When A Bookshop Was A Sanctuary: Remembering T.S. Shanbhag
In India, we are in the midst of a particularly virulent second surge of the Covid-19 pandemic and I am yet to meet an Indian who does not have a personal story to tell of heart-breaking loss wreaked by the pandemic, whether it be close family or friend, professional colleague, or distant acquaintance. Most often, it is a private and personal sense of loss, but at times the loss has a public dimension where you feel that, more than a person, an important era of the collective life of your city has evaporated. I was shaken, in this latter sense, when I received the news that T.S. Shanbhag, the beloved proprietor of Premier Bookshop in Bangalore, became one more of Covid’s numerous victims on 4th May 2021.
I wondered why I felt that way. In 2009, Mr. Shanbhag had retired and closed the bookshop he founded in 1971, so his death had no impact on public life in Bangalore in 2021. I realised that grief is a phenomenon where you are thrown off balance, feeling an atmosphere you were used to breathing has abruptly been extinguished, and you struggle in this suddenly rarefied air. Mr. Shanbhag’s passing made me aware of a gradual extinguishing of atmosphere and rarefication of air that has been quietly creeping in from years ago when places like Premier Bookshop downed their shutters, imparting a heightened acuity to air sucked from our bodies by loss in the pandemic. Premier belonged to a different era, one we have almost completely lost, one which lent us a resilience whose loss happened so gradually we become aware of it only during the turbulence of crises. Mr. Shanbhag’s Premier Bookshop was more than a bookshop, it was a sanctuary, and the era where such sanctuaries were easily found has almost faded from public experience and memory.
It did not require a second glance to realise that Premier was far from the typical bookshop that is characterised by neat shelves and ordered aisles. The small store, not much more than 35 square metres in area, had two narrow aisles, crammed on either side by what might have started out as bookshelves, but had evolved over time into high cluttered piles of books. Some of the books were easily accessible, but for many you feared that removing them would provoke an avalanche; to look at the book you had to ask for assistance from Mr. Shanbhag or his assistant. The arrangement was so chaotic that the historian Ramachandra Guha jocularly remarked, at a lunch he and his wife hosted in honour of Premier’s 25th anniversary, that the central conglomeration of books that divides the two aisles at Premier (a conglomeration that resists a predefined name or category) could be an interesting archaeological resource that could be dissected to reveal, like the rings of a tree, fascinating facets of the history of reading in Bangalore, such as who was reading what in 1985.
There was order within this chaos, an order anchored by that peculiar blend of intensity and equanimity, of quietude and eccentricity, of eidetic memory, that was Mr. Shanbhag. The order, clear and lucid, was in his head: ask him if he had a book and he would answer immediately without needing to look up any stock list. If he had it, he would go without hesitation to the spot where it was, or shout out its location to his assistant, and it would be extricated from there and handed to you. If he did not have it, he would pause for a second, as if pondering whether this was a book worth admitting to Premier, and then promise to source it, writing the title and author down on a piece of paper.
The first time this happened to me, I did not hold much hope, anticipating the piece of paper would sink unnoticed and without effect into the chaotic mess of the place. Then, a few weeks later, I entered Premier, Mr. Shanbhag called out to me, and pulled the book I had asked for from a pile behind his desk. Over time, as this became a repeating occurrence, I learned the unique quality of this pile. The books there represented specific interests of his customers, titles they had requested, or books they asked be held for them as they did not have enough money at the time (those were the days before ubiquitous credit cards). Recognising this pile as special, I learned to pause on entering Premier to browse the titles it contained. If I requested a book from here, it would not necessarily be given to me for it was more than a pile of books, it was a fiercely protected pile of loyal promises Mr. Shanbhag had made to certain customers. If he did not have an extra copy to give me, he would write the title on a piece of paper with my name on it, and I would wait till a subsequent visit where I could find that my copy had made its appearance in the pile.
Once you had learned to overcome your perception of Premier as chaotic and crowded, you started seeing a depth in the selection of titles that put its hooks into you. You became aware that a different principle of selection operated in this bookshop. Books are inherently interesting to the committed reader, and every bookshop will be worthwhile. But in the conventional bookshop, you get the sense that the selection and placement of books is driven by the principle “This will sell.” In Premier, this principle did not dominate, and best-sellers had an extremely modest share of space. The operating principle of selection was “This is interesting!” And it was not confined to Mr. Shanbhag’s interests; Premier Bookshop cast a far wider net.
Well after I had become a regular patron, a close friend of mine visited Premier to buy me a birthday gift and sought Mr. Shanbhag’s suggestions for interesting books. Before attempting to answer, Mr. Shanbhag asked him who the recipient of the gift was. On learning it was me, he asked my friend to wait for a moment, after which he produced about twenty books, informing my friend that these are books that will interest Prem which he has not read as yet. I am told that Google came to be the dominant search engine of the Internet thanks to a proprietary algorithm in which every search leverages learning from prior searches. I believe that Mr. Shanbhag was the search algorithm par excellence, before Google and the Internet happened. Knowing his regular customers well, every selection drew on their interests, selections, queries, and he possessed a mysterious curatorial ability to weave all of them into the book collection that was Premier Bookshop.
In the Bangalore of those times, I realised there were two categories of readers: those who could browse happily for hours in Premier, and those who could not browse for more than a few minutes because they were turned off by the chaos. To belong to the former category, you had to enter into an unspoken contract with Mr. Shanbhag, engage with him, share your interests, recognising that he, in turn, would ensure that within that complex weave that was the Premier collection, in some warps somewhere, some wefts elsewhere, you could be sure to find revealed the presence of your dreams and desires. There were no signboards demarcating book categories, you did not need them. Regular customers learned the pattern of the weave and picked their favourite parts: I would gravitate to the first half of the left-hand aisle, and once my children became old enough for me to buy books for them, would also frequent the rear of the right-hand aisle. To customers like us, the chaos was no impediment for we intuitively knew this is the way dreams and desires come to you: a jumbled mess, tangled with the dreams of others, and the joie de vivre of our existence comes from patiently and rigorously searching through the clutter to joyously discover the pearls hidden within. Mr. Shanbhag let us browse happily for hours without pressure, attempting no crowd management strategy in that small space, for we shared a personal bond with him, the time we invested there served to reinforce our tacit contract of dreams, and in the space of dreams crowds magically manage themselves.
Some people have called Mr. Shanbhag a shrewd businessman, pointing out he was a pioneer in the Bangalore market for introducing price discounts on books. If that was primarily who he was, he would have leveraged the huge brand loyalty he had built into expanding the business. Many of us suggested he shift to another location with more space. When the restaurant directly adjacent to him closed down one day, we suggested that he expand into that space. When offered such suggestions, he would shake his head in refusal without much explanation, as if you had suggested something nonsensical to him. He did this because, more than a businessman, he was a curator in the true sense, and bore his responsibility to curate the Premier book collection conscious that the word ‘curate’ shares the same root as the words ‘care’ and ‘cure’. To care or cure, one must offer a sanctuary that commits to sustaining its inhabitants, and this act of sustaining has to be underpinned by the unspoken bonds and commitments that only flesh-and-blood can offer, limited by a scale that flesh-and-blood foundations cannot exceed. Premier may have been a profitable business, but it was a public place characterised by purpose over profit, a purpose to curate the book selection that represented our shared contract of dreams, a purpose to play a role in sustaining the sanctuaries that uphold our world.
In the Bangalore of my youth, Premier may have been special, but this sense of sanctuary pervaded many of the shops I visited. My experience of each store was characterised by encounter with a specific person, usually someone slightly eccentric, rather than a brand value, a sign on a storefront, a shop window, or an artful display within the store. It would be a person I recognised, who would recognise me, and each visit, in some undefinable and primordial manner, would never be something that could be isolated as a thing in itself for it was also a timeless accrual upon the memories of prior visits. This weave of memories, constituted by personal relationships, composed the city as a complex multitude of sanctuaries. This was a different universe compared to the transaction-oriented mould of seductive imagery that characterises contemporary retail, whether online or in the brick-and-mortar stores that have managed to survive the digital onslaught. I do not believe this is an impractical nostalgia for a world we have left in the past, that can never return. I believe the world we have evolved to springs from the way we have chosen to plan our cities and regulate our economies. Today, I am more likely to find this sense of sanctuary within my neighbourhood in an informal market or a familiar street peddler than in stores explicitly recognised by the prevailing paradigm of planning, which suggests that it is an inherent human capability that is suffocated by our current paradigms of governance and design. Mr. Shanbhag’s death is more than the loss of someone for whom I had personal affection. It is the painful reminder of a world we once had and have almost completely lost, a world sustained by the curation of people like Mr. Shanbhag, a world with a resilience we painfully long for in the crises of today, a world we could restore if we set our minds to it by recognising the priorities we should inherently hold by being human.
Mr. Shanbhag, my friend, wherever you may be now, I am sure your afterlife is good, for you have earned much karma in your time on earth. This karma is evident in the way every member of the community you shepherded has a Shanbhag story to tell, a story told with much affection while imbued with a nourishing depth that even the storyteller does not fully comprehend. I have a large collection of books in my home, and you have been an invaluable helper and guide in laying the foundation of this collection. Some visitors to my home look at the quantum of books and question me on whether I have read all of them. When I confess there is a substantive percentage I have not read as yet, they look askance at me, too polite to say it, but clearly thinking I am a hypocrite who displays these books as a pretentious false façade. Mr. Shanbhag, I am certain you immediately discern that people who think this way are not the type of reader you taught me to be. I once read there is a tradition of minimalist painting in Japan in which you are told that when you paint a bird you must also paint the space for that bird to fly, for that space is an inextricable part of the spirit of the bird. The unread books in my library are the space for me to fly, and it is often that a stray thought has provoked me into pulling one of them off the shelf to spark an unplanned burst of flight. You have helped me learn this, Mr. Shanbhag, by curating Premier Bookshop as a publicly visible demonstration where, in the sanctuary that is a contract of dreams, physical dimension poses no constraint, and it is possible to soar in unrestrained exuberance within the narrow canyons between high tottering piles of books.