“‘What’s left here? Everyone dresses like the foreigners. We have learnt all their bad ways. Do you think the number of drinkers here is small?’
‘I haven’t seen such people. Maybe only you come across them. Since education is widespread, people have fine thoughts. I believe they are on the right path.’”— From "Indira", Kerooru Vasudevacharya, 1908, a Kannada novel set in Bengaluru and Srirangapatna
Somewhere in the middle of my first year in college, I began to develop a strong sense of disquietude that traced its provenance to a measured self-appraisal that I was an utter imbecile. Not much has changed since, but back then I possessed the spirit and will of an autodidact with a chip on his shoulder and decided to remedy my hamartia.
So I proceeded to Blossom’s bookshop on Bengaluru’s Church Street with a large, black polyethylene garbage bag filled with your Sidney Sheldons, your Arvind Adigas and your Chetan Bhagats and replaced the refuse with a litany of vaguely Russian sounding authors and walked back home a complete stereotype.
In her commentary on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flaneur, Hannah Arendt mentions how even the sky in Paris took on the artificial appearance of a great ceiling, the natural and the manufactured blurring completely through the prism of interest for one who roves about the city. On my visits to Bengaluru as a child, I always recollected the sky feeling very, almost artificially, close – but, more importantly, as an adult I had come to regard the bookshops, the bars and the inhospitable pedestrian terrain of Church Street as some sort of organic extension to the landscape of the city.
This was no novel way of regarding this stretch of tarmac amongst a sizeable bunch of people as they slid into the complex that housed Bookworm and, minutes or hours later, into the parking lot near Temptation Wines, regarding their Khodays and Coke with the same proximate level of gravitas as a Borges novel. It was in these formative years that I began to feel the intellectual inadequacy I mentioned earlier, running into a cast of characters that seemed to be terminal fixtures on these streets – people who would probably scoff now, as I would too, at their ability to traverse the Magic Realists and Sangam poetry in one inspired, boozy monologue.
Having spent most of my years at a pretty Spartan boarding school and finishing my primary education at a snooty, elite Chennai school, where the primary intellectual pursuit was terribly appropriating a trashy American television idea of what High School ought to be, I was never made to feel a sense of inferiority in this respect – I always ended up being one of the better read ones. What struck me about this Bangalorean subculture was its rather porous standards of membership. People were allowed to falter in their quest – quite unlike a certain self-assuredness and cliquishness that dominates a town like Delhi, its reaches were cosmopolitan with a largely casual sense of rootedness, for better or worse.
It’s almost been a decade since I moved here for college and while I still retain a sense of wonder at the mundane like a hardened flaneur, I do occasionally suffer from brief, sporadic bouts of what Arul Mani, rather successfully in my opinion, termed “layout-guilt” – “the feeling that some Bangaloreans have when they come across other Bangaloreans they have unwittingly helped uproot.” Bearing this yoke, I set off to what is now the even more inhospitable lunar landscape of Church Street, which along with the viral Bellandur lake has come to signify Bangalore’s civic inferno in the popular imagination.
As always, Mayi Gowda, the owner of Blossoms Book House, is a pillar of calm in the far more spacious environs of the new branch of his bookstore, just down the road from the old one. “On the weekends, you could barely move around in the other store, so I thought it would be practical to rent a bigger space so that the crowd could browse freely.” But is he making the rent? “Oh yes, we are managing.”
Krishna Gowda of Bookworm has also rented another, bigger space to house his books. “The landlord warned me many times before renting it out, ‘You will not be able to pay the rent if you own a bookstore’, but I took the risk. The first few months were a little difficult, but now we are doing well.” He pauses and lets out a nervous, endearing laugh while I motion to the road outside.
“Yes, ever since this road has been dug up the crowds have decreased.” Krishna’s and Mayi Gowda’s stories overlap on many crucial points. Both are from small towns near Mysuru, both came to the city for their higher education (a BCom and MBA, and Engineering, respectively), both cut their teeth in the book trade by selling books on the pavement near MG Road while they completed their education, eventually acquiring spaces on the same street soon after the turn of the millennium. “Those days, I used to go buy books in bulk in the morning near Upparpet police station. Now, you don’t find those vendors there any more and I have book distributors across states in India.” says Krishna Gowda.
Given their similar trajectories, is there a sense of competition between these two venerable institutions? “No no, I don’t think there is any competition.” says Mayi Gowda with a beaming smile. “See, I don’t think anyone in India has as big a second-hand collection as Blossoms does.” says Krishna Gowda, “So where is the question of competition? If you go there with ten titles in your mind on any day, you’ll maybe find six or seven. In our shop you’ll probably find 5!”
With commensurate speed, both brush off bogeyman theories of e-commerce behemoths like Amazon and Flipkart. “Our focus is second hand books. There was a time I thought they would be a threat, but we stuck to what we do and they haven’t really affected us.” says Krishna Gowda. But how does one sustain a business on second-hand books?
“It’s all because of the customers, they keep returning to us.” says Mayi Gowda. Blossoms accepts old books for a generous remuneration in either cash or a gift voucher, while Bookworm has a system of store credit where bringing back old books gives you 50% of its marked price in store credit. Blossoms and Bookworm both have a perennial discount of 20% on new books, something they probably borrowed from TS Shanbhag of the defunct Premier Bookshop, who also probably borrowed the idea from his uncle, the famed Shanbhag of the Strand Bookstore in Bombay and Bengaluru
“It is customers and their enthusiasm for reading that keeps me going, I learn a lot from them, especially the younger customers who sustain my business.” says Krishna Gowda.
“Is there a trend of younger people visiting bookshops?” asks K Sanjay of Select Bookshop, located at what can objectively be marked as the quietest spot on Brigade Road, which houses rare and antique books, “At least I haven’t noticed it. There were more young people here just six or seven years ago.” When I push the soft-spoken, punctilious Sanjay to think of an explanation, he says, “I think it’s because the world has become a much more competitive place, young people are burdened with so much when they are in school and college, so who has the time to read really?”
But surely there has to be something about the Bangalorean reading culture that allows three niche bookshops to thrive in this busy, high-rent business district? “I don’t know, other cities like Chennai or Hyderabad don’t have these kinds of bookshops. But yes, Bengaluru is a city that reads.” says Mayi Gowda.
Sanjay passes on the question to a couple of his friends who join us for the afternoon and after patiently hearing them out he offers a practical explanation. “I think it’s because this is everybody’s city. People come here from all over the place, so there are bound to be readers.” He then makes his way to a locked cupboard outside the shop at the threshold and picks out an anthology of modern American poetry published by Simon & Schuster, the publishing firm his technocrat father KKS Murthy had worked for. “You had mentioned that you liked poetry, I think you might find this one interesting,” he said.
At the risk of positioning Bengaluru’s reading culture as something of a shahr-i-ashob, I do feel there is a pressing need to not only reclaim but assert our presences in these spaces. The bullets of those who would rather do away with this part of Bengaluru’s topography, the voices it contains and the power of the ideas that resonate within it, have claimed Gauri Lankesh, someone who I had simply assumed would always be a permanent presence in my corner of the world. She will be, and we mustn’t allow them to hijack the environs that made her.