Home > mint-lounge > features > May Day Café | Reader’s revolution

Shadi Khampur, in west Delhi, is the kind of neighbourhood where you are least likely to encounter a book store. Like a typical Indian suburb, this area is graced by dereliction and development in equal measure. Rickety buildings stand out among an odd assortment of businesses—real estate, beauty parlours, tailoring shops. Posters urging you to vote for the local councillor are interspersed with those inviting you to attend the “Mr Patel Nagar Contest". Cows stand moodily in the middle of the road, garbage lie uncollected, the jilted squalor of life is everywhere.

But it’s worth the Metro ride to Shadipur station on the blue line and then getting a cycle-rickshaw to take you to “biyaasi number". After a bumpy ride through the arid, dusty, searing summer heat, you are dropped at the doorway of the May Day Bookstore and Café, a tiny oasis of books and coffee in the middle of what may seem to be an intellectual desert.

“In the early days, the locals used to drop in to check if we keep any stationery," says Sudhanva Deshpande, director of the café, which doubles up as a book store and an alternative space for the radical theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam), with which Deshpande has been long associated. “But no, we don’t," he adds. Instead there are shelves full of Left and Left-leaning writing, literary fiction and non-fiction from across the world, books on art, and an entire section devoted to Hindi literature. May Day Café is perhaps the only curated indie bookshop in the country with a focus on Leftist literature, though not to the exclusion of everything else.

On May Day this year, the café turned 1, and celebrated the occasion with a day-long programme of music, impromptu readings, speeches and performances. “We organize 8-12 such events every month," says Deshpande. “These are excellent ways of getting visitors, especially young people, to come here." Sometimes in-house events, which may not be open to the public, are arranged. “An NGO might conduct a workshop for its staff here, which turns out to be another way of getting people to browse the collection and maybe pick up books of interest to them."

Currently, with indie establishments like Yodakin, in south Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, facing a crisis (New alternatives) —and generally, with the growing popularity of eBooks—book-store owners have to devise innovative ways of attracting readers.

Located in a relatively affordable corner of town, May Day Café does not have to battle the spectre of rising rent each year. The space was bought by LeftWord Books along with a few like-minded organizations last year. “We made some structural changes to the interiors, painted the walls ourselves, and put it all together," says Deshpande. The result is a spacious, charming and whimsical reading hub where books, ideas, images and events create a remarkable synergy. “We wanted this to be a bookshop that would help start a conversation among browsers," Deshpande adds.

Apart from regular readings and theatre performances, there are special events, such as the one organized on May Day, where the floor was open to one and all to speak on a designated theme. “We asked people to tell us about their ‘first time’—which could be related to any aspect of their life, work and experiences," says Deshpande. Among the many people who spoke that day, lawyer Karuna Nundy talked about her engagement with justice for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, film-maker Shonali Bose recalled her experience of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 when she was an undergraduate, and historian Mukul Mangalik recounted his feelings when he taught his first class of students. The real show-stealer, though, was Salim, a local rickshaw-wallah.

“He wished to speak as well," says Deshpande. “Initially, he was hesitant but once he started, he went on to talk about how he finds the people who come to visit the café or work here different from the locals, particularly in their behaviour towards the rickshaw-wallahs." When the café first opened, the rickshaw-wallahs offered a helping hand to set it up. Later, after much persuasion by Deshpande and the other staff, they started dropping in for a drink of water, especially during the summer months.

Although May Day Café is largely frequented by friends and old faithfuls, the challenge now is to get the younger crowd in. Since January, a reading group has been meeting every Saturday at 3pm to discuss Karl Marx’s Capital: Volume I. These sessions are led by academic Vijay Prashad. “Over 80 people signed up in this group, though we had initially expected about 10," says Deshpande. “Over the next couple of months, the number fell to around 40-45 people, and now it has stabilized to about 20 participants." From students to lay people, the range of attendees is quite catholic. “In future, we will try to involve students from nearby colleges by organizing events directed at them," he adds.

Deshpande intends to bring the non-English-speaking middle-class, aspirational customer, with buying capacity, into the book store. This aim makes May Day Café an eclectic space, where mainstream books, both English and Hindi, share shelf space with niche titles. “I won’t keep any of the Narendra Modi biographies that have flooded the market recently, though I wouldn’t mind keeping a critical, academic study of the man," says Deshapande. “Just as I won’t keep a biography of Mamata Banerjee." However, he wouldn’t mind keeping K. Natwar Singh’s memoirs because “he is a literate man with some interesting stories to tell in the foreign policy space".

10am-6pm (Sundays closed), May Day Bookstore and Café is at 2254/2A, Ground floor, Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, Shadipur, New Delhi. The nearest Metro station is Shadipur on the blue line.

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