The violent Partition of India in the summer of 1947 – during which more than two million people lost their lives – is painfully described in Amrita Pritam’s Ali Ajkhaan Waris Shah Nu, a moving poem inspired by a train journey from Dehradun to Delhi as communal riots raged. Pritam had just left Lahore for newly independent India, having crossed the north-west border like thousands of other refugees who hoped for new beginnings. One of them was Govardhan Batra, a migrant from Lyalpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan) who arrived in Amritsar, Punjab.

As the 1940s drew to a close, Govardhan Batra and his family were settling into their new lives in Amritsar. Much to Govardhan Batra’s relief, his recently set-up “Eats” dhaba was a runaway hit with customers. Located directly opposite the city’s government-run Glency Medical College, it had students and faculty dropping in at all hours; Batra’s famed mutton curry was irresistible on cold winter nights and the man himself was as popular as the Punjabi delicacies he served.

Food for thought

Govardhan Batra often made himself available to referee the College’s frequent hockey matches. In time, he became aware that the outwardly carefree students had deeper concerns: one, specifically, was their lack of access to medical text books. A lifelong reader and knowledge-seeker, Govardhan Batra wanted to help.

Initially, and for a small commission, he managed to procure a few medical titles from local sources. Thereafter, requests poured in, averaging ten, or sometimes fifteen, a week. Batra wondered how he would fulfil the rising demand.

One day, luck visited the dhaba in the form of a hungry stranger. Pleased by the food, the diner introduced himself to Govardhan Batra as a small-time publisher. The duo got talking and Govardhan Batra received advice on just how he could serve the local student community better.

Hard-working, resourceful and used to starting life from scratch, Govardhan Batra spent the next few years building relationships with the more established medical and academic book publishers in India at the time; these included global imprints such as Churchill Livingstone, Saunders and Lippincort. Soon, Batra’s crowded eatery was doubling up as a one-stop shop for medical books, with orders averaging roughly one hundred a week.

Batra referred to his growing side business simply as Rajat Book Corner. Rajat, a word that denoted strength, appealed so much to Govardhan Batra that when his son was born in 1952, he named the boy for his small but lucrative book business.

Taking the plunge

Rajat Batra’s childhood was spent in the idyllic milieu of books and conversation. His father’s humble restaurant-cum-book shop remained a popular hub for Amritsar’s growing numbers of academics all through the 1950s and 1960s, many of them treating their much-loved “adda” as a second home. As Rajat came of age, his sharp business sense emerged to complement Govardhan’s easy-going nature. Community was important to them both, but while Govardhan was content to stay small, Rajat saw opportunity for expansion and enterprise.

In the 1970s, Rajat Book Corner became the main supplier of medical text books to Amritsar’s sprawling Guru Nanak Dev University; Rajat Batra’s efforts also led to the opening of a dedicated RBC book depot on campus grounds. It was here that he often came to supply and sell new stock. And it was here, through stacks of shelves and amongst piles of books, that Rajathe first encountered his future wife, a young post-graduate student of history. “My parents had a beautiful love story,” said the couple’s son Mohit Batra.

Rajat Batra was as pragmatic as he was romantic. With his father’s blessing, he took the wise decision of closing the family’s long-standing restaurant and converting the entire 1,000 square metre space into a bookstore. With Rajat Book Corner now a familiar name in the medical and academic textbook trade, Rajat Batra set his sights on what had always been his greatest calling – bringing books and the joys of reading to children.

In 1979 – declared the Year Of The Child by Unesco – Rajat Batra became the country’s first mainstream retailer to exhibit books at schools and pre-schools. Eager to spread this endeavour beyond Amritsar, he planned events in the neighbouring small towns of Dalhousie, Pathankot and Jalandhar.

These were books that Rajat Batra had personally screened and curated, and on display were English-language titles and authors who were a rage amongst school-goers of that era – including the versatile works of Enid Blyton, the adventure-filled Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, the much-adored Archie comic collections, and many more tales of mystery, legend and science fiction.

Initial events were successful, and were thereafter held up to eight times a year across different areas. Each exhibition attracted local schools and educational institutes and ended with bulk orders for upto 1,000 books at a time.

Expanding to Jaipur

While the store’s “bread and butter” medical books continued to account for maximum sales, the shelves were making room for the fast-growing genres of popular fiction, biography, poetry, inspirational memoir, and of course, children’s books. Titles were mostly in English, but included a smattering of Hindi and Punjabi. As time marched through the eventful 1980s, there was a special interest in books analysing the surge of terrorism in Punjab, and a new subset of readers keen on Indian and international politics, history and culture.

Rajat Batra’s next priority was to open a branch of the bookstore in a new city. Quiet Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas, was an appealing option, but it came with a major disadvantage: there was no medical college in town at the time. So Rajat considered his second choice, Jaipur, and was quickly charmed by its aesthetic landscape of forts and monuments, robust tourist culture, and proximity to New Delhi.

Today, Jaipur is a crowded metropolis and home to one of the largest literary festivals in the world. Back in the early 1990s, it was a somewhat sleepy mid-sized town that lacked a premier bookstore – Jaipur’s book-loving residents had to make the four-hour drive to New Delhi to buy their choice of books. Another advantage lay in the fact that the Batras had forged longstanding business connections with the city’s academic institutions.

In 1992, Rajat Book Corner opened on Jaipur’s Narain Singh Road. Its interior was a quarter the size of the main store in Amritsar, but word of mouth and curiosity quickly attracted the city’s residents. Rajat Batra incorporated many of the features that made the Amritsar branch special; in Jaipur, the bookstore offered its customers a similar laid-back feeling of community, a tasteful curation of best-selling titles across popular genres, and Govardhan Batra’s signature tea free of cost.

Over the next three decades, the bookshop would grow into a sustainable home for almost 200,000 books, and would see customer footfall increase from a mere trickle to more than fifty a day – with twice that number appearing on weekends and holidays.

At present, Jaipur’s coziest bookstore is managed by Rajat Batra’s energetic son Mohit, who heads a small staff and modestly describes himself as “having done nothing more than sit in the store and read.” But when the younger Batra joined the family business almost fifteen years ago, he launched a two-pronged effort to creatively innovate for a technology-driven future and to tirelessly spread the love for physical books amongst younger and newer generations of readers.

Building communities

In 2007-08, Mohit Batra was a gold medallist from Jamshedpur’s Xavier School of Management with lucrative corporate job offers. Despite his passion for reading, writing, marketing and public speaking, he had not seriously considered joining the family business, leave alone the book industry. But having never known his grandfather – Govardhan died in 1980, a year before Mohit was born – and then losing his mother in 1998, Mohit Batra felt the strong need to stay connected to his father, to carry forward the family legacy.

Mohit Batra went to an all-boys school and joked about how this led him to books. “By the time I started college, I concluded that boys who were well-read were far more popular with girls,” he said. “In my early days at the store, I read for hours each day, biography and memoir in particular,” he said, counting amongst his favourites the memoirs of actor Dilip Kumar and tech legend Steve Jobs.

Reading voraciously led to Mohit Batra’s debut as a writer for Jaipur’s Daily News And Analysis broadsheet; by 2010, he had written 95 book reviews in his column “Booked For Life”. He said, “Customers would come to the store with clippings of my articles, asking for books I’d recommended. Sometimes they didn’t even know I was the writer of the column.”

Soon afterwards, Mohit Batra started curating and broadcasting his articles to regular customers via his favourite medium, WhatsApp. Books he reviewed and recommended this way sold an extra fifteen copies on average, and led to a spurt of customer interest in new authors and their work. Rajat Book Corner, which primarily stocked bestselling fiction and non-fiction, now began to actively promote lesser known writers.

Mohit Batra said, “I remember when the author Amish Tripathi dropped by the store – this was long before he gained fame for his widely-read Shiva Trilogy. Back then we supported Amish by stocking a few copies of his debut novel, The Immortals of Meluha. He and I joke about that to this day.”

Community and personal relationships was the backbone of Rajat Book Corner’s success in both its home cities. During the early-to-mid 2010s, it was loyal customer support that helped the Jaipur bookstore withstand competition – first from chain stores like Crossword, and later from e-commerce players Amazon and Flipkart. Drawing upon Mohit Batra’s expertise and love for gadgets, Rajat Book Corner launched a website and started local delivery services for all books ordered via phone and online.

Mohit Batra also continued to curate book lists and exhibitions for schools in and around Jaipur; at a recent event at Campus Nursery, he gave an open talk to parents of toddlers on the importance of reading. In this way, the bookstore fostered strong bonds not just with children but also with mothers and fathers, teachers and educators.

A similar spirit of community came to the fore when Mohit Batra opened an extension of the bookstore at Jaipur’s government-run Jawahar Kala Kendra Arts Centre in April 2018. Days before the launch, customers doubled up as volunteers, unpacking and arranging giant cartons of books. “We set up the space in 48 hours,” Mohit Batra said, “and had a pizza party going on all throughout.”

He also started a book club on the premises; one of his signature events included an online discussion with Lucy Kalanithi, whose late husband Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air had touched millions of readers around the world.

Eventful strategy

Mohit Batra’s ongoing initiative is “A Book Is The Smartest Handheld Device”, a live platform for authors and others to discuss and debate ideas, as well as to interact with readers of all ages and walks of life. While the Jaipur Literature Festival has been curating such events for many years, Mohit Batra believes its annual five-day run is too brief to sate audiences.

The driving force behind the initiative is a steadfast commitment to sustaining physical books. “We don’t offer a single e-book at Rajat Book Corner,” said Mohit Batra. “I had read a lot about the dangers of digital addiction, the darker side of technology. Given my family’s long-standing ties to the medical community, I also got advice from a team of doctors, psychologists, neurologists and educators who believe that excessive reading online comes with severe health risks – for adults and especially for young children.”

The initiative took shape in late 2017, when Mohit Batra read Sreevatsa Nevatia’s How To Travel Light: Memories Of Madness And Melancholia. The memoir was not a commercial success but its subject matter – the author’s struggle with mental health – impacted Mohit Batra deeply. On an impulse, he shot off a handwritten letter to Nevatia, who wrote back promptly to thank him.

In December that year, Mohit Batra hosted the author in Jaipur, organising a live discussion in front of an audience of over 100 at a well-known city café. The ticket price was the cost of Nevatia’s book, which ensured that every guest went home with a copy.

Live author events were held continuously all through 2018 and 2019, with a few prominent ones set against the visually stunning backdrops of Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar. Writers who participated included Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi, Sooni Taraporewala and Francesca Cartier. Mohit Batra stuck to his strategy of pricing the ticket at the cost of the book. “Books are often thought of as freebies,” he said. “I wanted to change that mindset, to remind people that a physical book has value.”

In early 2020, Mohit Batra was working on a mega event slated for March. With tickets priced at Rs 600, it would feature chess champion Vishwanathan Anand and his book Mind Master: Winning Lessons From A Champion’s Life. Anand’s many fans in Jaipur were abuzz with excitement. But then, just days before the event was scheduled to take place, it was abruptly cancelled. The pandemic had hit and the world was about to plunge into months of unrelenting lockdown.

Lockdown and after

Across India, independent bookstores stayed closed in 2020 from mid-March to late June. Rajat Book Corner was no exception; its two main stores in Amritsar and Jaipur were shuttered for the very first time in their respective histories, and by the end of the year, the Jawahar Kala Kendra branch shut down permanently.

The first few weeks of the nationwide lockdown left Mohit Batra – like most other private booksellers – in a state of limbo. But then serendipity struck just as unpredictably as the pandemic had. One of his more influential customers happened to be a police officer; he was also an avid reader who needed a supply of books to get through a time of physical and social isolation. Mohit Batra was given permission to transport (or “smuggle,” as he puts it) more than five hundred books from the bookstore to his home.

Using social media, Mohit Batra spread the word amongst his customers; soon, calls were pouring in with enquiries about which titles were available and when they could be collected. Mohit Batra remembers, with some amusement, how his living room was crammed with books at the time, and how his whole household pitched in to organise orders. Within days, he had sold the entire stock.

When bookstores formally re-opened over the summer, combined average customer footfall was at a mere quarter of pre-pandemic figures. Undaunted, Mohit Batra rose to the challenge by rebooting “A Book Is The Smartest Hand-Held Device”, this time going fully digital. Vishwanathan Anand appeared in an online discussion in front of a virtual audience of over two hundred people.

More than twenty ticketed online events followed over the course of the year. These included sessions with Indian writers Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murthy, and international names such as Jeffrey Archer, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. Mohit Batra innovated further by incorporating digital signatures in the books sold, thereby offering viewers at home a personal connection to their favourite authors. Another success was a twice-held session last August, featuring Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the authors of the motivational manual Ikigai.

With schools closed all through 2020, Mohit turned his attention to online education by collaborating on a new digital venture called Tinkerbola. The hybrid platform – aimed exclusively at children, parents and teachers – offers interactive learning experiences, courses and podcasts; it also publishes creative reviews of contemporary children’s books such as Anand Neelakanthan’s The Very, Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales For Kids.

Meanwhile, Rajat Book Corner’s own website has grown its database to include 10,000 customers. It has also launched video reviews of recent and forthcoming books, and integrated a blog that welcomes aspiring writers. According to Mohit Batra, the pandemic has been less of a crisis and more of an opportunity. With the rise in online orders for books and increased public interest in digital author events, he believes overall sales have recovered from last year’s slump, and in fact increased by 40 per cent over 2018-19.

Born just after Indian independence and a brutal partition, raised over seven momentous decades across two centuries, and having survived a fierce pandemic, Rajat Book Corner has stayed rooted to its past even as it evolves along new paths towards the future. This synergy echoes through third generation bookseller Mohit Batra’s own learnings over this last year : “In trying times, technology connects us to one another, but it is books that will forever connect us to ourselves.”

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.