The oldest outlet of the Majestic Book Depot—as old as the Quit India Movement—hasn’t changed much with the passage of time. Since July 1942, this little bookstore in Girgaum Naka, a bustling traditional precinct in south Mumbai, has catered to the city’s Marathi bibliophiles. It began life as a hub for tomes and pamphlets on India’s freedom struggle; now the life story of US President Barack Obama and Harry Potter books are the hot favourites. But it hasn’t grown in size or gone digital.
In the age of big retail chains and virtual bookstores, Majestic is a little piece of the city’s history and a testimony to the survival of the humble bookstore. Moreover, Majestic’s sales figures, along with those of the few other shops in Mumbai selling Marathi books, suggest that the Marathi bookstore is indeed not dead. The store’s manager says they sold 18,000 copies of their current best-seller, a biography of Obama by Marathi writer Sanjay Avte, in two months.
It is about a month since Nitish Rane, son of politician Narayan Rane, paid a visit to a Crossword outlet in Vashi. Swabhiman, the political organization he represented, had got complaints that the store didn’t sell Marathi books and he and his men decided to talk to the management (Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, has been crying itself hoarse over this issue for the past few months). Crossword now stocks Marathi books at its outlets in Vashi, Shivaji Park, Peddar Road and Malad, says its deputy manager, marketing, Shivaraman Balakrishnan.
Browser-friendly: Majestic Book Depot stocks translations of popular English best-sellers. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
It made me think. Was the once vibrant culture of Marathi book reading almost extinct? Who stocked old and new Marathi titles? Where did Marathi readers go for books?
The shelves in Majestic Book Depot’s really narrow confines (their outlet in Thane is the biggest) are crammed with books. A 10-volume set of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories in Marathi jostles with Yayati, a 1959 classic by V.S. Khandekar. Vithal Prabhu’s Niramay Kaam Jeevan, a guide to good marital sex by Majestic Books, the store’s publishing arm, stands next to a 1982 edition of a biography of Adolf Hitler by V.S. Walimbe. Another of its own titles, Annapurna, a recipe book by Mangala Barve, is in its 54th edition. “It is still popular as a wedding gift,” the store manager says. There are titles authored in the 1920s to those fresh from the press.
In the hour that I spend digging among the shelves (causing minor avalanches twice), only one patron comes to browse. Two others want specific textbooks and one buys a copy of Annapurna.
Ideal Book Depot, a landmark in Dadar (west), near the railway station, is a one- store institution that has been selling Marathi books since 1937. Its faded wooden shelves with glass doors, and wooden drawers with iron handles, stock everything from stationery to textbooks. Behind the main store, a small, open-air section is used exclusively for discounted sales of specific genres. Rows of old and new
books on astrology are on display when I am there. Aficionados and aspiring astrologers pore over the titles in the most crowded area in the store. Behind it, another little space stacks popular fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles. Here, too, the Obama title is selling the fastest, as is some new fiction. While browsing the thinly populated shelves, I happen upon a 1999 edition of Pratispardhi, the Marathi translation of Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold, published by Popular Prakashan soon after the original book’s success.
Shelf life: (top) Kurulkar in his mobile bookstore; Ideal Book Depot’s discounted books section. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Both Ideal and Majestic are family run, currently under third-generation management. Nana Nerurkar, originally from the Konkan region of Maharashtra, came looking for a job in Mumbai in the early 1930s. He found work at Samarth Book Depot, a renowned bookstore of the era. After Nerurkar had been working there for a few years, the management decided to open another store, and he was handed the responsibility of running it. He eventually bought out the store and it became the Ideal Book Depot. In 1976, it started selling stationery, and since 1982 it has been stocking some popular English titles too. On the shelf for the English titles, right at the entrance of the store, Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India stand alongside Stephen Covey’s paperback edition of The 8th Habit.
Majestic is run by brothers Dilip and Ashok Kothawale. It has four outlets in Mumbai and Thane and one in Pune. “When it comes to sales, it has been an upward surge since the 1990s. We’re selling many more books now. But that doesn’t say much about the habit or culture of reading Marathi books in Mumbai. Most people are buying Marathi books just to preserve them rather than to read them,” Ashok Kothawale says.
According to Mandar Nerurkar, grandson of Nana Nerurkar, sales of kadambaris (novels) and katha sangrahas (short-story collections) declined significantly after the mills of central Mumbai closed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Many mill workers used to read Marathi novels during their lunch breaks and when they were not working,” Nerurkar says.
Going by what the nine Marathi bookstores in Mumbai (including the four outlets of Majestic) are selling, it would be hard to conclude that readers of Marathi are a dwindling tribe in Mumbai, or that the culture and habit of reading Marathi is under threat because of the growth of big retail chains of English language books, online stores and e-books.
I had to revisit Granthali and Granthayan—two catalysts that promote Marathi readership in the city. Granthali began as a readers’ movement in 1974, and was registered as a charitable society in 1981. It was a group of professionals that met in venues across the city to promote the habit of reading. About three decades later, Granthali’s original members have given way to a new trust with a more specific focus on publishing its own books. Dinkar Gangal, Granthali’s founding member, says: “Since 1975, we have published 150 books. In the last decade, reading has become easier with the Internet, but reading has gone down. Most of the readers’ events that we used to organize have slowly become obsolete.”
Granthayan, a mobile bookstore set up and run by a former engineer, Pankaj Kurulkar, sold 100,000 titles in three months after it was set up in August. “It certainly helped that we reached all of Maharashtra. Mofussil towns have many more readers for Marathi books,” Kurulkar says. The 18x8ft Tata trucks which serve as bookstores are fitted with shelves, tube lights, ceiling fans, scanners, cash machines and generators, and resemble a mall storefront. “We have preset routes, such as the Mumbai-Goa highway for instance, and we stay in one neighbourhood for up to a week,” Kurulkar says. In these towns and villages, he often finds readers visiting the truck with specific authors and books in mind. In Mumbai, however, such readers are rare.
If reading in Marathi is on the wane today then perhaps it is only a reflection of the decline in the habit of reading itself—in any language. Would adding a shelf of Marathi books in a big retail chain help Marathi literature and authors break out of the subculture they keep alive? Too early to tell, but in all likelihood, the answer is no.