Want a Chetan Bhagat? Stay away from Rachna Books, the independent bookstore in Gangtok.
Raman Shresta, the idealistic 40-year-old bookseller, still has to borrow money from his parents “well, almost every year” but refuses to stock some of the bestselling authors because of their “dubious literary merit”. In fact, he waits in ambush for unsuspecting youngsters to walk in asking for a Chetan Bhagat, or Durjoy Datta, or Ravinder Singh. And then? “I tell them about good, serious writers. I guide them towards classics, you never go wrong with them.” Some of them go back, some with a book or two; a few come back for more.
In 1979, Rajiv Shankar Shresta, an IAS officer, along with his father JS Lal Shresta, a retired school headmaster, started a general bookstore in Gangtok’s idyllic, residential Development Area. It also had magazine and newspaper agencies. However, after some years of brisk business, shutters came down on the book shop in 1988 as Shresta found it increasingly difficult to manage.
The second coming
Fifteen years later, his “prodigal son” Raman Shresta, who’d spent some years in Pokhra in Nepal and Delhi, “searching his soul” after training in hotel management and graphic designing, had an epiphany travelling on a shared cab from Darjeeling to Sikkim. It had been a year since he had hung up his corporate boots, and was home on a break. At the end of a bumpy ride through the majestic mountains, hugging the banks of the picturesque Teesta, he declared to his family that he was not going to leave Sikkim; he would reopen Rachna Books.
Today the bookstore is an important cultural landmark of Gangtok, a city loved by tourists as much for the breathtaking views of Mount Kanchenjunga as for its nightclubs and casinos. The Lonely Planet describes Rachna as Gangtok’s best-stocked and convivial bookshop where “gentle live guitar music serenades you while you browse”.
It won Publishing Next’s Bookstore of the Year award in 2015. And earlier this year, Shresta was seen rubbing shoulders with some very big names from the field of literature and publishing at the Jaipur BookMark – part of the Jaipur Literature Festival – as one of the speakers.
Rachna’s success story lies not in its balance sheets. After all, for any independent bookstore, making money is very difficult with the emergence of big-moneyed bookstore chains, online shopping and digital publishing. “I have just about survived. It’s been possible in large part because I don’t have to pay rent for the space,” says Shresta.
In 2012, Shresta moved Rachna Books one floor up and started Cafe Fiction on the ground floor, and since last year he has been offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation, called Bookman’s BnB, on the second floor. Both these ventures are expected to help Shresta “meet the rising needs to keep the bookstore running”.
A space, not just a shop
Rachna’s major contribution lies in nurturing an ardent community of booklovers and cultural aficionados in a hill town where a surfeit of new money has resulted in buildings, buildings and more monstrous buildings. Rachna provided refuge to young minds from the city’s growing materialistic culture. They met there and read to each other, often their own compositions. Those not into books strummed their guitars. Artists lined up their installations, and bakers, their cakes and brownies.
Authors Chetan Raj Shrestha and Prajwal Parajuly, both of whom have gone on to become famous both in India and abroad, are in some ways products of this movement. “It’s here that I first decided I had to write a book. It’s here that I get all my crazy ideas...,” Parajuly, the author of The Gurkha’s Daughter and The Land Where I Flee, wrote in his essay published in Mint Lounge, adding: Rachna Books is “responsible for ensuring that a town of excessively moneyed people doesn’t become a town of degenerates”.
“Institutions such as these are boons in small places which lack outlets for the senses,” Shreshtha, the author of The King’s Harvest and The Light of His Clan, says in an email from Australia, where he is currently based. He won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for the King’s Harvest.
“As much as it has shaped my reading life, it has influenced my writing career. I have met writers from around the world, and it was a junction of sorts for me, for when the larger world was a distant place, it allowed the world to come to me. I have attended a dizzying variety of talks and exchanges here. I launched both my books there, and it remains the only shop in the world where both of them have assured presences.”
Shreshtha and Parajuly are, unsurprisingly, Rachna’s bestselling authors.
I first step in at Rachna in 2012. It is for Parajuly’s Sikkim launch of The Gurkha’s Daughter, followed by a reading session and book-signing. Shrestha is there, as are many other “friends”, who perch themselves on arm rests of sofas and sprawl on the carpets. It seems like a house party, the coming together of the “usual suspects”. A “friend” has brought a cake she’s baked herself, and another “friend” goes around with a tray filled with cups of Temi tea from Cafe Fiction.
Rachna has hosted almost 100 such events, from film screenings – Shresta is a co-director of the Sikkim Film Festival – to poetry slams, jazz and Hindustani classical music gigs, and shadow puppetry.
It was at one such event, a bake sale, that he met his wife Sarvada. She had come “to help around”. After a few months of courtship the couple tied the knot at a no-frills wedding in April 2015, and hosted a small reception at – where else? – Rachna Books. “A bookman gets married at his bookstore!” he chuckles. Sarvada has taken up the reins of Cafe Fiction and is doing “incredibly well”.
Rachna also hosts Converse, the literary fest of the Gangtok chapter of North Eastern Writers’ Forum. Its publishing arm, Rachna Publications, is looked after by the senior Shresta.
For all the reputation Shresta has acquired among distributors for picking up books from the dustiest corners, the store is rather chic. It’s a “carefully-curated” collection of books, largely leaning to the left, neatly displayed in wooden shelves. There are books on Sikkimese and Tibetan history, and Buddhism, and a dedicated section on writings from North East India. The romanticised unruliness that usually characterises independent bookstores is not here, and Shresta personally takes great care to keep the place immaculate.
One quiet April afternoon, I sit by the glass window at Rachna flipping over the pages of Indra Bahadur Rai’s English translations. I see Shresta light an incense stick.
“Praying?” I whisper respectfully.
“No, it smells good; should drive away the smell of that guy’s shoes.”
“Whose?” I don’t get any smell.
“He left a while ago.”
Outside, hailstorms are doing a sprightly dance on the roofs, even as the sun is still shining far away in the valley.