Capital of Literacy Needs a Good Bookshop?

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This is a proposal that in financial terms would be peanuts, or half a peanut, to some of you.  Mangalore is a city that prides itself on its intellectual standards, its great and numerous educational institutions.

And yet, it is not a city that has bookshops that it can be proud of, that flatter its residents? tastes or culture. It is a city that possibly numbers forty thousand college graduates among its population, and yet where are the bookshops? You can visit a small town in the Czech Republic, one perhaps with three thousand college graduates, and the bookshop will proudly display its local authors with prominent window displays, as if to tell tourists: ?Yes, we are a small town, but we have our own writers, and we are proud of them.? The authors may not be Nobel Prizewinners, but they are homegrown, local products, and that is why they get more of a display space than Nobel Prizewinners. (Your child is your child; will you kick your own child out of your own home and give his room to a more intelligent or handsome or rich foreigner? Would you say, ?My son will only be a Middle East clerk, sending me one thousand rupees monthly five years from now on; this rich Swiss medical student is offering to pay me one thousand rupees a day right now! Let my son go somewhere else!??)  When THE REVISED KAMA SUTRA was released in the U.K., a bookshop in Cambridge, probably Waterstone?s if I remember right, put up a huge display of about 60 copies of the Revised Kama Sutra, piled artistically on the floor like a castle, and covered in places with decorative Indian silk brocade?and I was not even a U.K. author, let alone a Cambridge author! In Mangalore, the tendency is either to avoid local authors completely, or to hide their books, if three or four copies are present: to be ashamed of the fact that this town has also produced some persons who decided not to be doctors, engineers, or businessmen, but?pardon us, sir?writers!

At any time Athree might have an average of three copies of all of my five books, or none; Book World will probably have none, and if it did, you won?t find them easily. Higginbothams, even at the time that the Revised Kama Sutra was all over the national press, and the books were selling like hotcakes, always sings the same tune, ?This has to be decided by Head Office in Madras.? Not a single book by a Mangalorean author is visible at the bookshop at Mangalore Airport, the first place that a visitor lands in, and the last place that he leaves before heading for home. (I cannot imagine ?The Revised Kama Sutra? or Arunachalam Kumar?s books not selling at least fifteen copies a month, if not thirty, at the Mangalore Airport bookshop, particularly if given a prominent display.) One of the explanations that Book World?s owner gave me for not displaying local authors was that ?We are not here for charity.? Incidentally, he had made more money on commissions selling just one book of mine, ONE LITTLE INDIAN, than I the author had made in royalties for two years of writing it! (In fact, I made not one paisa on the books he sold)?and still, I seemed to construe from his statement that he felt that to display my books might be an act of charity he was not placed on this earth to do.

I heard from fellow author Arunachalam Kumar that a Mangalorean expat who was returning to the Middle East after a short visit needed five copies of FATHERS, REBELS AND DREAMERS to take back to Dubai and to distribute to friends there. But despite giving advance notice of about three days, Athree could not get them, and he returned to Dubai empty handed.

So if I am one of the million or more persons from South Kanara working in other parts of India or the world and briefly visiting Mangalore, nostalgic for books that tell me about my heritage, my culture, and my people, and to read Mangalorean authors that non-Mangaloreans seem to be talking about, then where should I go? To Gauhati or to Tiruchi? 

If you leave out self-help books, business books, academic books, joke books, and children?s books, how many books do these bookshops display? Do any of them have chairs for people to sit in and browse through books?  A city this size in the U.S. would have at least four good bookshops with at least five thousand if not twenty thousand different titles in each.   

My proposal is that we have a Mangalore Bookshop or a Writers? Bookshop or a bookshop-caf? called Louella?s in honor of a late Mangalorean writer and booklover named Louella Lobo Prabhu. This bookshop would devote at least one-fourth of its shelf space only to Mangalorean writers, who would always be in sufficient stock, of course in proportion to their prominence and salability, with no censorship of content, one principle being a total commitment to free expression.  The bookshop would carry NO self-help books, textbooks, religious books, or thrillers?there are enough bookshops selling these kinds of books already. There would be comfortable chairs, tables, and possibly a coffee machine, and no pressure would be exerted on patrons to decide quickly and leave; who knows, a future Charles Dickens or R.K. Narayan could be one of the patrons. In each title by Mangalorean authors, there would be one copy marked as available for brief browsing. Browsing is an important part of the buying process: a reader needs to familiarize himself with a book, to be seduced by it, before making a purchase; the title alone is rarely enough to clinch the purchasing decision, unless a lot of hype has already preceded it. Such a bookshop would allow Mangalorean expatriates visiting Mangalore to walk in and quickly pick up a selection of books to take back to their country of residence. Such a bookshop could also airmail these books for an extra charge to would-be customers. A committee of writers and readers could make ?book picks?, suggesting literary books they recommend for display, including such world authors as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Ralph Ellison. A book club or book discussion group could meet there regularly, and they could read a Mangalorean author once a month, among other authors. 

The principle of such a bookshop would not be money or profit, but promoting the idea of writing and reading, encouraging and displaying local authors, and encouraging literature. I can offer to give readings here; I can also offer to give a short workshop in writing to the general public. Other writers could be invited to make similar offers. When persons like Ralph Nazareth, who are so wise and widely exposed to the world of literature, arrive in Mangalore, there is no one to take advantage of his wisdom and learning. It is a powerful experience to listen to him reading poetry; and yet, who in Mangalore wants to avail of it? If a well-known singer from Mangalore were to visit Mangalore, wouldn?t the locals be thrilled to have a local performance for the singer? By assuming they are crass, uncultured, only interested in money and success, we insult Mangaloreans and Mangalore itself. We don?t give them a chance to get acquainted with their authors? books, to feel them, browse through them, taste them . . . we jump to the conclusion that they would not be interested, and we don?t carry these authors, or we hide their books. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Such a bookshop might indeed make a profit and pay the rent, but the backers ought to be committed enough as to say the project is worthwhile regardless of the profit made or not made. It ought to have honest and literate staff, even volunteers (independently wealthy persons who love to be in the company of books, and in the service of books) and perhaps colleges can be asked to give credit to an advanced literature student to intern in such shops for a few hours a week.

I suggest that this bookshop is opened and managed either by one person who will take all the financial and management responsibility (and if two persons want to do it by themselves, two such bookshops would be an even better idea?Mangalore deserves them), or by a partnership of four persons. If it can be the latter, I, through Invisible Man Publishers, would be willing to be one of the partners, though perhaps my financial contribution will be less than my management contribution, and my contribution in books (in lieu of finances). Above all, this bookshop ought to be founded on the principle of respect for writers and their profession and their commitment; it should never take the attitude that they are doing writers a favor, or doing them charity, by displaying their books; instead, that writers are doing them and the community a favor by choosing to be low-paid writers rather than Wall Street bankers, businessmen, or highly paid software professionals, and that to give our own writers and their products a fair hearing and proper display is a mark of our culture, our maturity, and our self-respect.

Let us go ahead and do it without delay, even in a few weeks? time, before the book-buying high season ends. Mangalore should not be made to wait any longer for the bookshop/s it deserves. Done in the right spirit, this will have deep implications for our culture, and self-image, and will be a force for the better, that people will remember for decades afterwards.

Also Read Mr. Richard Crasta  On Mangalorean Star: October, 2003

Author: Richard Crasta- USA

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