The Horniman Circle precinct and the area surrounding it are steeped in the colonial history of Mumbai. Mapping the complex continuum between “old” Bombay and the city after independence, the area is home today to important financial institutions such as the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Reserve Bank of India; to art and cultural centres such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum), the Jehangir Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art; to knowledge-making institutions such as the University of Mumbai, various colleges, the David Sassoon library and the Asiatic Society. Apart from this, the presence of large public sector institutions and the head offices or Mumbai headquarters of various banks have made the area into the hub of a white-collar office-goers’ culture.
Read on: (top to bottom) Smoker’s Corner started as a library; a haunt for leftist intellectuals; The Bookpoint has a colonial charm to it.
Due to the proximity of leading newspaper offices and the Azad Maidan, where important protest marches and meetings either begin or culminate, the area has been a witness to a variety of trade union and people’s movements as well.
...The feature common to these diverse groups is that they constitute the educated elite of the city population, who are in professions where information or knowledge is vital and for whom the reading habit is considered crucial. Not surprisingly, therefore, the precinct has quite a few prominent bookshops. Nestled within lanes lined with stationery shops and roadside book vendors, each of these bookshops not only caters to a “niche” clientele but also echoes — almost mirrors — the character of the area. A brief tour of these bookstores brings out this relationship.
People’s Book House
Below the Blitz office in Cawasji Patel Street, off Pherozeshah Mehta Road, next to the Yazdani Bakery and opposite the All India Bank Employees Federation office stands the People’s Book House. Set up in 1953 by the Communist Party of India as the People’s Publishing House in Khetwadi, it became the Lokvangmay Griha in the 1960s and the People’s Book House (henceforth PBH) in the Fort area in 1973. It was, and to some extent continues to be, a meeting place for Leftist intellectuals of the city. While browsing through the store, one might typically catch titbits of a discussion about Kancha Ilaiah’s Buffalo Nationalism or Krishna Kumar’s Learning from Conflict. The connection of the bookshop to communist and socialist politics has been apparent in its collections from the early days.
In the heyday of the Soviet regime, it specialized in communist literature and other books published by Soviet publishers such as Mir Publishers and Progress Publishers. The remarkable aspect of these books was the affordable price. In those days, the bookshop attracted Left party workers, trade unionists and students of political science and humanities. Dropping into the bookstore before meetings, seminars or the launch of a trade-union agitation, to discuss issues or pick up the latest translation of Che Guevara or Pablo Neruda was a common practice. Even today, people walk into the bookshop to leave a message for their comrades with the “known-to-everyone” store manager, Gopal Pujari. Classic treatises of Marx and Lenin and books by the Russian literary greats and political thinkers were available for prices of not more than the amount charged for a cup of tea in the little shops around. Another group that served as loyal clientele for the Soviet books were students and teachers of science and mathematics.
Excellent textbooks, written by Soviet authors and known for their incisive clarity and pedagogical style, were available as texts for students from high school to research levels, again at throwaway prices.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new world order, the bookshop had to go through its own process of reinvention. While the political orientation of the bookshop remained Leftist, PBH opened up to literature in Hindi and Marathi. The increasing engagement of the Indian left, particularly in Maharashtra, with the Dalit movement began to be reflected in its collection. Books dealing with environmental issues also form a significant section in the collection today, with Marxist interpretations of Indian history and tradition forming a large part of it. Though one finds books on avant-garde art in the Lokvangmay Griha office at Prabhadevi, these are not stocked in PBH, keeping in mind its largely middle-class customers.
...In fact, Gopal Pujari is busiest during the lunch hour, when women who work in the area visit the store to pick up quality literature for their children... The PBH is still an important marker of the presence of radical politics in the area.
The ground floor of Botawala Chambers on Pherozeshah Mehta Road has an entrance lobby. A board, looking like the menu board outside an Irani café, welcomes you to buy books at the cheapest prices possible. The display shelves in the lobby contain an interesting mix from pulp fiction to The Playgroup by Nina Barrett, a fascinating account of motherhood in the America of the 1970s. Stacked inside are books that Suleman Botawala, the proprietor, has handpicked according to the tastes of his clientele. Known to many of his customers as “uncle”, Botawala believes that the bond between the buyer and the seller is sacred. Very often, books are given on credit to known readers at the Smoker’s Corner.
Providing an intriguing cross between the experience of a regular bookshop and a roadside one, Smoker’s Corner started as a library. In 1954, the shop that had been leased by Botawala to a tobacconist became a bookshop, which is how it earned its name. In today’s climate of anti-smoking campaigns, the name sounds anachronistic but, in a sense, the bookshop itself is so... Tucked away between a whole shelf of nondescript titles, one is likely to find a gem — not necessarily new, but almost always at throwaway prices. Some titles found here are unlikely to be found in any other bookshop simply because they are out of print or, in some cases, not popular enough to be stocked by the regular bookshops. Botawala, a Sunni Muslim, whose father played the quadrangular cricket matches between Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Europeans at the Bombay Gymkhana, sees his passion for books as the raison d’etre for Smoker’s Corner. Unlike other proprietors, he does not see his heirs carrying on the tradition and expects it to rest with him.
The Bookpoint in Ballard Estate is more in the style of a traditional bookshop. A subsidiary of Orient Longman Publishers, this bookshop, like the Strand Book Stall, caters to a wider audience but in a certain old-fashioned colonial style. It has the advantage of space that many others in the precinct lack and its display is very well classified. Books on literature, philosophy, history, arts, cinema, music, science and international affairs are all available at the Bookpoint. While in its range it is quite like the Strand bookshop, it is not the personal touch but a disciplined relation between the buyer and the seller that characterizes the store. Big discounts do not define the style of this rather formal bookstore. The bookshop relies largely on the strength of its collection and does not go out of its way to market it. Unlike the other bookshops in the precinct, Bookpoint also has a sizeable collection of college and school textbooks and a good volume of its business is due to this factor. Walking in and out of the store, one can almost hear the echo of the colonial presence that defined the area for more than a century.
Excerpted from Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle, edited by Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha; Roli Books; 173 pages; Rs695.
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