Nature’s first green is gold,— Robert Frost
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Mohan Tiwari knows in his heart what Robert Frost meant when he wrote these lines. Nature does not allow a state of perennial existence. Same is the case with life. The iconic Mohan’s Bookshop and Magazine in Kolkata has closed its doors for the last time in March 2021.
The Tiwari family is grieving. It has already been more than a month since the family ceased to be the owner of a bookshop.
In His Majesty’s name
Mohan Tiwari was born in a time when India was still under British rule. The Britishers were yet to leave us. He was the first of three sons of a farming family in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. The paucity of resources at home had kept young Mohan from getting any education.
“He came to Kolkata in 1943 looking for work,” said Gopal Tiwari, Mohan Tiwari’s eldest son. “He could not have been more than 14 years when he came here.” As he had no education and or any particular trade, young Mohan sought to hawk newspapers at traffic signals in Chowringhee, which housed the majority of the British population in Calcutta.
Mohan Tiwari got used to toiling hard from an early age. He spent the days hawking newspapers and slept off the nights on the sidewalks. This went on till the ’60s.
After hawking newspapers for more than a decade, Mohan Tiwari managed to set up a stall near the Grand Hotel with the help of a wall almirah. This was the beginning of his love affair with books, which went on for more than half a century. He started selling English books, alongside British and American magazines. The bookstall was later followed by a full-fledged bookshop.
“He did not have anyone to show him the ropes of the publishing trade,” said Gopal Tiwari. “He learnt it all on his own He drowned himself in books and thought of nothing else. He even took some classes to learn English.”
There was a brief lull in business after 1947. The Britishers left for their country, but the intelligentsia in Calcutta soon greeted Mohan’s with open arms. “So many eminent people of the city used to come to our shop,” said Gopal Tiwari, who joined his father at work in 1992. “From bureaucrats to academics, our shop catered to them all.”
Auteur Satyajit Ray frequented the shop from his college days. “My father had a rapport with him from the time he was yet to become a world-famous director,” Gopal Tiwari said. “I have seen other celebrities like Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen coming to our shop.”
The cultural landscape in Kolkata during the prime of Mohan’s was nothing short of exuberantly active. The shop became something of a shrine for literary enthusiasts. College students and university students from all over the city went to the shop, which became an indelible part of the city’s cultural landscape.
“We were all heartbroken to leave the book trade but we have to survive,” Gopal Tiwari said when I asked him how his father has been feeling about the change. “I think he feels ten times worse than me.”
But why did the family have to close the shop? For a number of reasons. The bookshop was part of an intricate cultural eco-system that has changed rapidly and radically in the last decade. The bookshop thrived because of a conducive and encouraging environment. “Lighthouse cinema was just opposite to our shop,” said Gopal Tiwari. “Many people who used to frequent the theatre made sure to pay us a visit, either before or after the movie.” The single screen Lighthouse cinema was replaced by a big garment retailer in the early 2000s.
“I don’t think too many people read books anymore,” said Gopal Tiwari. In addition, giant e-commerce platforms have been driving out small enterprises. When I asked Mohan Tiwari about these online platforms, he said, “These big companies are luring away customers with big discounts. We cannot hope to match up to them. There were around 18 bookshops in the Esplanade area earlier. Now only Modern Books is left. I imagine they are also struggling to stay afloat.”
“My father came to the shop regularly till before the pandemic,” said Gopal Tiwari. “He loved the shop so much, but I knew we would have to sell the business eventually.” Mohan Tiwari’s younger son Ranjit Tiwari is a film director in Mumbai. Gopal Tiwari’s son Harshwardhan Tiwari is an engineering student hoping to go abroad for higher education. The fate of the bookshop had been hanging in the balance for quite some time.
The last nail in the coffin was the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had to shut the shop for the lockdown,” said Gopal Tiwari. “When we opened after that hardly anyone came. I tried my best. Dad understands this.” He explained to me that they used generate a chunk of their revenue from delivering books to companies for their training programmes. This stream dried up after the pandemic.
Finally, on March 17, 2021 Mohan’s Bookshop opened for one last time. “I could not bring myself to tell our few regular customers that we are closing permanently,” said Mohan Tiwari. “Most of them found out from the news. They were all heartbroken. Some of them still make me get books for them.”
Mohan Tiwari was born in a remote village named Prabodhpur in Uttar Pradesh. His family were farmers until they lost their land to the Ganges. His bookshop owed its genesis to a calamity. And then another calamity brought about its closure. As I write this, Mohan Tiwari is fighting for his life in a hospital. We can only hope.
Editor’s note: Mohan Tiwari died on May 3, the day after this article was published.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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