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How a brick-and-mortar bookshop provides shelter from the fury of the polls in Varanasi

Mannika Chopra | Updated on May 17, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: DIPANKAR

Harmony, the Bookshop is a haven for the browsing bibliophile in the city

The list of all that Varanasi is famous for is a long one. The River Ganga is on top of the list, of course. Its tamatar chaat — a tangy concoction of tomatoes — figures on it, as does the kachori-sabzi — crispy fried flour puffs served with a fiery-hot potato curry. And right up there somewhere is its representative to the Lok Sabha, fighting to be re-elected from the holy city of Uttar Pradesh.

Not all that well known is the fact that, amidst all the heated electoral debates about the disordering of the political fabric, there still exist certain spaces in the city that have managed to retain a modicum of quietude and reflection. Brick-and-mortar bookshops provide shelter from the rage and the fury of the ongoing poll battle, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes on Shalini Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Ajay Rai of the Congress on May 19 from Varanasi.

The book business may have been shaken by the onslaught of the internet and rising rents. Legendary bookstores are closing down across the country, but Harmony — nestling modestly on Varanasi’s southernmost Assi Ghat — has managed to weather the storm. As its owner Rakesh Singh (45) says, reading habits have only expanded with online shopping. And multiple communities bumping into each other on the internet have created a new type of reader whose reading habits are varied.

It’s not difficult to see why Harmony’s inventory would attract an audience. Located one level up from the winding, toe-stubbing road leading to Assi, it immediately catches your eye, initially because of its name — Harmony, the Bookshop. Crammed from floor to ceiling with books in a partitioned hall, the store is a haven for the browsing bibliophile — and the visitor seeking shelter from the flying poll missiles. The bookshop has around 15,000 volumes on history, the arts and social sciences, architecture, philosophy, geography, spirituality and Indology and many academic chronicles. You don’t see much of contemporary fiction and the much-maligned airport best-sellers, except of course Harry Potter — Singh’s personal favourite. Here are books that you have read the reviews of, mentally noted, meant to pick up and then didn’t. Classics such as The Clay Sanskrit Library (all 10 volumes) and Samartha Theory Of Panini And Sentence Derivation rub spines with Shashi Tharoor’s Why I am a Hindu, displaying some academic anxiety about this unlikely gathbandhan.

This is as much a store of curiosity as it is a place of business. Here, acquiring a book is not simply an acquisition of knowledge as it is also staking claim to an eminently browsable place. Ask celebrated authors Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy and scholars such as Diana L Eck and David Kinsley, who have made this store a favoured hunting ground.

It is fitting that bookshops such as Harmony find a loving home in Kashi, which has always prided itself as a centre of scholarly excellence — ancient and new — and, of course, of spiritualism. Often described in international guidebooks as the oldest living city in the world, Varanasi — once called Benaras — lends itself easily to a strong intellectual and cultural history. Apart from housing institutions such as the Banaras Hindu University and Kashi Vidyapith, the city was also home to sages such as Kabir, Tuslidas and Ravidass, and classical musicians Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar and Girija Devi.

Even today, Banarasis such as Kashinath Singh, author of the renowned Kashi Ka Assi, and Rana PB Singh, author of many books on the city, leap with scholarly ferocity at the thought that the town under its current political leadership has lost its claim as a centre of intellectual excellence.

“The slide in intellectual traditions has been happening over the last 30 years but has been more rapid in the last five years,” admits Rana Singh. Unspoken is the feeling that while Ram bhakts may be in love with Varanasi, Varanasi is certainly not in love with those who seek to pawn Kashi’s tradition of knowledge and thought for religious divide.

The city of over 12 million also has other general interest book stores. Rakesh Singh estimates 15, many of long-standing repute. Among them are Motilal Banarsidas, sellers of Sanskrit texts and books on Indology, Indica, Pilgrim Book House and Universal Book House. A few catering mainly to students have closed down over the years, after their young clients found online textbook shopping a cheaper option. The business has changed, too. From being just booksellers, some stores have also forayed into publishing. Indica, which has two branches in the city, is now also a publisher. And Harmony, too, has extended itself to this area, having published the Indian edition of Eck’s Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India.

Is Singh worried that the online juggernaut will impact the future of his 23-year-old bookshop? Not really. He is more concerned that present-day prejudices — rather than the market — may lead to a closure of stores such as his. Most of his clientele, he points out, are out-of-town visitors. Still, he says, if people continue to believe that the experience of reading is valuable, then the expertise of a bookshop owner and the affection of a book-loving community will protect such spaces and Kashi’s intellectual tradition will continue.

Mannika Chopra is a Delhi-based journalist and managing editor, Social Change, Council for Social Development

Published on May 17, 2019

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