Monday, February 21, 2011

Bookstores by the Bay

Cities–like the people in them–do not live by bread alone. They need mind and soul food to grow into the vibrant entities that they become. Mumbai has been given its mind food–in the form of stories, novels, pamphlets, athletic rule books, comics and other literary whatnots–by a small band of dedicated bookshops which have been around for 50 years and more. Growing organically with the city, these bookshops have seen it all, and with time, become landmarks in themselves.

A smoky corner of the world 
The wonderful, timeless Smoker’s Corner is cleverly laid out in the foyer of Botawala Mansion just outside Ballard Estate, the city’s heritage business district. Suleiman Botawala (76) says, “I bought Smoker’s in 1959 from the original British owners who sold tobacco. Since I loved reading, I slowly changed to books. In those days, P M Road was a two-way street, and it was washed clean regularly.”
There is a clean-cut, spare sort of elegance to the shop, with the display arranged neatly in shelves of lovely, rich teak. A piece of string holds the flap of each book shut – to prevent the covers from getting dog-eared, Botawala explains.

Where are his rarest books, I ask. “All in my house!” he replies with a chuckle. “The moment I spot a rare or unique book, I hold on to it till a customer comes and asks for it. Then I usually gift it to them.” Gift it? Whatever happened to the economics of book selling?
“I’ve sold a lot, and besides, sharing books is the greatest joy in life. Here I’ve met some of the most interesting people in the city and I’ve learned so much from each of them. This is my way of giving back something.” One of his customers in the ’80s, a learned, unassuming man, turned out to be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was then the Governor of the nearby Reserve Bank of India.
Botawala is never in your face, making it a policy ‘not to interfere’ with customers. However, he also knows his regulars’ tastes, and always has a treat saved for them. Knowing my fondness for obscure Russian children’s books, he gets me a stack of his oldest.
Botawala is genuinely delighted by the new books stores. “They will surely click, because reading is popular once again. Only their prices are forbidding.”
He shows me a thick, aged book of quotations called Noble Thoughts in Noble Languages and smiles, “New shops may have a mind-boggling range of best-sellers, but they don’t have real treasures like these!” [Mr Botawala passed away in 2009. His son Zubair now manages the shop.]

Where the price is always right
Just further down the road from Smoker’s, is Strand Book Stall, another treasure-trove. Here they pride themselves on their consistently low pricing. “We keep the thinnest of margins,” says P M Shenvi (60), the ever-smiling manager. “That’s how we sell many books at less than half their prices, and give 20% off on others. Our aim is to be affordable and we curtail all other expenses towards that. No fancy d├ęcor for us!” Despite that, Strand’s book-lined walls have a distinctive ambience. It’s a combination of courtesy, efficiency and the lingering smell of new books.
Strand’s founder, T N Shanbag [who passed away in February 2009], was perhaps the only bookseller to have won a UNESCO award and a Padmashri. “As a young graduate,” Shenvi recounts, “Shanbag was once asked to stop browsing in a bookshop and leave unless he bought something. He dreamt of setting up a bookshop someday that would keep its doors open to browsers – even those without the money to buy.”
Shanbag eventually set up a bookstall with a capital of Rs 450/- in 1948. He rented a small space inside Strand Cinema with the permission of K K Modi, its owner. Shenvi adds, “Later in 1954 we moved here, thanks in part to Justice M C Chagla’s help.” The roster of Strand’s patrons includes names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Ambalal Sarabhai, R K Narayan, Graham Greene, J R D Tata and Nani Palkiwala.
Things have changed with time. “Before, people preferred classics, but now management and self-help books are popular… And back then, our biggest landmarks were Flora Fountain, Handloom House and Khadi Gramudyog,” Shenvi observes.
Does he consider the new chain bookshops competition? “They are good, but you find the same stocks everywhere. I feel that we are really different. Our interest lies more in encouraging reading, in promoting books.”
And as someone who has spent hours browsing at Strand without buying anything at all, I can certainly vouch for that!

Up next, some sporting action
Mumbai is also home to one of the three bookshops in the world that are exclusively devoted to books on sports. Marine Sports, currently located in Dadar, was started on Marine Drive in 1946 by Bruno Braganza. His son Theo Braganza (58) says, “Dad sold sporting goods, but found the cut-throat competition too much.”
So how did the idea for the switch come up? “He used to love reading, and used to go to sports meets. There he found a demand for rule books, and began importing them. By 1956 we had shifted to Dadar and converted to exclusively selling books on sports. Dadar was something of a cricket hub then,” says the genial Braganza.
Though he was trained to be an engineer, Braganza joined Marine Sports in 1972, when his father grew unwell. He also did a course in publishing, combining his interests in books and sports. “Cricketers and other sportsmen have always come to Marine... Gavaskar was a regular. Before any match he would read up on his opponents. Once, before leaving for Australia, he asked me for a book which was sold out. Dad refused to order just one copy. But I insisted because I felt it would make a positive contribution to Gavaskar’s growth. That’s when I realized that what we were really more than just another business.”
And Marine Sports had indeed created mindspace for a whole generation of sports fans, players, young journalists and officials. Braganza says, “Till the ’80s, sports lovers used to buy all kinds of sports books. But after that, with the rising prices, they became selective.” Currently, Braganza reprints and distributes books to institutes and dealers; and buys and sells rare sports books.
What does Braganza miss about the old Mumbai? “Every weekend, Kalbadevi used to have a sprawling book market. We should to revive it, because there is enough interest. If it can happen in Daryaganj in Delhi, then why not here?”
Why not, indeed. Anyone listening?

The grand-daddy of them all
For sheer age and volume of books though, there’s nothing quite like the New and Second Hand Book Store. Shelves and racks in the medium-sized shop are lined with obscure, fascinating old books. Firoze Vishram (65), the owner Sultan Vishram’s brother, takes out a meticulously-written list of their really rare books. A 1711 edition of The Lucubrations by Sir Isaac Bickerstaff is the oldest.
Outside the shop is a wall display of old books for 10/- and 20/-. You’re sure to find a gem or two here. “People sometimes tell us that we sell our books too cheap,” says Vishram. “But we are not interested in huge profits. We buy low and sell low. My grandfather Jamalbhai Rattansey began this business in 1905. He bought books by weight and sold them very cheap. One client, Magistrate Oscar Brown, would sift through the books and correct the pricing, suggesting that some were worth more.”
Currently, the shop is owned by Rattansey’s grandson Sultan Vishram (67). But over the years, the one constant in the shop has been Chandrakant Mankame, its manager of 60 years. Retired now, Vishram recommends that I meet him.
At 75, Mankame is energetic and alert. “I joined the shop as a cleaner in 1944, when my father died. I was 9. One day when the salesman was absent I helped a customer find a book. The owner spotted my interest in books, and encouraged me. Later he put me in charge. I took the responsibility very seriously till I retired in 2005.”
Mankame also developed an eye for rare books. “I felt that books spoke to me when I opened them. I bought up people’s old collections till the walls were completely filled. My guides were people like H S Mardhani (one of the previous owners) and Arun Tikekar.”
Even as we talk, a lady walks in asking for an old book. She has heard that any book in the world can be found here. It’s a formidable reputation to have. Not for nothing, I guess, have Rajneesh, V K Krishna Menon, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ali Yavar Jang all stopped to browse here.
(The New and Secondhand Bookshop has just shut down. Putting this piece here in memory…)

This was written in Dec 2007 for the Mumbai International Airport’s magazine. Coordinated by Bijal at the Paprika Media Team. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Tigress for a Mother...

It’s probably the toughest job in the world, but there’s no training for it. There are no degrees you can get, or papers you could write before they feel you can come on board. Seriously, all it takes to become a parent is the correct set of anatomical parts and a functioning hormonal make-up. And the ‘job’ in concern is a small human being who you have to care for and nurture for the next 20 years. That bit in italics is the scariest thing about parenting.

All you bring to the table, really, are your own emotional baggage and your set of highly idiosyncratic notions on what sort of person your kid should grow up to be. Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother is Amy Chua’s description of how she raised her children, bringing her own unique and mildly demented ideas to the process — often, in the face of her American husband Jed Rubenfeld’s quiet anger and disapproval.

A daughter of Chinese immigrants, a professor of law at Yale, and a renowned writer on ethnicity and foreign affairs, Chua is the epitome of the successful, driven, Asian mom. Brought up in the hard, Chinese way, she is determined not to raise her child like Western parents do — with kindness, quick appreciation and indulgence. Much that she sees wrong in the people around her — neuroses, dysfunctional families, entitled kids with no drive or ambition — she attributes to the Western model of parenting, where parents readily accept their children’s under-achievement and laziness. Western parents let children enjoy their childhood; but Chinese parents, she says, prepare children for the future.

She opts to be a ‘Chinese Mother’, which she explains early on, is not a racial identity but a personality type. ‘Chinese Mothers’ are parents who are ambitious for their children and will steamroll their kids’ immediate desires to ensure their future success. Nothing is fun, she says, till you master it. It’s not enough to be ‘good’ at an instrument; you have to be playing at the Carnegie Hall or performing for international audiences to be acceptable.

Chua’s non-acceptance of mediocrity is across-the-board. She rejects the sloppy birthday cards her kids make her because — with her Confucian wisdom — she knows they can do better. The speeches they write for the funeral of their dead paternal grandmother are moving, simply because Chua wouldn’t accept their first ‘Hallmark-card-type’ efforts. Every success is a direct result of her slave-driving.

In Chua’s view, being a hard-to-please parent will ensure that you raise obedient, devoted, focussed kids who excel at classical music, never become neurotic, and best of all, will look after you in your dotage. Well, her older daughter is just 15 or 16 years old, so let’s not start setting off the fireworks of success yet. Will there be a Guess How My Tiger Mother Scarred Me by one of her kids in the future? Let’s wait and see.

Battle Hymn…
is engaging because it makes you cringe and laugh at the same time. Chua’s determination to make a genius out of the family’s dog is funny, while her daughter’s stress-induced biting of the piano’s legs, is not. Working within the cruel-to-be-kind school of parenting, she admits that reprimanding her kids is exhausting, heart-wrenching work. So slapping her daughter in Barcelona — for not kicking her fingers high enough while playing the piano — is the price she pays for giving the child the opportunity to play for an audience ‘in a glass-windowed room, overlooking the Mediterranean’. That she shares these instances in horrifyingly naked detail, is chilling.

Each time Chua goads one of her kids into a stellar public performance, she rests and gloats for a brief moment — usually in the last four lines of the chapter. Then it’s back to nagging them on to another euphoric accolade-drawing effort. Just as this starts getting dull, Battle Hymn… takes a turn for, I’m tempted to say, the human. Her sister’s grave illness becomes a pivot for the story. It is followed by a meltdown of sorts, which brings her the realisation that the Chinese Mother must transmogrify into what she really is — a Western parent. Ironically, the advice that prods her into doing so comes from her mother who raised her the hard, Chinese way.

Battle Hymn…
is about choices we make — for ourselves and our children. It is a frightening book in parts, and in others, it nudges us to question our own assumptions. Watching her point out the obvious failures of Western parenting is interesting. But then, just reading about Chua’s horrible excesses — throwing a three-year-old out into the winter evening because she refuses to play one note on the piano — is enough to stamp out all admiration. It makes you want to have her certified.

What works for the book is the close-to-the-bones feeling that Chua brings to her words. She pulls no punches. When her relationship with her second daughter sours, her descriptions of their encounters are as graphic as her writing on her ‘triumphs’. The book is destined to become a bestseller in the chick-lit-for-grown-ups genre. It has that crucial mix of ingredients: clever, glib writing; humour; pretty, successful people with tiny, self-created problems; and a dramatic twist where the angry maverick turns back to the fold of the Western way. All one hopes for is that the book doesn’t become a self-help-type bestseller, with mothers being inspired by its methods.

Now that would be truly scary.

This book review first appeared in the DNA of Feb 6, 2011 with a different title.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

No shame or what?

An old friend from Delhi visited us recently — a really great guy who is stylish in the way that only men from Delhi can be. One evening, I asked him to carry a perfectly good, purple coloured, non-crackly (crucial detail) plastic bag. Nothing prepared me for his shocked yelp. “A plastic bag you want me to hold? It crackles and it’s pink! No way! It just won’t go with me.” He shuddered.

I took it back, muttering something like, “Wait-till-you-have-a-kid-bugger.” See, the last six years have changed us. Pista-green candy-striped cloth bags, ugly red-and-yellow umbrellas, Tinkerbell raincoats, sky-blue potty seats and the like have been lugged by us.We have, in many ways, lost our sense of style — and, truly, lost our sense of shame too.

I blame it all on the process of becoming parents. The loss of one’s coolth begins with the woman getting pregnant. As a guy, once your woman’s bump starts to show, and there’s that civilised and public acknowledgement of your sex life by neighbours and parents, you change in crucial ways. Don’t ask me how or why, but it happens. I had fertility issues at one point, and I remember the doctor — a respectable, middle-aged, mom-type — asking us to ‘have relations as many times as possible’ on a particular date. I stared at her for five whole seconds, eyes narrowed, wondering what in heck she was saying. And suddenly I realised that she was asking us to have sex. When we recovered from the acute nails-on-the-wall-feeling induced by her euphemism, we knew that nothing would be the same any more; least of all, the act itself.

As for women — do I really need to elaborate? Somehow, having a child is equivalent to being in a reality show inside a goldfish bowl in your neighbourhood. Because once you’re pregnant, the human race at large suddenly begins to take an active interest in you. This is probably an atavistic thing, dating back to centuries of being concerned about she-who-bears-life. Apart from being prodded by the doctor and his/her team, the world and its cousin will advise you. The best nugget I got was a vital tip on human anatomy from an elderly Punjabi uncle on my morning walk. "Eat  ghee-rich ‘panjeeri,’" he said, "It will ‘make your insides smooth’ so that the baby ‘comes out easily’." Between incomprehension and shock, there is a small space called parenthood.

Inevitably and slowly, you will relax into the state, wantonly discussing vomiting, acidity and bowel movements with strangers.

One of the most painful tasks in the final weeks of pregnancy was something i take for granted now - the security of my salwar. No matter where i tied the salwar string, and no matter where, the salwar would slip down the parabola of my belly, and I would keep hitching it up. Pull up that salwar in full public view often enough, and you realise that dignity-wise, it’s all the way south from here. (Why did I continue wearing falling-naada salwars? Because this was deep, dark 2003, when only aerobics instructors and male dancers wore tights. Respectable pregnant women were either looking like ducks in frocks, or seahorses in saris, or were wearing ‘punjabi dresses’.)

Once you have the baby, the change is irreversible. You talk about food, poop, milk and breast pumps with a quiet insouciance. You used to be angsty, reserved, cool people. Now you’re loud, hustling parents, who have no qualms asking stern pediatricians daft questions, or doling out free advice to pregnant women and new moms. Yeah, and you stop being so darn particular about things like bags.

Between losing her senses of style, shame and sanity, Anita Vachharajani raises a child and writes children’s books

This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Jan 30, 2011