It was a fellow writer, Achal Prabala, who called to tell me that Premier Bookshop was closing down. ‘Mr Shanbhag seems quite determined’, said Achal: ‘The landlord is giving trouble again. He has to undergo an eye operation himself. And his daughter is keen that he come visit her in Australia. The nice thing is that he seems very calm about it’.
I claim a long connection with Mr T. S. Shanbhag and Premier Bookshop, but Achal’s connection was deeper. Since he is some fifteen years younger, he had known them all his life. (I was already a teenager by the time I made my first acquaintance with bookseller and bookshop.) Anyway, like me and countless other residents of Bangalore, he had come to regard them as indispensable and immovable. When, after many years overseas, Achal had moved back to his home town, it was in the knowledge that Mr Shanbhag and Premier would take care of at least one part, perhaps the most critical part, of his life. To see the shop close and the owner retire was for him as unanticipated, and as hard to bear, as the death of a revered family elder.
Fortunately, I was not due to travel anywhere in the fortnight after I heard the news. I went to Premier the next day, to find the owner almost as stoic as I had been told he would be. He rehearsed his reasons for retirement, but when I found a book to buy (Simon Winchester’s essay-collection, Outposts) he said, with some emotion: ‘I will not let you pay for this’. When he insisted, I asked only that he inscribe the book for me.
When I went back the next day Mr Shanbhag had regained his composure. I bought some books and paid for them, and he made me some sign copies of a book I had written. He had, he said, a week more to run, before he put down his shutters and put himself in the hands of the eye surgeon. By now, word of his closure had spread. Every day the number of visitors grew. The great mound in the middle of the shop became shorter and slimmer. The top layers on the side-shelves were peeled off by paying customers, to reveal books published in the 1980s and before, that had lain buried, unseen and unsold.
On the first Sunday after Mr Shanbhag had made his decision known, a city magazine organized a photo shoot. Several writers were called to feature in the frame, among them the distinguished Kannada novelist U. R. Anantha Murthy. As he sat himself down among us, Anantha Murthy asked, ‘Why is Girish [Karnad] not here?’ I knew the answer: that great patron of Premier could not come because his daughter was getting married the next week. I said that Girish’s wife sometimes told him, when he came home with the day’s loot, that their house had begun to resemble Shanbhag’s shop, with books on the steps, books on the window-sill, books on the kitchen counter, books everywhere including on one’s head. I added that my wife sometimes told me the same thing. There were laughs all around, the loudest from Mr Shanbhag.
I went back several times the next week. Once I took my daughter along, so that she could buy her own last books from Premier, and also take some photographs of the shop and its owner. It did not look at all like a store that was soon to go out of business. Customers bumped into one another on the narrow walkways. Some faces were known to me—I had seen them, and they, me, in the same place for the last twenty years or more. But there were strangers too, as well as surprises. A lady peeked in and asked Mr Shanbhag whether he bought old computer books. He quietly answered that he did not.
In those last days and weeks at Premier, the friends and patrons of the shop gamely suppressed their own feelings. For them, as for Achal Prabala, Girish Karnad, my daughter, and myself, the passing of the shop meant a void in their lives. Mr T. S. Shanbhag was not merely the most knowledgeable bookseller in Bangalore, but also the most likeable. But, taking our cue from the man, we would not display our emotions. We would see things as he, silently and by example, encouraged us to see them. A bookseller had carried out his calling with pride and integrity for four decades. Had he not earned himself a dignified retirement?
The very many individuals who have come to depend on Premier Bookshop will naturally mourn its closure. For Mr Shanbhag’s dealings with publishers, retailers, customers and strangers were always exemplary. Still, nothing became the man so much as the manner of his leaving. The last stages of the careers of our politicians, cricketers and film stars tend to be embarrassingly extended. Contrasting Mr Shanbhag’s behaviour with theirs, we might be inspired to suppress our private sorrow in a public celebration for a career conducted with honesty and dignity, and always on its own terms.