In Rohinton Mistry’s seminal book Such a Long Journey, the protagonist Gustad Noble plays the role of a bank employee. Set in Bombay during the Emergency, the gripping plot has Noble reminiscing about his father’s bookshop. Dreams of “Pappa’s bookstore, with its own special sounds and smells…where even the air had a special quality as in a temple or mausoleum.”
I first read Such a Long Journey during graduate school in 2016. It reminded me of home – I grew up in one such bookshop owned and run by my mother Mayura Misra. Most of my 28 years have been spent surrounded by books. Vivid colours gleaming from wooden racks built into the walls of our Kolkata home greet me every day. Some of these books made their way with me to Pune while studying for a master’s degree in journalism.
In April 2018, having landed my dream job with ESPNCricinfo, I was whisked off from the classroom to TV studios in Mumbai. The hours were long and demanding as coverage of the Indian Premier League kept us busy. Despite this, I had the time of my life. Covering sport was the fulfilment of a teenage dream.
Three months into the job, I woke up one morning to realise that I couldn’t hear in my left ear.
It was uncanny, because 13 years earlier, I had lost the ability to hear in my right ear. It was surreal, almost Kafkaesque. A flurry of visits to the doctor followed. Diagnosing it as a nerve issue, they put me on steroids to try and revive my hearing. The only explanation given was that the cochlea nerve in both ears had fizzled out.
A personal loss is never easy to deal with. Here I was, aged 26 and about to take off in my chosen career – but it was instead a false start. Staring at the ceiling for a week, I pondered my future. Quitting my job, I caught the next flight home.
Returning to the bookshop
The Kolkata rains were in full flow when I arrived. Our home and Storyteller Bookstore is on the crowded stretch they call the EM Bypass. As I dragged my suitcase out of the taxi, I thought of Mistry’s character once again. Here was a man “swimming against the tide water of his fifth decade of life”. All his aspirations had crumbled, and despite the hardship he still stoically dreamed of the future. Would my life too be a “long journey with a lot of undulations?”
There were some calls for freelance work. However, nothing serious materialised. This had the effect of dragging me even lower. A black hole was eating away at my confidence. The irony of the situation was that I lived above a bookstore but wasn’t able to string sentences together. I spent the next few months calling on and meeting old friends. I slept very little, ate a lot of junk food, and read a lot.
At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal to get fitted with hearing aids, because as a child I’d used them before. Now that I look back, the realisation dawns that it was in fact a big deal to adjust to wearing them on both ears instead of only one. It meant lifestyle changes, differences in how I moved around in humid weather, and, of course, extra batteries. In short, there was this barrage of emotions and impatience.
To make myself more useful, I decided to spend more time at the bookshop. The social media channels of the shop required a revamp. Walking around the shelves three times a day, I looked for books that could be showcased online. This process was highly cathartic, bringing back memories of my upbringing.
In one corner were the evergreen children’s classics – the Enid Blytons, Roald Dahls, and Ruskin Bonds of the world. On the other hand, the growth of Indian children’s literature in English was also on display. Writers such as Nandana Dev Sen, Bulbul Sharma, and Benita Sen made me hanker for my childhood once again. Brighter colours, better quality printing, and vivid book covers – things that Gustad Noble would approve of if he ever walked in.
The accidental bookseller
I suspect that my mother got into selling books purely by accident. Her father PS Malkani was a tea garden manager, and the family moved around North East India before settling in Calcutta. There, they took membership at the nearby Tollygunge Club and my mother, who was 16 at the time, took up the game of golf.
By the mid-1980s, she was an established amateur playing the national circuit. Her biggest win came at the Bangladesh Amateur, beating a field of Asian women who had made the trip to Kurmitola Golf Club in Dhaka. She was featured in Sportstar magazine with golfers who would eventually become pioneers of the Indian game. Golf was, and still is, expensive. With little or no sponsorship, she eventually gave up the pursuit for a degree in commerce.
Marriage to my father followed, and with his encouragement she began looking for work. A chance meeting with a magazine subscription agent led to her first job, which was to sell and distribute foreign editions of magazines in India. These were heady days when she travelled across the length and breadth of Bengal, corresponding with heads of educational institutes and librarians.
There was a dearth of children’s books in India at the time. In her words, it meant waiting for an aunt or relative to get these books from abroad. With the 1991 liberalisation, foreign magazines were eventually converted into Indian franchises, thus reducing profits. Mother saw this coming, and decided to set up a children’s bookshop on Shakespeare Sarani in Calcutta.
Every day after Montessori, and later school, the shop assistant would fetch me. Snuggling into a cardboard box with a bunch of books, I was lost in worlds far from my own. With simple wooden racks and a few lights here and there, the one-bedroom flat was converted into a bookshop. It was an era of landlines, typewriters, and heavy credit card machines. Mother remembers being interviewed by Derek O’ Brien on his radio show highlighting young entrepreneurs around this time.
Twice a year, we would shut shop. Once in January for the Calcutta Book Fair or Boi Mela, and once in winter to fly to the North-East to set up book fairs in schools.
In the 1990s, if you wanted to be cool you had to be seen at the Boi Mela. Beatnik attire was a must, a pile of newly purchased books, and a guitar to croon Dylan’s latest number. The dusty Calcutta maidan with the sun beating down on your neck can wear anyone out. Save a few old fashioned cameras, there were no selfies or reels to post online.
My first job when I was only about seven or eight was to climb up the wooden racks at the Boi Mela and watch out for perpetrators of petty crimes. There was always the fear of pilferers – usually a young boy who with a lightning flick of his hand would transfer a book inside his thick jacket when you weren’t looking.
On one such occasion, I caught someone with a copy of Huckleberry Finn. As is customary, he was made to pay for the book. My reward for manning those dusty shelves all day? A princely sum of fifty rupees, which I took in tenners.
The travelling bookshop
The trips to the North-East were more eventful. My family has sold books during United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) insurgencies. Books transported weeks ahead of our journey sometimes did not reach in time for fairs. Those were days one had to physically find the transporter and retrieve the stock from their godowns.
The places we went to included schools in Numaligarh, Tezpur, Digboi, Dibrugarh, and Dimapur (Nagaland). Most students at these schools were staying away from home in a hostel. We would display our books at the year-end Christmas fete where parents would come to meet teachers.
It was a lovely time to be a child, taking part in the game stalls and making new friends.
On one such occasion in Numaligarh, I went home with a friend after the fair. We sat for hours engrossed in books. On that day there was a wild elephant alert in the sleepy little town. Breaking free from the wild, the beast was being chased across the town, much to everyone’s horror.
Mother recalls frantically searching for me as officials warned everyone to get indoors at the earliest. She found us completely lost to the world, much to her relief. The elephant too, was found and ushered back into the wild.
I was in high school when the Harry Potter books were published. I was the delivery boy – carrying an extra bag to sell copies to my classmates. I don’t know if it was my age, but after a one particular title, I lost interest in the series. Nevertheless, I still carried the books around to attract attention from the girls at the “sister school” across the street.
Of the many Indian authors I’ve interacted with over the years, Ruskin Bond is a name that stands out. He’s seen me grow up over years of visiting the city. In January this year, he visited our shop to launch a new picture book.
By this time, we had moved the shop to its current location on the EM Bypass. It was a setup mother had hoped to put together for many years. A 1500-square foot showroom to display books, an open play area for children complete with a swing, and a guesthouse for authors right above the shop.
For days before Bond came to our store, mother and I kept pinching ourselves. More than 300 children landed up to get a glimpse of the grand man in full flow – older but as graceful as ever. Swarms of hands reached out for a selfie and autographs while he patiently fulfilled requests.
In the midst of all this chaos, I quietly slipped in to stand beside him, and we chatted like old friends. I asked him if he could recall my question to him during an event years ago in the early 2000s – whether his version of the children’s Ramayana “was complete or incomplete because it was for kids”. He chuckled and reminded me of his reply. “Yes, yes it is the full version!”
Heading into the pandemic
By this point, our business model was pretty clear. We visited schools across the city, setting up book fairs twice, sometimes three times a year. The setup was portable – we had our own book racks and display. We would send the books ahead in a truck and show up during the parent-teacher meetings at school. It was a model that served us well for over 20 years, and had come to a point where we were once again considering hosting fairs in other districts of the state and beyond.
The shop was quietly chugging alone, building its own retail base by hosting author events and book clubs for the young ones. Until the pandemic hit, there was no question of being challenged by online platforms. This was because our model ensured that the latest books were always physically present for parents, children, and teachers to browse in the comfort of their school premises – something that e-commerce platforms or big chains could not do. The same parents would then continue shopping physically from us at our store.
March 18, 2020 was the last day we set up fairs in two Kolkata-based schools. The news coming in wasn’t great – barely two sales in, we wrapped up for the day. Payments got held up, stock was stuck, and, more important, we had lost our core business at schools around town. No longer was this like Mistry’s dreamland.
During the few weeks when e-commerce platforms were shut down in India for everything but essentials, we started selling books using delivery apps. It was a very different challenge, where we were fielding multiple video calls from customers on a daily basis. This would include showcasing options for parents and children to choose their desired titles.
To add to the rollercoaster ride, Cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata, leaving us with no electricity for nearly a week. Despite this, we continued sending out books, making bills by candle-light until the storm hit.
A post-storm reconnaissance led to the discovery of a family of cats who had taken shelter inside the shop.
We tried to build a site to sell books online. It didn’t work out the way we wanted – and while we’re trying to redo our online space, we’re still selling books physically. The challenge now of course is much greater. Not being located in the main markets of Delhi, for instance, means not having timely and equal access to books.
It also means that there are long-winding calls to transporters – one such consignment which was supposed to go to an Orissa school ended up in Bengaluru because the door of the train carriage carrying our books got stuck and did not open.
The road to recovery
Over the past few months, as things have eased up a little, we’ve had customers tell us that our shop is the first place they’ve been to post lockdown. Children prefer to visit us as they consider the shop to be a safe space. We’ve had instances of working parents leaving their kids at our shop for hours during the pandemic as they run important errands.
Author visits are limited to signings – Karuna Ezara Parikh’s and Vishes Kothari’s books sold out within a day of their visiting the shop. When bestselling author (and neighbour) Prajwal Parajuly needs to restock on his favourite Enid Blyton titles, he calls us immediately and we deliver it to his door. Otherwise he comes laden with cupcakes and we discuss books for hours.
Children’s writer Bijal Vachharajani is always delighted to receive photos of her books going out from the billing desk. So are translator Tilottama Shome or children’s writer Deepak Dalal, both whom said that sales of their books were the best gifts they could ask for on their respective birthdays. There is more than some semblance of a community aspect to the entire exercise, pandemic or not.
Authors and publishers have been supportive, offering their services on online sessions. What makes it different now is that one pays for the cost of the book to attend the session. If logistically possible, we request for signed copies, which are shipped in advance of the online session. Children (or adults) can then read the book and ask questions in what is usually an eventful session from home.
Recently we hosted Devdutt Pattanaik, and Jeffrey Archer online – bestselling authors at Storyteller Bookstore – which was made possible only by the pandemic. It has also opened up a new market for us that goes beyond school book fairs. The question that remains to be answered is: what percent of pre-pandemic business can we eventually go back to?
To come of age in a bookshop is an education in itself. Not only does my mother run a shop and a household, but she is responsible for the upbringing of two children with disabilities – both of them writers. My sister Anusha Misra is the founder of Revival Disability, magazine which documents marginal voices.
Neither of us has thought about the future of the shop. There are no indications about whether our bookshop will go the way of the Noble family shop. Neither is there any suggestion that there will be a happily ever after. All that we have is the here and now. No matter where we go from here, it can be said that we sleep safe in the knowledge of coming home again to a bookstore, one that has saved our lives many times over.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.