Lucknow’s iconic bookseller Ram Advani passes at 95
Shailvee Sharda | TNN | Mar 9, 2016, 02.24 PM IST
Lucknow: The city is mourning the demise of its iconic book seller Ram Advani today. He was 95 and was not keeping well since he suffered a fracture in his femur in November 2015.
According to Advani’s younger sister Mohini Manglik (91), he was dull from the past two days and wasn’t willing to eat much. "I assume that he died in sleep and we came to know about his demise around 7 am," she told TOI.
Family friend Mamta Tewari informed that the last rites may be performed on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. "We are waiting for his children to arrive," he said.
Survived by son Rukun, a Delhi based publisher and daugher Radhika who lives in London, Advani’s family comprises people from different walks of life who have been in touch with him in some or the other way. A personal touch dominated all rules of business and the experience was potent of evoking a strong sense of nostalgia.
Advani’s best friend’s son Naveen stated that Advani started selling books in Lucknow in 1947 and was passionate about his work. "Everyone knows that Ram Advani was more than a bookseller. His store was a place to contemplate, learn and feel the pulse of society without feeling the burden of it. A visit to his store was an experience because of the love and affected extended by Advani to all," he said.
In a previous interview with TOI, Advani "It is difficult to make a Tata or a Birla understand the happiness I derive when I can give my reader a book he’s looking for. Money can’t be equated with a book-store," he had said.
He had admitted that there was competition from new chains opening. "I have been here for 60 years. I hope my son can make a century. I don’t want to accept defeat. Just by seeing the way a person reads or smells the book, I can say whether he’ll be buying it or not," Advani had said.
Different social media groups in the city are remembering Advani since the morning. One such group, Jahan-e-Avadh, has mentioned that Advani was a book in himself. Another group Heritage Lovers termed Advani;s death as "end of an era".
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For Lucknow, Ram Advani Was A Lot More Than Just A Famous Bookseller
by Shivam Vij
When a celebrated life passes away, the obligatory cliché is all over the headlines. No, Ram Advani’s death is not the ‘end of an era’ for Lucknow.
The era ended some time in the early 2000’s. Mayfair Building, which houses Ram Advani Booksellers, also had the British Library, which shut down in 2000. There was a whole movement in Lucknow to make the British Council reverse its decision. The movement included writing emails to the Queen of England, from computers at the British Library. Along with the British Library and Ram Advani Booksellers, there used to be Mayfair cinema that showed Hollywood movies, and Kwality restaurant for the dinner after the movie. Ram Advani Booksellers was the last outpost. An ageing Advani could not keep pace with the publishing boom, the onslaught of sales and marketing in the publishing world that moved books like FMCG products. Advani’s bookshop was the first shop to down shutters in the evening. Its white letters on a black board in the middle of Hazratganj was a sign of the centrality of intellectual life to a modern city. The greatest concession he made to popular literature was Harry Potter. When you entered the shop, he welcomed you with courtesy. Beethoven played in the background, the air-conditioning almost seemed like an anomaly. He engaged with you on what you wanted to read, and fished out the book that would match your interest. In discussing the book with you not like a salesman but like a fellow-reader, he made it impossible for you to not buy it. The best salesman for the sort of goods he was selling.
In an interview, Advani said he used to visit his grandfather’s bookshop in Rawalpindi, where he met some of the Punjab’s most important people and found them to be ’kind without patronizing’.
In an interview, Advani said he used to visit his grandfather’s bookshop in Rawalpindi, where he met some of the Punjab’s most important people and found them to be “kind without patronizing.” This attracted him to the idea of running a bookshop too. Kind without being patronising, is an apt way of describing how he received customers. Amongst the visitors his bookshop saw after independence was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
It has been said that his bookshop played a role in making Uttar Pradesh one of the more studied parts of India. Foreign scholars ordered books from him via international courier to maintain that link with him, his bookshop, and with Lucknow. I don’t think this practice lasted long in the age of Amazon and Kindle.
From Ram Advani to free wi-fi
My fond memories of Advani included being introduced to the work of Lucknow’s prime historian, Rosie-Llewelyn Jones, and Advani making me plead with him to let me buy archival copies of the journal Seminar. He parted with a few.
Its white letters on a black board in the middle of Hazratganj was a sign of the centrality of intellectual life to a modern city. The greatest concession he made to popular literature was Harry Potter.
Future generations, at least in Lucknow, will not know what it was like to open the gate and enter Ram Advani Booksellers. It was a place, unusual even in pre-liberalisation era, that did not scream commerce, money, discount, sales, and promotions. You stepped into a place remarkably calm and quiet given that it was in the middle of Hazratganj, Lucknow’s central shopping district. Before the arrival of malls, people went for a stroll in Hazratganj. This important social activity was called Ganjing.
Today in Ganj, you can see young man sitting on benches or the steps for hours, glued to their mobile phones. You may even find one or two men with laptops. It’s the super-fast free wifi they are after.
Since I don’t yet have grey hair, I like to not be cynical and mourn this change. I like to think that the world of Mayfair Building that’s long gone, is being accessed on their mobile phones – yes, even through the social media feeds and the movie downloads.
There was much more to Advani than the bookshop. Advani, the man, was an institution of Lucknow’s civil society. The Sindhi who was born in Hyderabad, now in Pakistan, symbolised a less acknowledged aspect of Punjabi-Sindhi community in Lucknow. Advani was the biggest aberration to the stereotype of Partition refugees as wily businessmen who sold clothes and food and drove Lucknow’s old elite out of business.
What Ram Advani meant to Lucknow
Lucknow is seen, even by its own residents, as a city of loss – 1857, the end of the Nawabi dynasty, and then the exodus of the Muslims in Partition, all of this history ensures Lucknow keeps mourning the passing away of a golden era. In this mourning it has not been considered the greatness that survived in Lucknow as a city.
A great city is defined by its cosmopolitanism, a word we usually hear along with Bombay. But in its own way, Lucknow has forever been a city of migrants which made it a cultural mosaic. Recently, Madhavi Kuckreja’s feminist organisation in Lucknow, Sanatkada, had this cultural plurality of Lucknow as the theme of its annual festival. With an exhibition, a book and various other means, the festival celebrated “Lucknow ki rachi basi tehzeeb” – the terms rachi and basi emphasising that Lucknow’s famously clichéd high culture was created and established, and it still exists. The title refuses to speak of this Tehzeeb in past tense. It exists.
Every other person thinks of Lucknow’s Tehzeeb cliché along with its last emperor, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was exiled to Calcutta. Every other person in Lucknow thinks he is Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The Lucknow Zoo was renamed after him.
If not the Nawabi court, the Tehzeeb cliché is associated with Hindu-Muslim amity. Lucknow’s almost never seen Hindu-Muslim violence despite being so close to Ayodhya and Kanpur. In his autobiography Lucknow Boy, the late editor Vinod Mehta wrote it was Lucknow that was responsible for his faith in secularism. In Delhi, I find it unbelievable when I meet people who did not have Muslim classmates in school. In Lucknow, this is not possible.
In a study, political scientist Ashutosh Varshney found that Lucknow had strong civic associations that prevented Hindu-Muslim violence. But how and why does Lucknow have such strong civic associations? I got the answer in Sanatkada’s festval celebrating the city’s cosmopolitanism that went beyond the Hindu-Muslim trope.
The Sanatkada festival went into the histories of various communities, their arrival to Lucknow and their contribution to the city. Over the centuries, these included Anglo-Indians, Bengalis, the Chinese, Gujaratis, Kashmiris (both Pandits and Muslims), Maharashtrians, Oriyas, Paharis, Punjabis and Sindhis. This melting pot is the story of Lakhnavi Tehzeeb as much as the contribution of the Nawabi dynasty.
Advani was the shining star of this cosmopolitan culture of Lucknow. It is this, as much as his bookshop, for which I’d like to remember him.
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Ram Advani’s bookshop represented his adoration for Lucknow
IANS March 11, 2016
by Saeed Naqvi
An Urdu aristocracy on its knees, was beginning to make adjustments with the new British rulers when Ram Advani arrived in Lucknow. He set up Ram Advani Booksellers in a prominent corner of Hazratgang. This remained his eye on Lucknow for 65 years - until his death at 95 last week.
He brought the energy of the newcomer when he arrived in the early 1940s from Karachi, in Sindh, where he was born in 1920. It took Lucknow almost a century to recover from its first trauma when, in 1857, even its Begums joined in the door to door combat with the British who proceeded to empty the city of its citizens for fear of unexpected snipers. A year earlier, Wajid Ali Shah had been dispatched to Matia Burj, near Kolkata, where he lived for 31 years, unlamented, unsung. Some of the aftermath was still playing itself out which Ram witnessed and internalized as themes on which his book shop prided.
A shattered intellectual elite, silenced by change, slowly began to engage the new masters on their terms. If Punch was the supreme publication of satire and wit in London, some of the finest Urdu writers like Akbar Allahabadi would elevate Awadh Punch to an even higher level of elegant lampooning.
Ram’s was not an Urdu Book shop but copies of Awadh Punch he would obtain from his sources. When Prof. Mushirul Hasan published Awadh Punch in English, copies were instantly available on his shelves. Books were never flaunted in a commercial scale; they were meant for the connoisseurs for whom the book shop was a meeting place, sometimes with the original authors themselves - Violette Graffe, the French scholar on Lucknow, V.S. Naipaul (India a million mutinies), Veena Talwar Oldenburg (Making of Colonial Lucknow), Rosie Llewellyn-Jones (Lucknow, City of Illusion) and Cambridge historian, Prof. Francis Robinson, William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Dom Moraes - and every Indian of cosmopolitan interests who visited Lucknow. The spate of Western visitors to the Book Shop places Ram as an interpreter of Lucknow’s deeper culture which still bustles in Chowk and Nakkhas.
Hazratganj actually divides Lucknow into two cultures. One side are the cantonment, Civil Lines and sprawling bungalows, corroborative evidence of those who saw the writing on the wall early and made cunning adjustments with the new ruling class.
In the other direction beyond Aminabad are chowk and Nakkhas the very core of classical Lucknow. Of this area, the old description is still stunningly accurate: "Gandi galiyan, saaf zabaan". (Dirty lanes but impeccable speech)
Not only did Ram know this, other Lucknow, but he was also familiar with Lucknow’s other great book shop, Daanish Mahal, which translates as the palace of learning. This is where Urdu’s greatest critic, Saiyyid Ehtesham held court. Josh Malihabadi occasionally climbed down from the Central hotel where he stayed, to enliven the conversation. In Ram’s persona were integrated these two milestone book shops.
It was Lucknow’s Catholicism which never allowed Ram Advani to claim any exceptionalism. The city’s Ganga-Jamni culture was celebrated, of course. But that did not tell the full story. Recently Sanatkada, a group which dedicates itself to the celebration of Lucknow touched the heart of the matter. It celebrated Lucknow’s "Rachi Basi", or all inclusive culture.
Infact, I recall the expression having originated in Ram’s mind.
Mir Taqi Mir and others, have written copiously of Delhi’s destruction at the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Nadir Shah etcetera. But Lucknow’s destruction, being more recent, has generally been a casualty of the "Victor’s narrative". Why would the colonial masters dwell on the desolation they had brought about?
Ram was sensitive to the fact that in a century, Lucknow had taken atleast four major hits. The exile of its beloved king in 1856, the destruction of Lucknow in 1857, Partition in 1947 and Zamindari (Landlordism) abolition in 1951 which finally broke the back of the Muslim aristocracy.
Remarkably, as Ram reminded me over and over again, Lucknow picked itself up each time and put up the Welcome sign for all.
Nowhere in the country was there a city which proudly announced: "To be a doctor you have to be a Bengali first". Lucknow University’s intellectual life was controlled by Radha Kumud and Radh Kamal Mukherjee. Lucknowis proudly accepted "Madrasis" (anyone below the Vindhyas) as brilliant administrators. President of the University Union was Iqbal Singh, a chain smoking Sikh who recited Urdu poetry. Among Lucknows "bakaits", tough’s or mini gangsters was one Kaul Sahib, a short, muscular man with very broad shoulders. Imagine a Kashmiri Pandit with a reputation that learned the respect of Lucknow’s "badmash" (bad men) like Buddhu Pahelwan, Funtoo, Nannhe, Rashid Ghosi and Pyare Jaani with a revolver in his trench coat.
You would never have imagined Ram Advani to be familiar with this infinite variety. But he was.
Heaven knows how scotch whiskey and soda came up for mention in his shop. A man contemplating a book, spun around in some anger. Traces of paan were virtually dripping from a corner of his mouth. "Mixing soda with scotch was the barbarous custom of the Sassenach", he growled. He was a somewhat dilapidated scion of some unknown aristocracy. To our astonishment he knew that Sassenach was a derogatory slang Scots (who were the masters of the amber stuff) used for the English. This anecdote says something of Lucknow of the 60s as also of Ram Advani until his death.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at saeednaqvi[at]hotmail.com)
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Lucknow Loses an Institution
by Mehru Jaffer
To have lost Ram Advani, the bookseller of Lucknow at this hour is most unfortunate. Any time would have made us cry in a world without Ram Advani but not to have this great teacher in our midst is sad at a time when the youth in the country is being intimidated by a group of elders for reading varied literature and for thinking aloud.
First generation scholars on different campuses are targeted for being interested in affairs of the state, for giving voice to the voiceless which is the majority population in the country and for being so aware of various injustices in the 21st century.
Today young adults around university campuses are threatened, led to commit suicide even, jailed and slapped around by custodians of the state for publicly discussing their fears and fantasies about the future. High ranking ministers in the Indian government torture students by accusing them of indulging in anti national activities?
Some want youngsters killed for thinking differently to their view of the world. Hooligans hiding behind hoods are released amongst students to make them seem like mischievous citizens of the country.
When young adults refuse to amass wealth just for the self, and talk about freedom from economic, social and cultural oppression for all Indians they are slapped with charges of sedition today.
How unfortunate is that, Ram Advani had said the last time The Citizen talked to him.
Ram Advani will be missed as a friend, philosopher and guide of all those thirsting after knowledge, in particular young people hungry for information about all the different ways that people live and love around the world. Ram Advani will be missed not just for selling books, but also for engaging visitors in conversations that had celebrated the diverse ways in which each book attempts to look at the same world. He will be missed as an elder citizen who brought book lovers together on the same platform, inspiring impressionable young minds to also imagine the right path in life.
Reflects Andrew Whitehead, former BBC correspondent in India and now historian, lecturer and freelance journalist who recently took his daughter to Lucknow to meet Ram Advani that in these troubled times, there is something hugely reassuring about the enduring presence of such intellectual landmarks as Ram Advani’s bookshop.
“I can’t say how greatly I admire Ram, and I’m very proud to call him a friend. It’s more than twenty years since I first visited his excellent shop - and came away with a gift from Ram, Attia Hossain’s Lucknow novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column,” blogs Whitehead.
From a Sindhi family of booksellers, Ram Advani’s elders already ran shops in Lahore and Nainital. His father migrated to Lucknow from Karachi in the 1920s together with businessman Seth Gyan Chand Thadani in search of new pastures. Together they built the very chic Mayfair complex for the British with a cinema hall that screened only films in the English language, Kwality’s restaurant and bakery, and Ram Advani’s bookshop on the side.
This bookshop in Hazratganj has played a crucial role in the city in encouraging people to read and to speak their mind ever since it opened in Lucknow in 1948.
Born in Karachi some 97 years ago, Ram Advani’s first job was that of a teacher at Simla’s Bishop Cotton School where author Ruskin Bond became a good friend of his.
Soon Ram Advani gave up this teaching job to sell books in Simla. In 1948 political giant Acharya Kriplani had found a place for Ram Advani to open a bookshop here and he would fondly repeat the incident when the inauguration of his Lucknow shop on the first day of February in 1948 was delayed because Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January. The doors to this temple of learning had later taken place on 15 February.
Ever since, Ram Advani ran the iconic bookshop personally, entertaining visitors like Jawaharlal Nehru who bought books by Herbert Read, British anarchist, poet and literary critic. In more recent times Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul had passed by to double check some fact from fiction.
Vikram Seth sat here to research A Suitable Boy, his magnum opus. Historian Rosie Llewellyn Jones with a gigantic body of work on Lucknow was a personal friend as was William Dalrymple, Indologist. Before his death in 1982, British historian Percival Spear had returned to the book shelves at Ram Advani’s shop after a quick cup of tea and cakes at Kwality’s.
However a peep today into the once snazzy insides of the Mayfair cinema resembles a frightening black hole while the mouth watering aroma from Kwality’s magical ovens is long replaced by fumes from the urine of citizens pissing shamelessly around the premises all the time.
Now with Ram Advani too no more, how will Lucknow cope with a brave new world, is the question!
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The bookseller of Hazratganj, the Lucknow of Ram Advani (1920-2016)
He was the book lover’s best friend. Even as the city went through social upheavals, the little oasis he created kept its calm centre inviolate
by Ira Pande
When I heard of the passing away of Ram Advani, the grand old man of books at the age of 95, I was not shocked. I knew he had fractured a hip and was recovering from surgery and the loss of a beloved wife just about a year ago. He had little to live for, yet his legion of admirers feel he should have completed at least a century. To understand this puzzling statement, I must take you back to the Lucknow of the 1950s, for even though I was just a child, I have a very clear memory map of those times.
Lucknow was then a gracious, nawabi city. Its skyline was dotted with the stately domes of the famous university (a beautiful example of Indo-Saracenic architecture), the Chattar Manzil and the Medical College on the banks of the Gomti, the two Imambaras and the Kesar Bagh baradari, which housed Wajid Ali Shah’s harem (Parikhana). It had quaint Lakhnavi names for its Zoo (Bandariya Bagh), Museum (Murda Ajayabghar), the Bailey Guard of the Residency (Beli Garad), and Loreto Convent (Bhaktin Iskool).
However, there was also a “sahiblog ka shahar” and its heart lay in the Hazratgunj area. “Gunjing”, or strolling in Hazratgunj, was a popular activity in the evenings. My memory map records its landmark shops: Benbows, Kashmir Fruit Mart, Avadh Cocogem Stores, Chaudhury’s, Kazim Ali and Sons and Capoor’s on the left hand and the India Coffee House, Kashmir Emporium, Ramlal and Sons, Ranjana’s and Modern Silk House on the right. However, what we most looked forward to was the Mayfair complex that had a beautifully air-conditioned film theatre that only screened English films, with Kwality’s on the ground floor and Ram Advani Booksellers on its right. Later, the British Council Library took the first floor and became our favourite hangout on hot summer afternoons.
A cosy, intimate space
Ram Advani’s was always a cosy, intimate space with mellow teak bookshelves that exuded the delightful aroma of printed paper and a respectful hush, the hallmark of every good bookshop. It never felt like a shop because Ram Advani presided over it as if he was sitting in his home. Dressed immaculately, glasses dangling beneath his patrician face framed by a French beard, he was the book lover’s best friend. Somehow, he managed to distil the best of Lucknow’s nawabi andaz into that little space and even as the city went through social upheavals and morphed into a goons’ city, this little oasis kept its still, calm centre inviolate. It was widely accepted that no research scholar or writer of the city could afford to ignore it. Ram Advani would offer books, information and point the person in the right direction. There was nothing about the city’s history, sociology or anthropology that he did not know. What a pity that he never wrote a portrait of the city himself.
Every important writer on Lucknow, from Rosie-Llewlyn Jones to William Dalrymple and from Paul Brass to Ramachandra Guha, mentioned him in the acknowledgments’ page. He kept abreast of each book that mentioned Lucknow and when I wanted to send my book to some friends of my mother’s generation because they featured in the memoir I had written, they wrote to me saying that “Ram Bhaiyya” had already sent them copies of it.
After we left Lucknow, the bond remained because my mother was friends with his sister’s family as well. We left Lucknow in 1957 for Nainital and for a few years, Ram Advani and his family would come to stay in a cottage above our house in summer. I remember Rukun, his publisher son, as a very lively Dennis the Menace-like little boy and his baby sister Radhika, then called “Bitiya”. In 1968, my parents moved once more to Lucknow but by then I had joined the Allahabad University and came briefly in summer to Lucknow before heading for the hills.
I still made one mandatory pilgrimage to the bookshop but my last meeting with him was perhaps three years ago in the India International Centre’s dining hall. I kept getting odd bits of news from my cousins in Lucknow and heard he had lost his wife last year. Then, this year, he fractured his hip and was more or less confined to his flat (on the third floor of a building that did not have a lift).
Just a week ago, I was in Lucknow to attend a prayer meeting for a beloved aunt who had also passed away following a hip fracture at 97, but there was no time to visit or call him. The truth is I did not want to acknowledge that a whole generation of grand Lucknow personalities was going, going, gone. In my memory map, he is still there in his bookshop surrounded by his treasured books.
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Right to the end Ram Advani never lost his commitment to selling good books
Ruskin Bond in Musings from the mountains
With the passing of Ram Advani, the legendary bookseller of Lucknow, an entire era has come to an end: an era in which small, quality bookshops were run by committed individuals, for whom book selling was a vocation and not just a profession.
Ram Advani lived well into his nineties, he saw tastes in literature changing, and he saw the Indian publishing industry finally come of age. He was interested in history, literature, travel, biography, and his stock reflected his interests. If he did not care for a particular type of book, he did not stock it, no matter how many million copies had been sold worldwide! If you were a genuine book lover, he would be happy to invite you into his office for a chat and a cup of coffee.
He was not a bookseller when I first met him, although he did come from a famous family of booksellers based in Rawalpindi. It was 1943, I was eight years old, and my father was trying to have me admitted to Bishop Cotton School, Simla, in the middle of term. It was wartime, he was serving in the R.A. F, and had just been put on active service. That meant I had to be placed in a boarding-school, for there was no one to look after me at home. The school was full of evacuee children from England, and admission was difficult. But a young Bursar, Ram Advani, came to our aid. He was only twenty-one or so at the time. He felt sorry for us, and presented our case quite forcefully to the Headmaster, Canon Sinker. The Headmaster held out, but his wife interceded, and I was admitted.
Two or three years later Ram left BCS and started his bookshop in Lucknow’s Hazratganj, and the rest is legend.
We did not meet again until I was in my fifties, but he remembered me perfectly, and we met and stayed in touch quite often during the last thirty years. Right to the end he never lost his commitment to selling good books, and you could always find him in his shop, attending to business as usual.
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Ram Advani’s bookshop was a reminder of the courtesy and civility of Lucknow as it once used to be
What made it so unique was that he allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse – a concept unknown in Lucknow in 1950s.
by CM Naim
When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.
With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.
I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.
Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.
Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.
Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.
I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.
As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.
Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.
The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.
Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.
Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.
CM Naim is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
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Bookseller and gentleman - Ram Advani (1920-2016)
by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
For me, the name Ram Advani was no more than a rubber stamp. By the time I had finished my reading of Enid Blyton and Billy Bunter my life had become obsessed with cricket. It was my first entry point into the world of adults. Reading had already become a habit. So, almost inevitably, in a house full of books, I turned to my father’s large collection of cricket books. At the bottom right hand corner of the first page of many of the books was a stamp in red which read Ram Advani, Bookseller, Hazratganj, Lucknow. The words were neatly laid out in four lines. Somewhere in my mind the name and the image of the stamp remained till a hot March afternoon in 1977 changed everything.
I had already been selected as an Inlaks Scholar to do a D.Phil in Modern History at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Barun De, with whom I had begun my research on 1857 in Awadh, had sent me away from Calcutta to Lucknow to study the documents in the Uttar Pradesh State Archives. I arrived in Lucknow in the afternoon and as the sun began to set I strolled down Hazratganj. And suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a signboard appeared next to a cinema hall. It said Ram Advani, Bookseller. All sorts of bells rang in my head and almost without intending to I found myself inside the bookshop.
After looking around for a bit, I asked an old gentleman if Ram Advani was still around. He assured me that indeed he was and if I took the stairs up to the mezzanine floor I would find him. I did just that out of curiosity more than anything else and found myself sitting face to face with a genial man with a well-trimmed white beard in an air-conditioned cubicle with papers and books all around. I didn’t quite know what to say so I began with my father and his books and said that my father had lived in Lucknow briefly for a couple of years in the late 1940s. Would Mr Advani remember him? He asked my father’s name and then with a gleam of recognition in his eyes he said, "Of course, I remember Mr Mukherjee, he was an avid reader and I used to send him books even after he had left Lucknow.’’ He then produced an old ledger which had my father’s account. I was relieved to find that no money was owing. A rubber stamp had become a man. That meeting was the beginning of a long friendship that ended the other day when Ram Advani died.
He insisted I call him Ram and that is what I called him from that afternoon. His bookshop became my first port of call after I finished my daily work in the archives. We would chat mostly about books and scholars who were Ram’s friends and loyal customers. This became a routine every time I visited Lucknow for my research. Away from Lucknow, I ordered books from him. Those were the days of the post. An envelope addressed to "Ram Advani, Bookseller, Hazratganj, Lucknow’’ would always reach him. And within a few weeks the ordered book would arrive beautifully packed and bearing that all too familiar stamp.
Ram was an incredible bookseller, knowledgeable with an uncanny gift of knowing what exactly his regular customers wanted. He was also a thorough gentleman, polite and gracious to a fault. He was delighted with my first book, Awadh in Revolt 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance and loved selling it. With his death I have lost not only a friend but the best promoter of my book.
In my mind’s eye, I can picture an alcove in heaven where book lovers and readers from India meet - Ravi Dayal, Sham Lal, Ravi Vyas, Nirmalya Acharya and P.K. Ghosh (the last two in their immaculate white dhoti and kurta). From last week, Ram Advani also sits in that alcove to chat about books, the ways of bookmaking and the writers he had known. It is a brightly lit space because it is inhabited by some of the rarest of human beings.
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Not just a bookseller: in Ram Advani, Lucknow loses its cultural nerve centre
by Sneha Vakharia
If you walked into the Lucknow’s bustling Hazratganj, you’ll see a cinema hall called Mayfair, with it’s shutters down. You’ll also see a red board, with white text that reads Ram Advani Bookseller.
If you proceed towards the store, there will be a glass door leading inwards, set beside a left framing window where books are on display. If you enter, you’ll find that the bookstore itself is a squarish space, with bookshelves on the left and right, and a large book rack with magazines on display on the extreme left.
Natural light will illuminate most of those books. And you will hear very carefully curated Western classical music - not just any Beethoven - but a piano concerto by Andsnes, perhaps.
And till only few months ago, you’d also be welcomed by the proprietor of the book-store, Ram Advani, sitting by the phone on a chair, in either a resham or a chikan kurta, or - if it was winter - in a round neck sweater and coat.
He played cupid, and not only to his customers
If you were new to the store, he’d ask you why you were in Lucknow. He’d help you meet people, help you set your anchor down in the new city. But if he recognised you, then he’d have a long list of books that would interest you stacked in the back.
And he would be able to tell, from the way you looked at the book and smelt its pages, whether you were going to buy the book or not.
Ram Advani passed on this week. Quietly and in his sleep. As the news reached his admirers, Twitters was full of tributes.
And this isn’t all out of romantic wistfulness either. If you were an academic, intending to perform any research related to Uttar Pradesh, Ram Advani was your academic advisor and bibliographer rolled into one.
And if you were a hapless tourist in Lucknow, Ram Advani Booksellers would become your equivalent of a Parisian cafe- you could find someone to discuss birds, cinema, music or locomotives. However incongruous your interests, you had an eager ear willing to put you in touch with books and authors who shared it.
His nephew, Mukul Manglik, remembers one of Advani’s favourite anecdotes, "He once recounted to me how a Dutchman came to Lucknow and came to the bookshop in distress. He had had all his papers stolen. With no identification papers, he moaned, "I am nobody now".
If you were a hapless tourist in Lucknow, the shop would become your equivalent of a Parisian cafe
And Advani responded, "Don’t worry. You can be anybody now".
If Advani prided himself on his ability to provide a safe house for his clients, it wasn’t out of sheer benevolence. It hard returned great dividends in the past.
Because that’s how he met his wife.
In the early days of his business, visiting his bookshop was a respectable reason for college girls to visit the mall - even if the real destination was the cinema. His wife was one of those young women.
And just as he’d charmed his way into the hearts of authors and academics for the subsequent decades, he found a customer who shared his nuanced love for Beethoven. And married her.
When she passed away last June, he hadn’t been able to come to terms with her loss. He hadn’t imagined that, she, a decade younger than he was, would be the first to go. "He didn’t even know where his own medicines were kept," says Manglik.
Advani found a customer who shared his nuanced love for Beethoven. And married her
But in a few months, he bounced back, if only out of love for his bookshop. On his 96th birthday, he let known to his friends, including Pradeep Kapoor, his neighbour. "I will work for three more years. I think I could retire by my 99th birthday".
His zest for mulling around his bookshop isn’t surprising to anyone who knew him. The richness of Advani’s knowledge only equaled the richness of his life. He has dined with Viceroys, conversed with Jawaharlal Nehru, gifted Lala Amarnath his first cricket kit (when Advani was president of the Lucknow University cricket team), provided solace to budding authors and lost tourists, and narrated all those stories to anyone who dropped by Ram Advani Booksellers.
But only between 10 am and 1pm, or 4 pm and 7 pm on any given day.
Edited by Aditya Menon
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Tribute: Ram Advani
The making of the grand bookseller of Lucknow
by Shozeb Haider
Since the day it opened its doors, Ram Advani Booksellers has stood as a bastion of independent bookselling in India
Ram Advani was born in Karachi on October 12, 1920 in a Sindhi Amil family of Khudabad, to Cherumal Advani. Shortly after his birth, his grandfather, who was a contractor, passed away. Ram spent his first eight years in Karachi, attending elementary classes in the local municipal school. With no interest in contracting, Ram’s father decided to move their family to Lucknow, along with two other Sindhi families.
The Advani family hired rooms on the second floor of the Mukherjee Building (now G.D. Punn building) in Hazratganj, and Cherumal Advani opened the Lucknow Bookstall — a bookshop — just down the street, where the Kashmir Emporium now is. In later years the bookshop moved to 34 Lal Bagh. Unfortunately the move did not help the Lucknow Bookstall. It continued haemorrhaging money, and was soon shut down. In the meanwhile, Ram began his academic career at St. Joseph’s Cathedral School. He went to Christ Church for his intermediate degree, receiving a good 2nd class, and later to Lucknow University. While he was climbing up the academic ladder, his father decided to join Thadanis, one of the two families who had migrated with the Advanis from Sindh, to run the newly built Mayfair Cinema.
A break in Rawalpindi
In 1942, while he was still doing his MA, Ram’s maternal uncle who had converted to Christianity, the Right Reverend Chandu Rai, visited Lucknow. Coincidentally, the Reverend also ran a bookshop in Rawalpindi at Ray’s Corner on 46 Edwards Road (now Bank Road) in Rawalpindi Cantonment. Or maybe there was no coincidence. It may have been a visit to the Reverend’s bookshop that may have inspired Ram’s father to invest in his first failed venture.
This time the Reverend’s entry would have a more lasting impact. He recommended Ram’s name to a frontier missionary, Bishop George Sinker, for employment at Bishop Cotton School in Shimla. In March 1943, Ram was offered a job as bursar secretary. He became the coach of the school cricket team, and until the end of the WWII, was a part-time history teacher. Among the students in the school were Ruskin Bond, Ratan Tata, Humayun Khan, and “George” Dundup Namgyal, the last commander-in-chief of the Tibetan troops against the Chinese Army.
Ram spent three lonely years, with no social life, in Shimla. Soon after the war, the new headmaster Reverend Frank Drake joined. Ram was offered a position to study at Oxford with an endowment loan from Bishop Sinker, in lieu of a bond to rejoin Bishop Cotton. Ram refused and instead handed in his notice. Freed of his obligations, he visited his uncle’s bookshop in Rawalpindi. It was there that he had a chance meeting with the disgruntled home secretary of the Punjab Government, who had to make annoying trips from Lahore to buy books. The home secretary proposed that Khuba Rai, another maternal uncle of Ram’s, open a bookshop in Lahore. A huge space was allotted in the famous Beli Ram Building on the Mall Road, and J. Ray & Sons — the Ray being an Anglicised form of Rai — opened its doors in November 1945. Ram was put in charge.
Ray & Sons to Ferozsons
In January 1946, the Muslim League agitation started in Lahore. It was not long before the Additional District Magistrate H.D. Shourie, Arun Shourie’s father, asked non-Muslims to prepare to leave. That one shop of Ray & Sons was burnt down on the Mall in Murree. As the word spread, a bookseller from Anarkali market in Lahore offered to buy Ray & Sons for 63,000 rupees, and later named it Ferozsons.
Ram rushed back to Bishop Cotton, and informed Reverend Drake of his intention to open a bookshop in the familiar environs of Shimla. Edna Wither, the matron of Loreto Convent School, which had shifted from Asansol to Shimla, offered Piccadilly House, next to Clarkes Hotel on Mall Road, as a site. On behalf of his uncle, Ram opened the Shimla bookshop, which also doubled as his home. The shop later moved to larger premises near the General Post Office, called the Rankins, right next to Grindlays Bank. With more public interaction, and entertainment at Devicos and Gaiety theatre, Ram’s second stint in Shimla was more enjoyable.
However, there was something still missing. In November 1947, Ram was asked by Khuba Rai to visit Lucknow and scout for a place to open a bookshop. Acharya Kripalani, the president of the Gandhi Ashram and also a family friend of the Thadanis, gave a small area inside the Gandhi ashram to open a bookshop, with the agreement that it would move out within a year. Two days before the shop was due to open on February 1, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. In the backdrop of that grim tragedy, Ray & Sons opened in Lucknow on February 15.
The shop became a retreat for the literati of Lucknow, and was frequented by teachers and students alike. One day in April 1948, a student of Isabella Thoburn College walked in. Darshi was a refugee from Amritsar and, coincidentally, had been born in Shimla. They were to meet again, this time in Shimla in the summer of 1949, in his bookshop. Ram took this as a sign, or maybe he was already smitten. He took Darshi out for coffee and later invited Darshi’s mother to meet Khuba Rai’s wife, both of whom knew each other from their Lahore days. He wanted to ask her hand for marriage, except that both of them were informally engaged to other people! Those engagements were discreetly called off and just after finishing her MA in anthropology, Darshi married Ram on March 4, 1953.
After the troubles of Murree and losses in Lahore and Pindi, Ray & Sons owed considerable money to British publishers, to an extent that they were blacklisted. Khuba Rai had lost everything during the Partition. This was directly affecting the functioning of the Lucknow bookshop, as no one was ready to give books on credit to the bookstore of Khuba Rai. On Bishop George Sinker’s advice, Ram proposed to buy the shop from Khuba Rai and paid Rs. 51,000 in instalments. Bishop Sinker asked Ram to call his shop simply Ram Advani Booksellers. Ram had thought of something fancier, but the Bishop wisely said he should just use his name and say that he was a bookseller. In 1953, the name of the bookshop was changed, and with the change of name and proprietor, books began to come in again.
Move to Gandhi Ashram
Thadani’s advice to open the shop inside the Gandhi Ashram was a masterstroke. It proved to be hallowed networking ground for all politicos and the who’s who of the newly independent India. From Nehru to Krishna Sinha, Feroze Gandhi to Suchitra Kriplani, everybody visited the Gandhi Ashram and also the bookshop. Soon the shop had outgrown the Ashram and new premises were needed. The lease to Lawrence and Mayo opticians in one corner of Mayfair Cinema complex was coming to an end. With Ram’s father managing Thadani’s Mayfair Cinema, a long-term lease was signed, in the presence of the ADM Lucknow.
The bookshop was a small room with neatly catalogued shelves of books. There was always Western classical music playing softly in the background. Ram followed a strict regime and was present for a few hours in the morning and evening every day. This continued till he was in his mid-90s. A keen golfer, with exquisite taste in Scotch, Ram floored his visitors with his soft-spoken courtly manners and charming ways.
Since the day it opened its doors under his name, Ram Advani Booksellers has stood as a bastion of independent bookselling in India. It became a routine pit stop for any scholar working on Indian studies, especially those with an interest in Awadh. Francis Robinson, Gale Minault, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Peter Taylor, Paul Brass, William Dalrymple, Ramachandra Guha all forged friendships with Ram through buying books. The shop went beyond books and conversations, into realms of Lucknow heritage. Ram Advani became an institution in himself.
The daily routine of visiting the shop continued until the sudden death of Darshi in June 2015. Ram’s health also took a turn for the worse after that. On the morning of March 9, 2016, Ram B hai, as he was affectionately known, passed away in his sleep, leaving behind a legacy of friends, followers and memories, from a lifetime of bookselling. He was 95.
(Shozeb Haider is a scientist specialising in Cancer Drug Discovery and Design at University College, London.)