In 1972, a young librarian named Jayant Meghani started a bookshop named Prasar in the city of Bhavnagar. Located on western coastline of the Gulf of Cambay near the historic port of Ghogha, it was once the capital of a large princely state with its own publishing tradition and printing infrastructure.
By the 1970s, Bhavnagar had been relegated to the sidelines of the Gujarati publishing world, which was centred around the north-south axis between Ahemdabad and Mumbai. As the very name – Prasar – suggested, Meghani was a man on a mission: a mission to spread and broaden a culture of reading in the Gujarati world.
Situated in the heart of Bhavnagar, Prasar was located in a large bungalow built in 1938 for Gijubhai Badheka, an educator who pioneered major reforms in child education in India. He was also a prolific writer who published over 200 books for children. Badheka died before he could occupy the house, and its later reinvention as a bookshop seemed appropriate to Meghani.
Prasar also reflected Meghani’s other loves: nature and handicrafts. The courtyard of Prasar overflowed with potted plants while a separate section in Prasar was devoted to folk art.
Prasar had an open-shelf policy, an anachronism in its early decades, and customers could freely access and browse books. If a visitor lingered long enough, Meghani, clad in his trademark khadi kurta, would gently approach them and check if he could help them track down their book interests.
More often than not, one left not only with an armload of books but also with the feeling that one had acquired a new friend. Not only was it popular among Bhavnagar locals, Prasar soon began to attract book-lovers from all over Gujarat and beyond.
The historian Aparna Kapadia recalls, “His publishing house and bookstore have been a wonderful support to scholars like myself as we try to plough through Gujarat’s history and culture.” Meghani also had a roster of institutional customers, both in India and abroad, and helped them build up extensive collections of Gujarati books over the decades. Though its tagline was “A Little World of Books”, Prasar metamorphosed to embrace the entire universe of books on Gujarat and western India.
Every few years, Meghani would publish Vachan (Reading), a comprehensive catalogue of recently published Gujarati books. He lamented the fact that the Gujarati publishing universe was not big enough to support the publication of an annual catalogue. The last issue of Vachan was published in 2009 after Prasar had been chosen as the “Bookseller of the Year” by the Federation of Indian Publishers.
It was not a mere listing of books and their prices. Each title had the briefest of annotations which highlighted its most important aspect according to Meghani. Vachan also contained short essays on buying books and bookshops, illustrations and numerous snippets related to reading and bookmaking selected or translated from other books. Meghani, through his love for books and reading, had elevated a mere catalogue, produced on a shoestring budget, to a collector’s item.
A twinkle in his eye
In November 2017, the tribal studies scholar Vinod Nindrojiya and I embarked on a meandering book-hunting expedition across Saurashtra in search of nineteenth century Gujarati books and periodicals. Our first port of call was Bhavnagar, where we met Jayant Meghani for the first time.
Meghani, then in his eightieth year, seemed frail but still had a twinkle in his eyes. He welcomed us as if we were old friends and lavished his trademark hospitality on us. As Prasar had just then been wound up, he much regretted that most of his stock of books was packed in boxes.
By the next morning, he had managed to unbox a small part of his collection of rare books and took great delight in showing them to us. Each book was lovingly picked up, carefully examined for any defects, the title page opened and read, its provenance recollected, and any special features, say an autograph or ex libris, highlighted.
Over the next three years, Meghani helped me track down rare Gujarati imprints, like he had been doing for two generations of researchers. His delight in getting hold of an elusive book was infectious. Be it the first edition of the 1894 Gujarati cookbook Vividha Vaani or the 1900 autobiography of Narayan Hemchandra, Meghani knew where they were available.
Nearly 45 years after it was established, Prasar pulled down its shutters for a variety of reasons, not least being the growing dominance of online bookstores. Prasar itself has morphed into an online storefront named Bookpratha.
Jayant Meghani belonged to that rare breed of Gujarati scholars who are equally at home in English, a language in which he was widely read. Meghani translated extensively from English into Gujarati. In his later years, he was drawn to the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and issued fresh translations of his letters and poetry in beautiful volumes which he himself designed. He was particularly sensitive to the finer aspects of book design – choice of fonts, layouts, cover design, indexing – which are often sidelined in Indian language printing.
Jayantbhai, as his friends addressed him, was one of the sons of Zaverchand Meghani (1896-1947), one of the most formidable Gujarati writers of the twentieth century whose prodigious output spanned numerous genres: novels, short stories, poetry, drama, folklore, travelogues, essays, and biographies. Though he was a mere child when his father died in 1947, Zaverchand Meghani’s literary legacy came to weigh heavily on Jayantbhai, as it did on his siblings.
They channeled this legacy into a decades-long publishing and editing project which ensured that Zaverchand Meghani’s writings remained in print. Jayantbhai took upon himself the arduous task of editing many of these volumes to much critical acclaim. His editing technique and sensibility has emerged as a model worthy of emulation.
When the Gujarati Sahitya Akademi undertook to publish The Collected Works of Zaverchand Meghani, Jayantbhai was chosen as its editor. Of a projected nineteen volumes, twelve have been published. He was editing the subsequent volumes of the series when he died on 4 December 2020.
Measured in his words and self-effacing to a fault, Jayantbhai never sought the limelight. He wrote and published regularly but reluctantly, and lectured even less. He wore his years lightly and successfully forged relationships with friends several decades younger than him.
He corresponded extensively – in paper and electronic form – with friends, customers, authors, publishers, printers, researchers and readers for over half a century. A fitting tribute to Jayant Meghani would be a collection of his letters, both Gujarati and English, that would enable us to relive a life spent in the company of books.