. They comprised a repository of Soviet literature: books authored by literary heavyweights such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Olga Perovskaya, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky; beautifully illustrated books for children; volumes comprising folk tales and so forth. Says Gopal Pujari, manager at People’s Book House since 1992, “The bookshop is in close proximity to Azad Maidan, where party gatherings and rallies took place frequently.”

Committed to making Leftist literature accessible to the common man, the bookshop started participating at such conventions. “Often a stall would be set up, comprising the most recently published pamphlets and newsletters to be made available to party workers and participants alike. Translations of Soviet literature were concurrently sold at subsidised rates.” This trend continued during the 1980s, with a number of Soviet books being translated into Marathi, and then distributed primarily within Maharashtra, as well as across India.

Show of spine

Between tending to customers, recommending book titles and confabulating on the phone with distributors, Pujari manages to seize a moment or two for a quick glass of tea. “With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the last vestiges of books from Soviet publishers trickled in, and that was it. It then became vital to renew the collection at the bookshop in order to sustain it,”professes Pujari. The plunge in the demand for translated editions of the Soviet publications coincided with embarking upon novel ways to maintain sales.

“Almost 40 to 45 titles are published annually by Lokvangmay Griha, and are available at People’s Book House; not all of them have Leftist leanings,” points out Joshi. Today, the focus of People’s Book House is largely aligned towards progressive Marathi and Hindi literature, journals and newsletters on political issues, and publications on environmental and developmental concerns, along with books highlighting the Dalit Movement in Maharashtra.

We come across a copy of Arun Kolatkar’s now-difficult-to-trace The Policeman, a “wordless play in 13 scenes”; volumes on artist Amrita Sher-Gil by Vivan Sundaram; and a repertory of past as well as recent editions of the literary journal Biblio: A Review of Books. Hindi travelogue-writer, polyglot and lexicographer Rahul Sankrityayan’s seminal work of historical fiction, Volga Se Ganga (1944), was first translated and published in Marathi by Lokvangmay Griha. “Sankrityayan was deeply influenced by Mao Zedong and Karl Marx, and yet had an all-encompassing interest in literature. He gathered several Buddhist manuscripts from his journeys across Tibet. These now occupy pride of place at the Patna Museum,” explains Joshi.

Although the bookstore is tucked away inside Cawasji Patel Street in the Fort area of Mumbai, amidst the frenzied commotion of several photocopy shops, scrap dealers, tea stalls and the legendary Yazdani Bakery, its location is perhaps a steady hinge on which it has sustained loyalists over the years. “The people dropping by the bookstore are mostly those who work in the vicinity — office-goers, lawyers, bankers, and the occasional enthusiast,” explains Pujari.

Having gradually built a niche clientele over the years, the bookstore has its set of regular patrons. “Those who used to work in and around Fort and have now retired, still make it a point to visit the bookstore at least once a month, even if it warrants a few hours of hectic travel from the suburbs or Navi Mumbai,” he says.

Of course, the bookshop isn’t the only point of sale. The reach of Lokvangmay Griha’s publications goes well beyond Mumbai. “We’ve been participating regularly at the International Kolkata Book Fair as well as exhibitions held at Pune’s century-old Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad. Readers will survive and writers will survive. We just act as middlemen,” says Joshi.

Lokvangmay Griha and People’s Book House both fundamentally operate on a community-driven model, relying on their “comrades” for support. For instance, Joshi started looking after the functioning of the publication house only in 2015, after being involved in other activities earlier. “I have been proactive in various social welfare activities since 1974. I was involved with the upliftment of the tribals in Maharashtra – instilling a sense of self-sustenance among the Warlis, Mahars and Kolis by helping them engage in small-scale industries and handicrafts,” he says. “I officially joined Lokvangmay Griha on the 5th of May last year. It happens to be Karl Marx’s birth anniversary,” he smiles.

Fostering an ideology?

The ideals of Lokvangmay Griha can perhaps be yoked to the credo of the little magazine movement in Maharashtra between the 1950s and 1970s – and then, later, in the 1990s — paving the way for literature that allows the democratic flow of dialogue and debate, offers room for critical commentary, and puts the focus on bringing egalitarian, non-conformist voices to the fore.

In the wake of the recent political developments in India, what role does Lokvangmay Griha play? “The number of readers we have is small, yet discerning. Commercial gains are secondary; the conscious endeavour is to provide readers a peek into unfamiliar narratives, into literature that they may not have easy access to otherwise,” explains Pujari.

For instance, Sadhya Patta Bhumigat [Current Address Underground] (2014), a compilation of poems by the currently-imprisoned member of Pune’s Kabir Kala Manch, Sachin Mali, is one of Lokvangmay Griha’s recent publications. The book was released while Mali was in prison for having “Maoist links” as alleged by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). While the publishing house and, by extension, the bookstore, have diversified their collection to include titles that surpass the “manifesto” form to cater to the interest of more readers, the overarching idea has been to unwaveringly act as a platform for subaltern writings and voices of dissent so that they can be drawn into the larger literary fold.