In October 1947, two months after Independence, TJS George arrived in Bombay. He was nineteen years old, with a degree in English Literature. He sent out job applications––to the Air Force and to the city’s English-language newspapers. Only one organisation cared to reply, The Free Press Journal. The editor was known to hire anyone who asked for a job, but most new hires were sacked in a fortnight. George was put on the news desk as a sub-editor and eventually became an assistant editor.
In Patna, as editor of The Searchlight, he was arrested for sedition. In New York, he was a writer for the United Nations population division. In Hong Kong, he worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review as a regional editor before founding Asiaweek in 1975. Six years later, he returned to India and settled in Bangalore. He began a column for The Indian Express that ran without a break for twenty-five years, until 2022.
His seventy-five years of journalism, concurrent with India’s development as an independent nation, make for a unique understanding of events and personalities. George brings this far-flung experience in The Dismantling of India through 35 concise biographies, beginning with Jamsetji Tata and ending with Narendra Modi.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “P. Lal: The Word, the World” of the book.
Shanbhag always knew that all that he wanted to do in life was to sell books. After the initial successes with individuals, he realised that he needed a bookshop to do justice to his chosen vocation. But a bookshop meant space in a city like Bombay. It had to be space where footfalls would be high. For a man who knew nothing more than a hand-to-mouth existence, it seemed no more than a fantasy in the bustling space-short metropolis. But this was Shanbhag. He considered the possibilities, discussed the matter with anyone who would listen, separated the practical from the ideal, and finally reached the original conclusion, keeping his lack of capital firmly in mind, that the foyer of a cinema hall would serve his purpose. High footfalls were guaranteed and if it was an English cinema, the quality of patrons would also be advantageous from a bookseller’s point of view. Shanbhag got someone to introduce him to Keki Modi, owner of Strand Cinema in Colaba. All he wanted was Modi’s permission to display some books along a wall in the lobby of the cinema house. Shanbhag’s eyes had a way of burning bright when he put his heart into his words. Which happened every time the words were about books. Impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm and assured that books would not damage his wall, Keki Modi gave his permission. That’s how Strand Bookstall was born. It was 1948.
The 1940s and 1950s were a period when Hollywood’s leading production companies like 20th Century Fox and MGM had resident business managers in Bombay, usually Kamaths and Kulkarnis from the same coastal Karnataka that was Shanbhag’s native ground. Strand was the cinema where most Hollywood movies had their pre-release press previews. That meant that the Kamaths and the Kulkarnis knew Strand’s owners and managers fairly well. Because of the previews, Strand was a regular meeting place of film journalists—and other journalists who pretended to be film journalists so that they could see the latest Hollywood hits for free. I belonged to the latter group, for a good decade. I am inclined to think that South Canara camaraderie must have helped Shanbhag to think of Strand Cinema as a possibility and perhaps to get access to its owner Keki Modi. What is certain is that Shanbhag became a friend to all the journalists who attended film previews at the Strand. He evidently cherished those friendships as much as we loved to see and hear about books we had not known of before.
Strand Cinema turned out to be a perfect location for Shanbhag’s idea of a bookshop. It was in the heart of the upmarket Colaba area. It was a house that showed English movies, thus making it a regular haunt of the English-oriented public. A wall in the spacious foyer displayed books on each of which the ever-present stall owner could wax eloquent. Apart from the location, two other factors made Strand Bookstall an instant hit: the freedom with which a passer-by could browse for as long as she liked, and the expertise with which Shanbhag would describe the contents of each book. His enthusiasm alone was enough to make customers buy.
Additionally, he introduced the system of discounts, breaking the Net Book Agreement booksellers generally followed. Among the many legends about Strand Bookstall is the one about Jawaharlal Nehru buying 21 books at one go attracted by the 20 per cent discount offered. The location and the word-of-mouth publicity about Shanbhag’s knowledge of every title on his shelves made Strand Bookstall a favourite of the rich and the famous. Oft-quoted names on his visitor’s list included Manmohan Singh and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vikram Sarabhai, N.A. Palkhivala and ShamLal, Narayana Murthy, and Azim Premji. There was no comparable space in Bombay where the literati felt at home. They would even get excited when Shanbhag announced a daring decision, such as importing 1,000 copies of the Boris PasternakopusDoctor Zhivago(1957).
Such was the acceptance Strand Bookstall attracted that Shanbhag found it necessary to have an occasional ‘sale’ to satisfy his clientele. Thus was born the Strand Book Festival, held annually at the Sunderbai Hall in Churchgate. It became something of a mass movement. One would feel lucky if one could squeeze oneself through the crowd and get inside the spacious hall on any of the twenty days the festival lasted.It became an amazing spectacle year after year, best described by poet-critic Ranjit Hoskote as ‘the secular version of the Kumbh Mela’.
It was clear that Strand Bookstall had become too big for Strand Cinema. In 1993, just five years after its birth as a hole-in-the-wall adventure, Strand Bookstall moved to spacious premises in the Pherozeshah Mehta Road business district, retaining its iconic name. It kept the flag flying there for half a century. But dark clouds were appearing in the skies. The book trade had been affected by the internet and online sales. Shanbhag had health problems. The excitement that kept his spirits up in the 50s and 60s had gone. New trends were high-tech and convenient but lacked the warmth of personal interaction. Shanbhag withdrew from active involvement and passed away in 2009. His daughter, Vidya Virkar, threw herself into keeping the legacy running, opening branches in other cities. In the end, she was forced to admit: ‘People’s reading habits have changed. It is not viable to run a bookstore.’ The five branches she had opened closed down. Nine years after Shanbhag passed away and 70 years after the Strand Cinema’s foyer sported a book wall, the historic Strand Bookstall shut down.