| Better than them all
There are two sure-fire ways to distinguish an old Bangalorean from the recent immigrant: where he (or she) buys his (or her) books, and the name by which he (or she) knows a well-loved café on St. Mark’s Road. Those who have lived long enough in this city always buy their books at Premier’s, and they always drink their coffee at Parade’s (which they never call ‘Koshy’s’).
Happily for the old Bangalorean, Premier’s and Parade’s are a cricket pitch’s distance away from one another. In between lies Variety News, where one can buy magazines in all the languages of the Eighth Schedule (and then some). The usual drill is to start at the bookshop, proceed to the news agent, and end in the café, where one places the material newly acquired lovingly on a chair, before ordering a coffee and perhaps a patty to go with it. (The routine used to be more elaborate — and more fulfilling — in the days when the floor above Parade’s was occupied by the British Library.)
I first began to patronize Premier’s in the Seventies, at a time when, unbeknownst to me, the lady who is now my wife began to patronize it as well. We had — and have — different tastes, she reading literary fiction and a little poetry, me going in for history and the harder— or more boring — stuff. Fortunately, Premier’s had plenty to suit us both. In time, our children began going there as well, to develop as keen a sense of ownership as we had.
Among Premier’s lesser attractions is that the shop gives decent discounts; 10 per cent to the first-time visitor, 15 per cent to the regular, and a hefty 20 per cent to the true old-timer. Among its greater charms is the charm of the owner himself.
T.S. Shanbhag is of medium height, with a round face. He is clean-shaven and does not wear spectacles. For as long as I have known him, he has not had a hair on his head. He is a reticent man, who says just enough to let you understand that he knows a great deal. He has a sly wit, infrequently expressed verbally, but doubtless always at work in words thought if unspoken. As it is, most of what he says is about books, usually to alert you to a new arrival that his experience suggests might be of especial interest to you specifically.
In January 2001, my wife and I threw a party to celebrate 30 years in the life of Bangalore’s best-loved bookshop (and bookseller). Those who were invited all intimated that they would attend, but I was very nervous that the chief guest would not show up. The party was scheduled for a Sunday, on which day Mr Shanbhag usually kept his shop open in the mornings. I was there at 9.30, chewing my nails until he arrived. He came at 10, and for the next two hours I hovered around him. At noon he gave in, closed his shop, and drove his car behind mine to our home.
The scientist, C.V. Raman, liked to say that his greatest discovery was the weather of Bangalore. Fortunately, the day of our Premier party was in keeping with this — a cloudless sky, a gentle breeze blowing, and the Green Barbet calling in the middle distance. After the bisi bélé had been consumed, it was time for the speeches. All, mercifully, were short, and most were witty as well.
The first tribute was offered by Chiranjeev Singh, a Kannada scholar of Sikh extraction, and one of the state’s outstanding civil servants. Chiranjeev recalled how he and his venerable senior in the service, Christopher Lynn, built the secretariat library more-or-less from the selection at Premier’s. Then he added: “There is one thing that I want to tell you about Mr Shanbhag, which speaks to the kind of man, or businessman, that he is. He has never entered a government office.”
Following Chiranjeev was another pillar of Bangalore, Tara Chandavarkar, for long one-half of the city’s most reputed architectural firm, for long also a great patron of music, and servant of the suffering and the elderly. “Those of you present here”, began Mrs Chandavarkar, “know of Premier as a bookshop. But I have also known it as a creche run for charity.” Apparently, in her early days as a professional, she would leave her little children in Shanbhag’s shop while she herself went off for a meeting with a client.
Other speakers that day included Narendra Pani and Janaki Nair, who remembered how, when they were impecunious students, Mr Shanbhag would allow them to take away books and pay for them when they could. (Now they are established authors, and Premier’s proudly displays, and sells, books written by them.) In the end, though, it was the sly old man who had the last word. As the party dispersed he commanded us to wait, disappeared into his car, and returned with a gift for each of us, this, of course, a book.
At the risk of sounding snobbish, I should say that Premier’s has the most cultivated tastes of all the bookshops I know in India. It is only here that works of literature and history outnumber (and outsell) books designed to augment your bank balance or cure your soul. When it comes to fiction, Mr Shanbhag stocks not merely the latest Booker winner but the back-list of the author (if he has one). When J.M. Coetzee won that prize, even the pavement seller was selling Disgrace, but only in Premier’s would one find The Master of St. Petersburg as well. Mr Shanbhag keeps more, and better, hardback history than any other Indian shop I know; more, and better, literary fiction; and more, and better, translations.
The quality of his stock is, as I have said, enhanced by the quality of the man himself. One winter I was in and out of Bangalore, one week in town, the next week out of it. Taking a plane back home, I suddenly remembered that I owed Mr Shanbhag five hundred rupees. The next morning I went into the shop to pay it back. Mr Shanbhag denied that I was in the red; to the contrary, he said it was he who owed me the money. In his version he did not have the change for a larger note, which I had said I would collect the next time. I was certain that the debt ran the other way. We argued back and forth, till ultimately I gave in. I still think I owed him the money. However, my guilt at having done so was substantially exceeded by the embarrassment felt by Mr Shanbhag at the mere possibility that it was he who was the debtor. The argument was conducted to the growing bemusement of the customers present. Which other shopkeeper would refuse an offer of money owed, and claim that it was he who had to settle accounts instead'