Shanbhag of Bengaluru

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

In these troubled times of pandemic, when mourning for the departed has become a painful feature of our lives, we had to come to terms with the loss of our very dear Mr Shanbhag, an institution for the bibliophiles of Bengaluru.

Mr Shanbhag was the owner of Premier bookstore located in the prime area of Church Street in a street corner with the genteel shade of a large tree welcoming you at the entrance. Sometime around 2009 the bookstore downed its shutters forever and now there exists a gastronomic outlet in its place. Social media has been deluged with tributes pouring from grief-stricken customers of the bookstore which include eminent intellectuals, writers, artists, theatre personalities, business tycoons and all connoisseurs of books and reading. One of the most poignant tributes came in from Dr. Ramchandra Guha, the preeminent historian, public intellectual who was a regular visitor to the bookstore, attributing a lot of his education to the books bought there. His message:

‘I owe much of my education (such as it is) to books bought at his Premier Bookshop. He was a wonderful man.’   

The wonderful and affectionate tribute which touched upon the personal story of Mr Shanbhag in The Economist titled ‘The bookseller of Bangalore’ imparted a global dimension to this legacy of erudite and bibliophilic Bengaluru. In this global memoriam to the ‘Bookseller of Bangalore’ we both acknowledge and celebrate the large Anglophone population of India and particularly of Bengaluru who are so passionate about reading, writing in the English language and engaging passionately with its literary world.

In this tribute I wish to speak about this wonderful soul – a human being I knew as a loyal customer of his store. So, this is a very personal story of paying respect for what he stood for and how he left an indelible mark on our lives including my own.  There is a leitmotif in all the showering tributes; a sense of attachment to Premier and Mr. Shanbhag alongside a feeling of coming of age for most readers visiting the store at different stages of their life, usually starting out as toddlers flipping through pages of colourful children’s books.

Here I mention specifically Dr Guha since he is inextricably linked in my memory with Premier bookstore. Apart from being an iconic regular visitor one ran into while visiting the store, he had recommended me few ‘academic reference’ books during my early days as a doctoral scholar which were to be found only at the Premier.  It would be only fair to add that I recollect with immense gratitude the generous discounts offered by Mr Shanbhag for some of those expensive reference books in their original versions which would have cost me a fortune at my British University bookstore.  Mr Shanbhag was known for his generosity and offering of ‘hefty’ discounts to eager readers and students whose purses restrained their indulgence of reading.  Apart from being charitable with pricing he would very diligently source those books within a short span of time hence my visits to India while conducting field research were punctuated by my visits to the Premier bookstore, one of them being the Oxford India Paperbacks publication ‘India’s Political Administrators: From ICS to IAS by David C. Potter’ a canonical text for any researcher on Indian Public Administration.  Another treasured bargain was the brilliant compendium ‘Sahib: The British Soldier in India’ by the Military Historian Richard Holmes which had just been launched in British bookstores and I quietly put it back on the shelves after a quick browse waiting for it to appear on my University library shelves until Mr. Shanbhag came to rescue with his proverbial ‘researcher discounts’.  I thoroughly enjoyed those short conversations about books which betrayed a great sense of the current works and a good knowledge of diverse areas from politics, philosophy to history and literature and highly encouraging of individuals of embarking on research. Once he revealed his favourite works and authors which included the likes of ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. He was a gentleman of good old-fashioned taste in English literature classics. The unassuming, reticent personality of Mr Shanbhag often masked a wide knowledge and grasp of the trends in the writing world and scholarship. My negotiations with the uncertainty of an academic voyage into the world of research was ameliorated by the kindness and generosity and engaging conversations with Mr Shanbhag of Premier bookstore. 

Book buying was a grand ceremonial event for those impecunious student days and one ventured to Premier only for the very special title which deserved a place in the ‘collection’ or which was not available in the lending libraries. There was this eerie feeling of ‘walking in the footsteps of giants’ like Rhodes Scholar and playwright Mr. Girish Karnad, historian Dr. Ramachandra Guha, author Professor UR Ananthamurthy, and one treaded with certain feeling of awe which was compounded by the enormity of the collection of the variety of books and topics. One heard about visits by intellectual stalwarts of the likes of India’s distinguished psychologist Professor Ashis Nandy or top filmmakers during their trips to Bengaluru. This aura of a ‘celebrity’ bookstore lent it a special mystique for youngsters.  Needless to state that the owner remained unflustered and indifferent to this mystique, treating all his customers alike with his grace and charm.  The same nonchalance in evidence when asked about his emotions while bidding adieu to his bookstore in 2009 he responded,

“I gave them all at a 60 per cent discount. Change is a part of life. I was already 70 when I closed shop, so why feel emotional?”.   

The bookstore was of modest size but incredibly physically dense with a very wide collection of books, close to half a million by some accounts, ranging from pulp fiction to somber philosophy to tantalizing current affairs to heady psychology with books piled up high in rows reaching the ceiling.   There were mountains of books right in the center of the bookstore which one had to wade through for the prized catch of a Borges or even a Hobsbawm. The walls on both sides were lined with books as high as one can imagine with very diverse and alluring titles staring at you leaving you perplexed as to how to reach them.  As you entered the bookstore the most wonderful experience was the disarming measured smile of the ‘Gentleman’ owner Mr Shanbhag welcoming you into this treasure trove of knowledge.  He would be at his desk which had a mountain of sheaths of papers, postage mail covers and documents like receipts. 

Here amidst this ‘laxed orderliness’ in arrangement of books one found a Foucault jostling with Wodehouse, Sartre with Nietzsche, Wodehouse with Dickens or Trollope, Gibbon with Macaulay and then a few collected works standing unassumingly in some corner. I refuse to term the setting as ‘chaotic’ since there seemed to be an implicit order which was not comprehensible to the outsider or customers but for Mr Shanbhag and his small staff it was all neatly structured in their brains.  It still bewilders me as to how Mr Shanbhag would gently pull out with full confidence and accuracy a book you might have ordered few months or weeks back from one of the drawers in his desk.   

The legacy of Mr Shanbhag and Premier bookstore is a testimony to the bibliophile Indians who loved opening their minds and hearts to distant lands and epochs through the pages of the books – commendable in an era devoid of internet and satellite television. It is a testimony to their enduring love and affection for English language and literature. 

Now a page has been turned in the history of Bengaluru and the legacy of Mr Shanbhag endures in our hearts and minds.  As one would say it’s time to say with a heavy heart ‘Goodbye Mr. Shanbhag’ and once again thanks a lot for the splendid experience you left us with in your fabulous bookstore.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur and independent researcher based in Bengaluru, India (the old name being Bangalore). Kaustav pursued a PhD in Management Studies from Cass Business School, London and spent nearly 4 years in the UK. Currently he lives back in India and is a Vice-Chairman of his family water treatment business. He writes columns independently for local publications and has written articles for The Sunday Guardian in India.