“Everyone has their own tastes,” Raman says, glancing around at the thickly packed shelves. “But one heartening trend is that people are reading more.”
Raman Shareshtha is the proprietor of Gangtok’s best known and in fact only real bookstore, Rachna Books in Development Area. Rachna isn’t a large place, but it is pretty roomy compared with most of the stationary shops cum bookstores that you find elsewhere in Sikkim: two rooms lined with bookshelves, one with a business counter and a chest-high special display rack, the other with a polished tree-trunk coffee table and a few comfy chairs. Up the stairs is a second floor where every couple weeks Raman screens local films or hosts art exhibitions. There’s a coffee machine up there to sate the caffeine cravings of the small crowds of Gangtok’s intelligentsia that climb the stairs on those special nights.
Raman isn’t making a big deal about it, but this weekend will mark exactly thirty years since the shop first opened, as well as exactly nine years since Raman took over.
“We’ve been quite quiet about it,” Raman says. “We’d rather have more sustained relations with our clients than have just one big sale this weekend.”
Still, thirty years is an impressive anniversary, so I took the opportunity to sit down with Raman and find out just what Gangtok is reading.
According to Raman ‘contemporary classics’ is probably the section that always moves most consistently — a varied shelf of familiar fiction and non-fiction titles, many of them Pulitzer, Booker or Nobel Prize winning. The travel and humor sections are popular as well. Raman is especially interested in what the youth — teenagers and college students — are buying, and he points out Two States, the best selling novel by Chetan Bhaget, as being a particular favourite of young people. More generally they also buy books about popular music, and of course comics and graphic novels are ever and increasingly popular.
“Youngsters from the hills are more imaginative, I think,” Raman says. “Comic books feed that.”
Another title that has been popular in all circles lately has been Gorkhas Imagined, the English translation of short stories by one of the most influential figures in Nepali literature, IB Rai. I ask why the English version is doing so well compared to the Nepali-language original.
“English is more accessible,” Raman answers. “I studied Nepali through class eleven, and even I find English more accessible.” Rachna does have a small Nepali-language section, but its tiny size is meant to match the low demand.
However the genre selling best of all, Raman tells me, is children’s books. Cable television changed the way a whole generation looked at the world and spent their evenings. Books were no longer the default form of entertainment. It was so much easier to just switch on the TV and relax with one’s family, and so much harder to keep with a novel when this favourite show or that was coming on, or when common household spaces were filled with distracting screens. But now, Raman says with a hint of amazement in his voice, kids are dragging their parents into Rachna, a new generation in search of books.
Why the change? The demographic trends at play are probably too big to see from Rachna’s little doorstep. Perhaps the Internet has the new generation accustomed to reading text again, or has made them too impatient to show up at the screen at scheduled times and sit through long chunks of advertising. Perhaps the quality of television has declined into the banal, or stayed stagnant while kids’ tastes have become more sophisticated. Perhaps, as Raman suggests, books have, in their exile, become more deft at mixing information and entertainment, literary seriousness and pulpy fun.
“People didn’t just read The Da Vinci Code because it was exciting,” Raman says. “They liked that it made them feel smart.”
Whatever the reason, kids’ books are selling well, and Raman keeps Rachna well stocked with everything from children’s picture books and comics to young adult literature. Kid’s have lots of options for books these days — not just Harry Potter — and when they come in they take long enough deciding that their parents have time to browse as well. So when it comes time to check out, the parents will have found something to take home as well.
“Not everyone comes back to books, of course. But I’m interested in helping kids and families move on from children’s lit,” Raman says, gesturing from Rin Tin Tin in Tibet back to to the ‘contemporary classics’ shelf.
For Raman, this is really the heart of his job running Rachna: giving customers a personalised experience.
“You can’t take your audience for granted,” Raman continues. “I have long discussions with readers. Sometimes I don’t know their names, but I know what their tastes are and can give them suggestions.”
From these discussions with customers, from special requests, and from his own tastes and understanding of the world of books, Raman places the orders that fills Rachna’s shelves.
“Everything has been hand selected by me,” he says. Of course, this also means that there are some items he consciously avoids bringing in. He doesn’t mention specific titles, but he makes it clear he doesn’t put much stock in fickle best seller lists. In fact, for the first year after he took over the shop, Raman stocked only technical and academic books. He knew that he could always move best sellers and wanted to test the waters to see what could be done with this more esoteric collection.
“I would love to keep books that have withstood the test of time,” he says. “I think that makes our selection unique as well.”
This curatorial spirit also extends to the events and exhibitions Raman runs at Rachna, which have since become a staple of Gangtok’s cosmopolitan and intellectual life. These events including screenings of films, many of them by local or regional filmmakers, as well as photography exhibits, like the one by Sikkimese photographer ___________ that went up this weekend.
“It was never about money,” Raman says. “We wanted to bring in contemporary culture from all over.”
These monthly or fortnightly events have been so successful, apparently, that when Raman went to the Delhi Book Fair in February, the largest book fair in Asia, his phone began ringing off the hook with calls from men and women he had never met. People from all over the country had heard of Rachna Books and its role as one of Sikkim’s brightest cultural hotspots, and when they found out the proprietor was there, many of those people wanted to talk to Raman.
“Somehow it put Sikkim on the man,” Raman says, still bewildered two months on.
And what of Raman, the curator? How much does he get to enjoy the fine books he brings in? Rachna is large enough that reading every book on its shelves would be a superhuman feat, though Raman does try to look through most everything he orders, read a chapter or two or enough to familiarise himself to better advise his clients.
“That’s the boon and bane of owning a bookshop,” he says wryly. “The boon is buying all these books knowing the lives they will touch. Getting an order in and opening that box is such a great high. The bane is that there are always new books coming in to distract you.”
Still, like everyone else Raman is reading more too. This year he set a goal of reading thirty books in 2010. He’s already finished fifteen.