In the first few days of the pandemic, before Zoom and broadcasting platforms sucked up most of my waking hours, I removed stickers. Small stickers in crayon-like blue, saffron, green and a sickly yellow, stubbornly stuck to the backs of books. The glue was cheap and if I managed to peel off a sticker completely at one go, I then used it to yank the sticky patches off other less successful attempts.
Indian book distributors, publishers and shops use terrible quality stickers. During the weeks that slowly unfolded into months and until bookshops opened, these tiny stickers with stamped with names of stores like Midland or of distributors, publishers, etc, were my only memory of what till then had been a routine for me, visiting bookshops.
I don’t go to bookstores every month, I go to them weekly, some weeks I go more than once. I browse through books, I examine their covers, I exult over the newer finishes and veneers for covers that publishers are experimenting with. I am amazed when I discover thick tomes that don’t weigh a ton but are super-light thanks to newer kinds of papers. I enjoy the pretensions of publishers who broadcast their typeface types and am jubilant over recycled reams.
Increasingly I am amazed by the cleverness of book jacket designers and also detest small type. Especially when economising or paper supply issues force print into the gutter of bound books. Thicker books and later editions are usually the main culprits behind these publishing misdemeanours. Oh, and I constantly look out for clever new formats of books, be it size, newer styles, wraparound specials, box editions, hand-stitched cloth bookmarks and other extras that keep popping up.
And I share my finds with a few friends who are in the business. I even post them on my Insta stories, two different accounts, two different registers. Books for the office for work that get broadcast through the company account and my personal stash, mostly fiction, books on Iran (I am obsessed), and language studies which no one in my office is interested in and hence they remain at home. But through all these book shenanigans, Midland has been my constant go-to place.
The Midland magic
Don’t get me wrong, I go to other bookstores, but I go to Midland a lot more. Midland in South Extension and under the tutelage of Asad bhai – Mirza Asad Baig – really began this journey for me in 2000. Little did I realise till I sat down to write this piece that the said outlet had just opened its doors around the same time. My office then was on the wrong side of South Extension (Part 2) and almost every lunch hour, I would cross the main road and spend twenty minutes at the store.
This was aeons before the Metro ate up the road (now restored) and an overbridge was planted. The best thing, which I realised after the first few months, was that on weekday afternoons, a bookstore is especially quiet. Between stacks of books as the shop-staff relax before the evening rush hour, a browser was pretty much left to themselves.
I had begun working for a scenographer largely because he did projects no one else attempted and he had an extraordinary library. Those were the days when one was naïve enough to think that book lovers were wonderful people. By the time the honeymoon ended, I was there only for the library, and the fact that work as head of research meant that I could sit there all the time.
There was another bookshop at another south Delhi market that I used to frequently spot, but I detested its surly owner who would get irritated if a browser as much as touched a shelf to pull out a book – he would insist on doing it himself. For a young professional on a shoestring budget, asking a store hand to pull out several books just to browse, check the price tag and then try to figure what one could afford was always a challenge.
The other trouble spot in bookstore paradise is over-helpful staff who skulk around trying to show you everything you don’t need. Trust me, it takes years before a shop assistant can fathom what a regular customer wants. Thankfully Midland didn’t do either of the two, and most of us at the store were left pretty much alone.
The happy truth be told, I was plain lucky. I got to Midland and the ever-patient Asad bhai probably assumed I was a harmless browser who never bought much, but was not trouble. And as for me, I hit pay dirt. Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita’s Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature was possibly the first book I bought at Midland. I distinctly remember next buying a tiny V&A pattern book, part of a larger series that I couldn’t afford in its entirety.
I had just read Ananda Coomaraswamy complain about Benares weavers revitalising their design repertoire in the 1920s with English wallpaper pattern books, and what these might be were a major preoccupation then. When Indian women swear by the rich inherited tradition of their mothers’ wedding trousseaus from the early 20th century, I am hard pressed not to pour cold water over their collective memories. The wonderful thing about tradition in India is that it’s living, and that means it’s usually reinvented every ten years. And we have done that splendidly for over 5000 years.
The history of a bookshop
But coming back to my story, the Telangana agitation that most of us are familiar with and which was resolved over the last decade has much older roots. It began in 1955, festering on for nearly a decade before boiling over in 1969 resulting in the death of over 300 student agitators. Businesses were severely affected, and many chose to move out. One such entrepreneur in the book business at Hyderabad was Mirza Yaseen Baig whose establishment in Hyderabad was named Book Selection Centre.
Moving with his family to Delhi, his son Asad remembers further turmoil soon after, as war with Pakistan broke out in 1971. Book Selection Centre, Delhi began at the India Coffee House (currently Palika Bazar) successfully for a few years before it was unceremoniously demolished when Emergency came. Quick to sense an opportunity across the road, Mirza Yaseen moved to a shop adjacent to the Rambles restaurant (present day Palika parking), before demolition squads hit this site too.
The business then opened its doors under a fresh name, New Book Land, in Janpath where the store remains to this day. Asad bhai, as I call him, opened the second store at the newly established Aurobindo Place market in 1987, and by the time I visited them in 2000, he was also based at South Extension, their third store. A fourth and final store, now called New Midland, was opened in 2019 in Gurgaon, making the business a four-store chain for the moment.
The stacks at Midland south are arranged by section. The outer peripheral shelves have yielded most treasures over the years. The inner shelves are less interesting to me except for the textile and design section, since it teemed with ideas and worlds that I had no knowledge of but was greatly interested in.
I discovered extraordinary publications by the Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Woman (SPARROW) here. These pathbreaking publications by Ambai (CS Lakshmi) – Mirrors and Gestures: Conversations with Women Dancers; The Singer & the Song: Conversations with Women Musicians – were worlds that didn’t exist in my imagination or even worldview.
Most education formats that a middle-class Indian navigates seldom includes the arts of India. Authentic voices, oral histories and alternative narrative didn’t exist within the wide arc of pigeon-holed culture that we were was exposed to. At 27, I was by then in the workforce, not part of academia or any research-driven world – that was to come later. Midland and by extension bookstores were my training grounds.
I came of age between dusty racks in bookshops. They smoothened out my rough edges, made me understand the difference between place and space, and helped shape the way I looked at the world. It made me question everything that I received, pushed me away from bigotry and towards tolerance, and finally, whenever I thought I knew something, a new book on the shelves would reveal the true depths of my ignorance.
What the pandemic did
As the pandemic raged and the world went into its first lockdown in living memory, our behaviour, impulses and ways of dealing were recorded differently. Not just in our retail options but also across socioeconomic demographics and the varied stages of life that we found ourselves in. At home or away, amidst or separated from our near and dear ones, not to mention those who were amidst people yet mentally far away.
Bookstores have been my go-to space for over two decades. They have calmed me, kept me motivated and enthralled with this maddening world that all of us call home. The severe lockdown of nearly two months severed that link and the first aspect of normalcy was when I read that bookstores in Kerala (my home state) were opening and had been included in the list of essential services. To hope for Delhi to accept a similar stand seemed a further distance away. Like for most retail establishments, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown cut down book sales entirely, until the Delhi government allowed bookstores to reopen on 8 May.
For Midland, delivery by Dunzo the delivery app was part of the new normal as they began their first home delivery of books. It took more than a month for customers to start revisiting markets and stores. Nearly five months after the opening of the stores, business today is still only about 40% of what it was earlier. While home delivery might become a continued part of the emerging business model, the greatest worry for bookshop owners is a loss of patronage from older, more dedicated customers.
Vulnerable populations who were much more likely to buy books haven’t yet started patronising stores, greatly affecting the bottomline. Despite the hardships, Midland chose to retain all their employees. The six members of the family in the business are hands-on and most customers interact with one of them. They are evenly matched by some six assistants. A modest team for four stores that have opened up the world to me and countless other book lovers. My narration is but one story of a group of booksellers affected by the pandemic.
So, could I have lived without books during the pandemic? Yes and no. I didn’t read every day and sometimes the sight of my bookshelves depressed me because I could not be at a bookstore. I pulled out and began several volumes that I had acquired earlier, but never read. Yes, every bibliophile has them.
I snatched time between Zoom conference calls and work deadlines to complete chapters in feverish haste. The only severe withdrawal pangs I suffered was the absence of non-fiction books that were largely at the office. As a museum consultant and archivist my world necessarily involves poring over tomes on art, culture and collections. The bedrock of our discourse then is a mesh of cross references.
Material culture being what it is, and the manner in which the arts of India are dispersed globally, the only way to link an object to a personage, period, history or culture is through a network of published sources. In the absence of easy access to museum collections worldwide, most Indian researchers have to necessarily depend on a wide variety of publications. Our work would not be worth much if we didn’t know what else existed outside of our rarefied realms.
Illustrated museum publications are expensive, imported ones even more so, but an absolute necessity. The absence of easy access to my library at the office meant that online searches went up. Thankfully several arts institutions take pride in sharing their collections online, and many of them today allow viewers to download large files.
In the new normal (how I detest this phrase), I also buy a lot of books online. This helps, for online searches allow you to reach an elusive copy of an old publication that you desperately need for a project. Being able to use the internet as an aggregator of bookstores has definitely increased access to information for me. However, I continue to savour every visit to a bookstore and after the opening up, my first trip was to a bookstore in mid-May.
I am constantly asked what it is about books that excite me. I am not sure I have a clear enough answer. Turning a few pages moves me from an ever-present reality to a place in the past and or the future. Newer writings reveal an expanding universe and, particularly in my line of work, bring to light what are otherwise semiotic memories of the distant and not so distant past. We constantly read the signs that objects give us, and we are encouraged to deduce with our cognitive skills, but nuanced retellings by others allows for a much larger database of ideas, helping us interpret better.
A constant refrain that I would hear from friends and colleagues who have children was the inability to visit bookstores to buy books during the summer holidays, which were largely spent indoors this year. The psychological toll on people across age groups during the pandemic has been immense. As we come to terms with the magnitude of the problem, our methods to mitigate this suffering don’t show any easy answers.
In a culture steeped with negative stereotypes when it comes to dealing with mental health, I find that reaching out to books and being able to read offered me succour. While I realise that I am privileged by the fact that I can even read, it was these worlds that I could enter that I turned to during the many waking hours of the day.
Since technology does and did connect, everyone was in plain sight albeit at the other end of a screen. Several friends read avidly on the kindle and purchasing eBooks online continued unhampered, but that is not a medium I am into yet. The hesitation to use a kindle seems odd in light of the fact that most of my immediate reading daily occurs on a screen. From messages to emails and reports to articles, even forwards and jokes are largely in the digital realm starting with my phone.
What then is the magic that a physical bricks and mortar store with shelves groaning with books holds us captive to? I am not sure what the answer is. The romance of the smell of freshly printed newsprint didn’t really do it for me ever. Perhaps it is just the worlds that are revealed as I hold a book in my hand that make them a cherished faithful companion?
Years ago, I recall asking a Kashmiri friend what kept him hopeful. He had remarked, ‘I read’. And that is perhaps my leitmotif for sanity, through this pandemic and life. I read.
Pramod Kumar KG is managing director of Eka Archiving Services, a museum consulting and cultural resource company.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.