A society is what it reads. Reading and understanding is a must for any society to sustain its very existence. Reading becomes especially important when there is an onslaught of lies from the corporate-backed media. The problem can only be tackled through independent reading.
For Kashmir to get through the oscillations of its restive politics, its population needs to be well-informed and well-opinionated. For that, the bookstores, the vendors, the state-controlled libraries, the district libraries, the museums all need to be opened up to that section of the people who actually want to read and understand. Chiloo saeb’s The Bestseller bookstore, located in the heart of Srinagar town, is doing an exemplary service in this direction.
I have bags of memories associated with this bookstore. The first time I went there was on February 6, 2001, to buy an NCERT geography book. The second time was in April 2004 to buy ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking. It was such a light-weight book that I kept on showing it to anybody and everybody who I met for months together. Even though I didn’t buy anything from the store for some years, I was literally a constant fixture at the magazine vendors in front of the store. It was a joke in my small circle of precious friends that if Uzair is to be found anywhere in the Lal Chowk area, it would be near the magazine vendors in front of The Bestseller bookstore, sifting through Filmfare magazine pages.
In 2009, I went to The Bestseller to buy a book named ‘Frames of Mind’, which I couldn’t find anywhere in Srinagar. It is a trait of bookstores in Kashmir that they have largely a similar collection of books. May be there are better stores now; times do change and the bookstores are certainly far better today, with a more varied collection. What is, however, a great drawback in the books sold in Srinagar is that the books are hard-bound, at least 100-150 bucks more than the price of a paperback. It is a serious let-down for a society where there are seas and seas of unemployed and niggardly low-income people. The last time I bought a book from The Bestseller bookstore was in 2010, ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ by Iqbal, and ‘My Country, My Life’ by LK. Advani, from the 1,000 rupees that had been given to me by my dear maternal grandfather. He may have left the world but he remains with me in those books and many more enduring memories.
I have come to know that Chiloo saeb, the owner of The Bestseller bookstore, is no more. With him, the spicy style of the store might have also gone. But the refreshing change with time is that the store is no longer a chillingly cramped place. It used to be very dark inside, giving a stinking feel to book-buyers. It is opening itself up now, as should every other bookstore, by selling rather than holding on to most of its books. My experience in Kashmir is rather torrid with bookstore owners, librarians and other associated touts. There must be a regular overhaul of the fossilised librarians. I will certainly write a detailed piece on these feudal-minded librarians. Here I will cite the example of SPS Museum in Srinagar. What good did the museum located then in Lal Mandi area of Srinagar do by preventing earnest library-goers from borrowing its unique books or by using rigid language along with those empty eyes staring at a person like me? Good for the books and many other precious items in the museum that they were lost in the floods of 2014!
No pickle can be made out of decaying books. They are there to be read. They deserve exploration from curious readers. They help a society to move forward. After a period of time books become financially less rewarding for the store owners. Why not open them up for sale with a small discount? Else, they are bound to be food for the silverfish that infest every bookstore.
In the last one decade I have been to The Bestseller bookstore maybe twice or thrice. I bought nothing. Partly out of my disinterest in reading fiction and partly out of my growing lack of interest in reading. But as an erstwhile book-lover, I am happy that bookstores like The Bestseller are pioneering a change for the better.
God bless Chiloo saeb’s sons for running the store with an eye on quality and God bless all those small-time businessmen of Kashmir who precariously manage to hold on to life as businessmen. It is difficult, but the grit to survive and succeed is all that matters.