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A tribute to TS Shanbhag, who fuelled generations of readers' indulgences at Bengaluru's Premier Book Shop

·5 min read

For someone in Bengaluru who belonged to the book reading generation €" i.e. became an adult in the 1970s or before €" the Premier Book Shop would have been an unforgettable haunt. TS Shanbhag, who once owned it, has just passed away and this is an appreciation of what he meant to my reading habits. Obviously, others among his clients would have different memories, but to all of us, Premier made a difference.

He ran the bookshop since I can remember and it was only in 2007 that he decided to close it down, when people had moved away from reading books to visual entertainment. This, in my view, inaugurated a fundamental shift in leisure-time activity. Those who only read books were accustomed to idleness and boredom. Reading required effort and one had to focus on something, either reflect or visualise, but always internalise something in a way that the visual medium does not demand. Idle moments were therefore used to chew upon what one had read in a way that images do not make us. "Boredom is the magical bird that hatches the egg of experience," Walter Benjamin wrote, meaning that boredom encourages creativity, but we are not allowed to be bored any longer, because of the activity on offer.

I would also suggest that there can be no thought without words €" while images are merely sensation. Unless one can put something into words, one has not 'thought' at all, although one might have 'felt'. It is also the fact of using words that makes people 'intelligent' €" since a facility with words helps one to converse and it is conversation that makes us seem intelligent rather than IQ tests. The sight of wordless people texting furiously to others €" needing a vocabulary of only a hundred words €" not in their company but elsewhere, is telling. It is perhaps these factors that make one associate 'consumption' with images but not words. One 'reads' books but 'consumes' movies and television programs.

Buying books cannot be done on college pocket money and Shanbhag's Premier Book Shop became a regular haunt for me only in my early 20s, when I had an income. There is also a difference between the books you want to only read and those you want to own since the act of owning a book also defines you in some way. One tends to be proprietorial about owned books; when a favourite book lent is not returned, it is as if a part of you is gone. Even worse is when the person who borrowed it did not read it but lost it anyway!

Shanbhag's Premier Book Shop was always chaotic and there was simply not enough space for the books stored. There would also be people standing about and reading without buying, something he never objected to. Shanbhag always gave everyone a discount of 10 percent. Even better, at a time when the prices of books were going up, one could find older editions lurking in the far left-hand corner of his bookshop (on top of some management textbooks, usually by Peter Drucker, that we tended to disdain). I remember one particularly fruitful evening when I got Fellini on Fellini and Jorge Luis Borges's A Universal History of Infamy for Rs 30 €" together. Another prized shelf was a lower one on the right-hand side and up in front, which had film books including screenplays from Faber. The habit of looking below a stack was especially rewarding since the deeper you went, the cheaper the books got. I always hoped that this last trick would not be learned by Shanbhag's other clients.

My father was also an avid book buyer although I cannot say that either of us approved of what the other one bought or read. When my father was reading An Eye to India by David Selbourne, I was reading Raymond Chandler. I bring my father into this story because he and Shanbhag were friends and could be found drinking coffee together on Saturday evenings in Koshy's Restaurant, St. Marks Road, close to the Premier Book Shop, which was on the crossing of Church Street and Museum Road. I, of course, kept my distance since it wouldn't do for a son drinking beer to acknowledge his father in public.

By the '90s book-buying had waned; I had also been drawn into film and Premier was in decline. I remember regarding (with horror) the proliferation of self-improvement books, something one might not have expected in Shanbhag's store. On one occasion I was agreeably surprised to find a young man leafing through a book on Einstein €" only to have my happiness belied by the discovery that it was about how Einstein acquired his IQ!

After Shanbhag shut down Premier there was some talk that he might join his cousin in the Strand Book House in Mumbai but I think he had become disillusioned with selling books. His shutting down Premier was preceded by a closing sale but I arrived too late to pick up anything of interest. That is the last memory I have of him: smiling quietly while his clients were poring through the last of his stacks.

MK Raghavendra is a noted film critic

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