I am given to believe by some readers that Outlook has done something
exceptional by putting a bookseller on its cover.
I am told that in recent memory, no regional or national newsmagazine has done
so. Contrary to the trend of putting celebrities or newsmakers or those all too
familiar middle-class smiles, we had picked a sombre face that had for decades,
anonymously, kept the conscience of a city.
You are right, I am still reveling in the Bangalore cover story (December 17, 2007) we put out a couple of weeks ago. A bookseller stood superimposed in a corner against an image of two partying girls. The cover caption only said: "Bangalore's best known bookseller finds the city's emerging culture uncouth." There was no mention of the bookseller's name on the cover or inside in the story. Some readers found this intriguing and there were phone calls and e-mails to get his name and phone number. It was perhaps a slip on our part not to print the name on the cover, but then aren't booksellers an anonymous cult?
A bookseller is first known by the books he keeps and then by the discount he offers. Very rarely do we put a name to the face that plays such an important role in our intellectual evolution. You may buy books on amazon or download pages of a classic, but in most parts of the world there is still this healthy tradition of buying at favourite bookshops from those familiar yet anonymous hands.
These favourite bookshops are often cramped, tiny spaces and anyone who has visited Premier Bookshop on Church Street or Nagasri at Jayanagar Complex will know what I am referring to. There may be book-malls coming up around Premier and Nagasri, but the browsing-joy that the two offer is simply unique. Why unique? That's a consuming cultural question that this column will endeavour to answer at different points in the future. But the key question is: how many who visit these two bookshops recognise that the friendly-face at the counter as T S Shanbag or Venkatesh? For that matter how many know that it is Murthy who owns Select, the second-hand shop off Brigade Road; it is Raja at the famous Balepet's Sahitya Bandara; that Vidya Virkar furthers the legacy of her father at Strand and, by the way, what is the name of the person who runs Blossoms, the city's most happening bookstore? Similarly so, the man on Outlook's cover was Puvyasri, short for Pustaka Vyapari Srinivasa, which quite literally means bookseller Srinivasa. It is a title of sorts, more valuable than an honoris causa doctoral degree, that U S Srinivasan has earned in the course of his half-a-century-long engagement with selling books.
Puvyasri aka U S Srinivasan is Bangalore's first and only mobile bookseller. Yes, he does not own a few hundred square feet on some busy city street. His mobile bookshop is best described by tweaking a 12th century vachana by Basaveshwara: His legs are pillars and his shoulders the shelves. (The original vachana rendered into English by A K Ramanujan in his classic Speaking of Siva reads:
"The rich will make temples for Siva
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body a shrine,
the head a cupola of gold")
Puvyasri is perennially on the move, untiringly covering the diagonal ends of the city, faithfully sticking to the never-reliable public transport system. His mobile shop opens at 6 am in the morning and prefers to shutdown by 11 am, by the time the sun gets harsh. In these five hours the books are delivered at the doorstep of a reader and all transactions mandatorily happen over a cup of filter coffee and either dosa, idli or upma.
Puvyasri insists that he has no customers but only friends. His network of friends has ranged from litterateurs to scientists and politicians. Authors Bhisham Sahni and K S Duggal, space scientist Satish Dhawan, theatremen Fritz Bennewitz and B V Karanth, Justice E S Venkataramaiah, filmmakers M S Sathyu, M V Krishnaswamy and Girish Kasaravalli, communist leader Inderjit Gupta and former chief minister Devraj Urs are among many others who have purchased books from him. He does not forget to complain that Devraj Urs never returned an autographed copy of Fidel Castro's book History Will Absolve Me, which was lent to be read and returned from his personal collection. He also joyously shares his mail exchanges with Bhisham Sahni spanning decades.
Puvyasri never takes orders for books, but only eruditely passes them on. He offers a customised service by shortlisting the books that may interest his friends and allows them a week or so to browse and decide if they want to include it in their personal library. 'To each according to their need' is his motto. Once the book is sold, Puvyasri collects the money through irregular monthly installments. In fact, when he appeared on the cover, many people made guilt-calls saying that they owed him money for books bought 20 or 30 years ago.
It is with regret that one has to say that the fast depleting idea of the personal library has been central to Puvyasri's mission of selling books. He remained a bachelor to sell books and if you thought he took to selling them to merely earn a livelihood, you are mistaken. He has always blended an ideological purpose with it and very loosely described it would mean changing the social direction of knowledge.
Puvyasri also has a very impressive lineage. He comes from an illustrious family of scholars. His father was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society and his grandfather, H V Nanjundayya, was the first vice-chancellor of Mysore University. Stating all these facts may itself make you feel that Puvyasri belongs to another world. A world that may have quietly passed away. When I asked him about this, he said: "It is my firm belief that books will thrive forever, despite the onslaught of electronic media. However, it is sad that the pricing of books have become irrational. We should also do something to channnelise the majority of our young minds, who are indulging in the secular stupidity called cricket, while distancing themselves from books and other meaningful cultural exercises."
When Puvyasri invites you home, he emerges from behind a capacious curtain that runs from ceiling to the surface with catalogues of books. Friends who know his Left-leanings jokingly refer to this as the iron curtain. Even as he shrugs the comment, it is evident that age and the 'weight' of his profession have caught up with him. His shoulders are slightly tapered and his legs are bowed. He is a picture of frailness. But the enthusiasm has not dipped. And he is happy to narrate many memorable incidents and experiences about his book-selling.
He now nurtures a secret desire to become an author himself.
It is a sheer coincidence that I am writing about Puvyasri and others of his kind in a month when Bangalore has got its biggest book-mall in the 21000 square feet Reliance Time Out on Cunnigham Road. Can we dare to make a new year wish that people like Puvyasri are not relegated to nostalgia?
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