Nondescript might well have been a word that could have occurred to the passerby glancing at the dusty exterior and almost equally dusty interior of Premier Bookshop in Bangalore during the decades of its existence. But several thousand booklovers in the city and places far beyond held the hole-in-the-wallish venue in high regard as one would a venerated place of learning or worship or archaeological find.
What made the bookshop unique was its proprietor, who never bothered customers by asking needlessly, “may I help you?” or hovering around with a sullen, suspicious look as some salespeople do. T.S. Shanbhag left you alone to browse among the – precariously balanced – towers of books. If you felt too shy to ask for his or his assistants’ help to extricate a book from one of those towers and triggered an avalanche, no admonition by word or look followed. Mr Shanbhag or one of his assistants quietly arranged the tower back up again, after helping pull out the book needed.
I can’t remember when I first visited Premier Bookshop. During my high-school and college days, I made do with those institutions’ libraries and the then excellent, albeit small, British (Council) Library. It was only after I’d left Bangalore and begun to earn and have disposable cash in the pocket that I gravitated towards bookshops during trips home.
From my second or third visit, Mr Shanbhag seemed to have figured out my taste in books. He did not and does not know my name and for many years I did not know his, until the day one of the customers addressed him by name. He sometimes thrust a book at me, either saying nothing or “you might like this” or words to that effect, and gave a small discount without my asking. If he did not stock a book I wanted, he offered to get it. And he’d procure more than one copy, perhaps in the belief that if one customer wanted it, the book might interest others too.
Having been an occasional and brief visitor, I was ignorant of how popular the shop and proprietor were until it shut two years ago, in February 2009. This article by the renowned historian Ramachandra Guha in The Hindu gives an idea of the extent to which the loss was felt: http://www.hindu.com/mag/2009/03/15/stories/2009031550090300.htm
I wished I could have been in Bangalore then to pay a few last visits.
But an opportunity to see and salute Mr Shanbhag came early this week during my current Bangalore sojourn. The screening of a short film about the bookshop by the San Francisco-based Asha Ghosh was widely announced in advance: More revelation of the extent of Mr Shanbhag’s fame (http://mrshanbagshop.org/). It was screened at Suchitra Film Society (http://www.suchitra.org/), a 40-year-old institution, followed by a rambling discussion, reminiscences and eulogies. Many of the sentiments voiced echoed within me.
Earlier, I googled and found many references to Mr Shanbhag and his shop, including this by a talented young man now no more, and who is remembered in the film:
Following are a couple of others worth a glance
If not everyone is agreed on the spelling of Mr Shanbhag’s name, perhaps differences in transliteration from Kannada are to blame. At the Suchitra discussion, one person even pronounced it differently – as Shanbhog. I confess I did not ask Mr Shanbhag about the correct spelling.
ಶಾನುಭೋಗ or Shaanubhoaga (singular, ಶಾನುಭೋಗರು or Shaanubhoagaru, plural), of which Shanbhag is presumably a Northern Karnataka variant, was a traditional revenue collector and accountant in parts of rural India.
T.S. Shanbhag, with his legendary generosity in extending discounts unasked, was and is anything but a collector of revenues.