By Maina Bhagat
As the much loved heritage Oxford Bookstore Kolkata inches its way towards a “Century in Books”, I take a peek into its role in the life and times of this great city, and reminiscence randomly through the two decades of my close association with the legendary store.
“You see, bookshops are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape, and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places”
– Neil Gaiman
The Heritage Oxford Bookstore Kolkata, is indeed, to be counted amongst the ‘best of places’ by generations of book lovers! Much about the origins of this cultural landmark are from the realm of myth (it began on the pavement, etc.) as it is with anything that comes with the legacy of history. Having grown with the city, Oxford Bookstore is an intrinsic part of understanding its history, its people and its changing times. Today, while tapping into the invaluable character and patina of the heritage store, Priti Paul, Director Apeejay Surrendra Group, has deftly married tradition and modernity to create a dynamic, contemporary, multidimensional experience. The bookstore invites you into a different world – a place that gives your mind a resting place to slow down, to dream, to imagine, and to ponder.
My association with the bookstore commenced in 1999 when I was privileged to be taken under the wing of Mr. Motwani, a most remarkable gentleman and an entirely self-taught book professional. He knew every nook and cranny of the store, his knowledge of books was priceless. His unending repertoire of stories held me in rapt attention – the visit of Chinese Premier Chou En Lai to Oxford, the reading preferences of the Maharajas, wartime stories and innumerable anecdotes, both fascinating and important archival material. “Mr Motwani was an ‘ever-and-ever’ figure – the kind one assumes will always be there in the bookshop, like the books themselves,” said Gopalkrishna Krishna Gandhi, Former Governor of West Bengal, in condolence on the passing. A warm salute Mr Motwani!
Have you heard the walls of a bookstore speak? They do. I believe that in every bookstore, there exist different worlds: the world of the authors, often dead and gone; the world of the characters, who create a fictional space within the store, and thirdly the world of the reader, buyer and bookseller. It is during readings from old books by new people, or readings by contemporary authors themselves, that I find the century old walls, beams and floors resound with renewed energy and memory of things past – and those yet to come. A happy serendipity, indeed.
Oxford Bookstore is considered a mecca for new and established authors and Kolkata’s informed audiences, with its well curated readings, panel discussions, storytelling workshop, art displays and more – a reputation earned and valued! While we have hosted many acclaimed authors from across the globe such as Sir V.S.Naipul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Gunter Grass, Paul Theroux, Anita Desai, Mohamad Hanif, Ben Okri and others, it has always been a great pleasure – personally – to see an author evolve from his/her very first novel to his fourth, all of them launched at Oxford Bookstore! This has been very gratifying – to offer a platform to young talented writers, and chart their stories, as well as to interact with the very best authors from across the world!
To conclude anecdotally, when the celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith came for tea, he paused a full five minutes as he entered the store. This, he said, was his usual practice when he entered a bookstore – to experience its soul! Happily, Oxford Bookstore passed his very stringent test with flying colours and we discovered a soulmate!
Maina Bhagat is Director, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores, and Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival.