BOOKSHOP LOVE

‘It’s not just Church Street’: In Bengaluru, these three Kannada bookshops have their own identities

Because Kannada writers are stars in their own right, with a wide readership.

“I went to England to see daffodils celebrated by Wordsworth ‘tossing their heads in sprightly dance’. And I have a dream. I dream of a time when people who visit Karnataka want to smell the fragrant Mysore jasmines, eat the bananas of Nanjangud and read the great vachanas of Basaveshwara and Allama Prabhu. I dream of a time when those who admire the wanderings of Joyce’s hero Daedalus also open their eyes to the rich Dalit world that Kuvempu’s character Nayigutti leads us into.”

— From "Ooru And The World", UR Ananthamurthy

In his stellar profile of the readers of queer author Vasudhendra, the writer and translator Srinath Perur speaks of how Kannada authors tend to be very approachable to their readers. In Vasudhendra’s case this meant that an assortment of people, ranging from a middle age Vedic astrologer in Bengaluru to a 27-year-old farmer in North Karnataka, reached out to him after his book Mohanaswamy was published, which Perur describes as “the first book of fiction in Kannada with well-realised gay characters.”

Vasudhendra’s work was quietly revolutionary, and his readers not only offered him critiques but opened up to him about their personal struggles. These were conversations Vasudhendra was ready to have, being equipped with his year-long training in basic counselling.

Working on this piece at a crowded military restaurant in Jayanagar, the sight of its walls adorned with framed photographs of writers and intellectuals like UR Ananthamurthy, Da Ra Bendre and Girish Karnad, instead of those of the founders or of deities, reinforced a fact I had known about this city – it takes its writers seriously.

For those who read Kannada literature in Bengaluru, the Kannada literary world espouses an immediacy, a certain rajas that the writer S Diwakar explores well in his essay “Oh, Come To Gandhibazar!”

“For someone like me, with a deep, abiding passion for literature, terribly frightened of writing, and with an overall touch-me-not attitude, it was in this Gandhibazar that I was able to interact with litterateurs...We would walk towards Sanman Café to have coffee. Here, we would be joined by our other friends. (Gopalakrishna) Adiga would light a cigarette, offer it to those who smoked among us and, as soon as the coffee arrived, he would set the day’s discussion in motion. Who’s written what, Indira Gandhi’s administration, an analysis of Eliot’s poetry, Brezhnev’s autocratic ways, the prevailing price of coconut, the static state of this country, where even a matchstick fails to ignite…Anything under the sun could become a subject of our discussion. We would talk, talk, and talk.”

— Translated by Deepa Ganesh

As someone who can neither read nor write in Kannada, despite a few spirited attempts eventually consumed by the laxity of one who has been introduced to the language pretty late in life, I’ve always been an intrepid outsider gazing into what I’ve perceived as a deeply rich tradition. The canards that surrounded these literary figures, conveyed to me by those on the inside, all animated with their own “chronotope” – to unfairly drag Mikhail Bakthin into this essay – fascinated me and soon I found myself indiscriminately purchasing translations of works by any Kannada author.

This was a process greatly encouraged by beginning my journey with AK Ramanujan’s moving translations of the Vachanas of Basaveshwara (“I don’t know anything like time-beats and metre /nor the arithmetic of strings and drums; / I don’t know the count of iamb or dactyl/ My lord of the meeting rivers/ as nothing will hurt you/ I’ll sing as I love.”). At a talk I attended recently that featured writers Vivek Shanbhag and Zac O’ Yeah, the former – now an internationally acclaimed Kannada author – spoke of a schism between Bengaluru’s Kannada and Anglophone writers: “These two worlds never meet.”

Writer Vivek Shanbhag at Aakruti Books
Writer Vivek Shanbhag at Aakruti Books

This lament is echoed by Guruprasad D Narayana, the owner of Aakruti Books in Rajajinagar “For example, a writer like Anita Nair is not known as a Bengaluru writer amongst Kannada readers in Bengaluru even though she writes about Bengaluru. I think there must be an effort by both sides.” However, English-to-Kannada translations are bogged down by another hurdle. “Kannada books are priced very cheaply, we go by the page basically,” says Guruprasad, who has published 17 books in Kannada. “With English books, you find that they are not only priced higher but the publishers retain the translation rights too, which are expensive to acquire.”

A consensus emerges that translation is indeed the first step in bridging the gap between these two worlds. “I think some our greatest writers have remained within the Kannada circle as their work is not translated into other languages, especially English,” says Vasant Shetty the owner of Munnota Books in Basavanagudi “As a first step, drawing non-Kannadigas to Kannada should happen through translations of Kannada’s greatest literature to English and possibly other Indian languages. The onset of English medium education has also created a big chunk of Kannadigas who mostly read English and are oblivious to Kannada literature.”

Bengaluru is perhaps the only true multilingual metropolis in India, a city where linguistic diversity is not merely a postcard of cosmopolitanism and tolerance, but, rather, a customary feature of daily living. In the fascinating and subtle documentary, Shankar Nag Kelkond Bandaga (When Shankar Nag Comes Asking), an auto-rickshaw driver at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand in Basaveshwaranagar likens the city to “a vast ocean.”

Four years after the release of this documentary the city has only become even more vast, plunging head-on into what Pankaj Mishra described in 1995 as “going the way other Indian cities had gone before it, letting entropy do its slow inexorable thing, turn(ing) this once elegant cantonment town into another urban Indian nightmare.”


In an increasingly detached urban milieu, both bookstores seem to understand the value of having freewheeling spaces for darbar and discussion like Diwakar’s Gandhibazar of yore. “Munnota has so far hosted over 30 talks in the last 10 months alone. We live in a day and time where people to people interactions are becoming rarer due to social media. While fully recognising the positive impact of social media on the society, I still believe nothing can replace the beauty of people to people interactions!” says Vasant Shetty.

Aakruti books hosts informal talks by established Kannada authors and holds poetry discussions and recitals covering the Navodaya and Navya canon. Guruprasad is also attempting to bring out a long form literary journal with a friend. “Back then,” he says, “authors like DV Gundappa and Gopalakrishna Adiga had their own small magazines. Even Lankesh Patrike used to do important work for literature. I’m trying to start a quality journal that has stories in Kannada, stories translated into Kannada from regional languages, and interviews.”

My hour-long conversation with Guruprasad was illuminating, touching, on among other subjects, an obscure poet from Mysuru who has released a collection of poems titled Ramu Kavithegalu (The Poems Of Ramu), the relevance of Umberto Eco’s writing in modern-day India, and the dearth of Kannada translations of Latin American literature.

All this enlightened rambling left me feeling strange that our paths hadn’t crossed given our similar interests, “There is a biased view that Bangalorean reading culture is restricted to Church Street, nobody will talk about Nagasri Book House for example,” he grumbles, adding a polite but valid rebuke. “I had read your article about those shops last week, I needed a dictionary! Just yesterday, I read an essay by Sartre and didn’t have that much trouble.”

How then do those intrepid ones in the sea of outsiders who make this city their home annually dive into this literary tradition? “Acquiring reading and writing comprehension in a new language is a tough skill,” admits Shetty. “Anyone new to the Kannada world should first start by learning spoken Kannada. There are many initiatives by techies in this space (Munnota, Kannada Gottilla). Once they gain some proficiency in spoken Kannada, they can start attending literary talks that take all the time at various places like Ravindra Kalakshetra, Kannada Sahitya Parishat, Indian Institute of World Culture.” Guruprasad offers a more grounded approach. “Watch the movies, however bad they are.”

The audience at a book event at Munnota Bookshop
The audience at a book event at Munnota Bookshop

Both the Munnota and Aakruti bookshops are fledgling enterprises compared to the older Kannada bookstores in town, “If you ask me, I can’t really think of a reason why I started the bookstore even now seven years down the line.” says Guruprasad, an engineer by training. “I’ve always been interested in literature and I even wrote film reviews for Kannada Prabha for a few years. I just wanted to be involved in literature, I hope to write a book some day.”

Shetty started Munnota bookstores in 2016 with a couple of friends. By day he works for a tech company “It’s a niche bookstore with curated Kannada (90%) and English (10%) books on federalism, language reforms, language planning, the history of Kannada, Karnataka, entrepreneurship, and science and technology. There are several Kannada bookstores in Bengaluru but we wanted to get good, objective, well researched books on these areas under one roof.”

Guruprasad, on the other hand, started his bookshop with the aim of providing a more general literary catalogue for Kannada readers in North Bengaluru. “South Bengaluru is where all the bookstores are,” he says. “Over here in Rajajinagar, I might be the only general bookstore. But I think I overestimated how many readers there would be. Also, their spending capacity seems to be lower.”

“One thing I’ve observed here and in other bookshops,” Guruprasad continues, is that people don’t simply browse for books anymore. The internet and e-commerce has probably contributed to this. When they come to the bookstore they know exactly what they want. Just browsing and discovering a surprise amongst the bookshelves is a culture that’s died.”

Venkatesh KV at Nagasri Book House
Venkatesh KV at Nagasri Book House

Nagasri Book House is located in the Jayanagar BDA commercial complex and can be a little tricky to find if you don’t ask for directions. “They started work on this building in 2011,” says Venkatesh KV, pointing at a massive deserted mall-like structure that was built to give the Jayanagar Commercial Complex a swank new edge, “But before that you could see our shop clearly from the main road. It was completed in 2015, but neither the BBMP nor the BDA (city corporations in Bengaluru) have claimed ownership of it, so it’s just lying here. Look, you can see the weeds growing in the parking driveway.”

Nagasri Book House is a 41-year-old establishment that stocks English as well as Kannada titles. Its catalogue is impressive, clearly geared towards serious readers “What you see in these big bookshops and malls today are the same kind of books stacked one on top of another, says Venkatesh. “Who goes to malls to read anyway?” The location, Jayanagar, a predominantly Kannada-speaking part of the city, ensures a healthy shelf presence for Kannada writers. “Kuvempu, Shivarama Karanth, woman writers like Triveni, the crime writer TK Rama Rao who wrote thrillers like Agatha Christie did – their books are very popular in our shop,” says Venkatesh.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.