First published in the series Publishing And The Pandemic by Scroll in February 2021.
The pandemic will likely go down as the most significant global crisis of the present century. And yet modern history has thrown up epochs of destruction time and again.
The violent partition of India in the summer of 1947 – during which more than two million people lost their lives – is painfully described in Amrita Pritam’s Ali Ajkhaan Waris Shah Nu, a moving verse inspired by a train journey the poet took from Dehradun to Delhi as communal riots raged all through the dark night. Pritam had just left Lahore for newly independent India, having crossed the north-west border like thousands of other refugees who hoped for new beginnings. One amongst them was Govardhan Batra, a migrant from Lyalpur (now Faislabad in Pakistan) who had arrived in Amritsar, Punjab.
In the coming decades, the brave author and enterprising young man would have more in common than the searing memories of partition; each would find solace in books and create legacies out of love for the written word.
A FRESH START
As the 1940s drew to a close, Govardhan Batra and his family were settling into their new lives in Amritsar. Much to Batra’s relief, his recently set-up ‘Eats’ dhaba was a runaway hit with customers. Located directly opposite the city’s government-run Glency Medical College, students and faculty dropped in at all hours; Batra’s famed mutton curry was irresistible on cold winter nights and the man himself was as popular as the Punjabi delicacies he served. Friendly and sentimental by nature, Batra was always happy to chat with customers who lingered after a meal. Some would browse through the dhaba’s modest corner shelf of books near the cash counter; others preferred to gossip over shared stories, chai and cigarettes.
Govardhan Batra often made himself available to referee the College’s frequent hockey matches. In time, he became aware that the outwardly carefree students had deeper concerns : one specifically, was their lack of access to medical text books. A lifelong reader and knowledge seeker, Govardhan Batra wanted to help. Initially, for a small commission, he managed to procure a few medical titles from local sources. Thereafter, requests poured in, averaging ten, or sometimes fifteen, a week. Batra wondered how he would fulfil the rising demand.
One day, luck visited the dhaba in the form of a hungry stranger. Pleased by the food, the diner introduced himself to Batra as a small-time publisher. The duo got talking and Batra received advice on just how he could serve the local student community better.
Hard-working, resourceful and used to starting life from scratch, Batra spent the next few years building relationships with the more established medical and academic book publishers in India at the time; these included global imprints such as Churchill Livingstone, Saunders and Lippincort. Soon, Batra’s crowded eatery was doubling up as a one-stop shop for medical books, with orders averaging roughly one hundred a week. Batra referred to his growing side business simply as Rajat Book Corner. Rajat, a word that denoted strength, appealed to Batra – so much so that when his son was born in 1952, Govardhan named him after his small but lucrative book trade.
Rajat Batra’s childhood was spent in the idyllic milieu of books and conversation. His father’s humble restaurant-cum-book shop remained a popular hub for Amritsar’s growing numbers of academics all through the 1950s and 1960s, many of them treating their much-loved ‘adda’ as a second home. As Rajat came of age, his sharp business sense emerged to complement Govardhan’s easy-going nature. Community was important to them both, but while Govardhan was content to stay small, Rajat saw opportunity for expansion and enterprise.
In the 1970s, Rajat Book Corner became the main supplier of medical text books to Amritsar’s sprawling Guru Nanak Dev University; Rajat’s efforts also led to the opening of a dedicated RBC book depot on campus grounds. It was here that Rajat often came to supply and sell new stock. And it was here, through stacks of shelves and amongst piles of books, that Rajat first encountered his future wife, a young post-graduate student of History. “My parents had a beautiful love story,” says the couple’s son Mohit today.
Rajat was as pragmatic as he was romantic. With his father’s blessing, he took the wise decision of closing the family’s long-standing restaurant and converting its entire 1,000 square metre space into a legitimate bookstore. With Rajat Book Corner now a familiar name in the medical and academic textbook trade, Rajat set his sights on what had always been his deepest calling – bringing books and the joys of reading to children.
In 1979 – declared by UNESCO as The Year Of The Child – Rajat Batra became the country’s first mainstream retailer to exhibit books at schools and pre-schools. Eager to spread this endeavour beyond Amritsar, Rajat planned events in the neighbouring small towns of Dalhousie, Pathankot and Jalandhar. He would arrive at their community halls and public spaces, and get to work unpacking bundles of books for children and pre-teens. These were books that Rajat had personally screened and curated, and on display were English-language titles and authors who were a rage amongst school-goers of that era – amongst them, the versatile works of Enid Blyton, the adventure-filled Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, the much-adored Archie comic collections, and plenty more tales of mystery, legend and science fiction. Initial events were successful, and were thereafter held upto eight times a year across different areas. Each exhibition attracted local schools and educational institutes and ended with bulk orders for upto 1,000 books at a time.
Momentum was peaking for Rajat Book Corner to diversify in range. While the store’s “bread and butter” medical books continued to account for maximum sales, shelf space was making way for the fast-growing genres of popular fiction, biography, poetry, inspirational memoir, and of course, children’s books. Titles were mostly in English, but included a smattering of Hindi and Punjabi. As time marched through the eventful 1980s, there was a special interest in books analyzing the surge of terrorism in Punjab and a new subset of readers keen on Indian and international politics, history and culture.
Rajat’s next priority was to open a branch of the bookstore in a new city. Quiet Dehradun, at the foothills of the Himalayas, was an appealing option but it came with a major disadvantage : at the time, there was no medical college in town. So Rajat considered his second choice – Jaipur – and was quickly charmed by its aesthetic landscape of forts and monuments, robust tourist culture and proximity to New Delhi.
Today, Jaipur is a crowded metropolis and home to one of the largest literary festivals in the world. Back in the early 1990s, it was a somewhat sleepy mid-sized town that lacked a premier bookstore – Jaipur’s book-loving residents had to make the four-hour drive to the capital to buy their choice of books. Another advantage lay in the fact that the Batras had forged longstanding business connections with the city’s academic institutions. And so Rajat and his family made the move from Amritsar to Jaipur to start a new chapter in their book brand’s history.
In 1992, Rajat Book Corner opened on Jaipur’s Narain Singh Road. Its interior was a quarter of the size of the main store in Amritsar, but word of mouth and curiosity quickly attracted the city’s residents. Rajat incorporated many of the features that made the Amritsar branch special; in Jaipur, the bookstore offered its customers a similar laid-back feeling of community, a tasteful curation of best-selling titles across popular genres, and Govardhan Batra’s signature chai free of cost. Over the next three decades, the bookshop would grow into a sustainable home for almost 200,000 books, and see customer footfall increase from a mere trickle to more than fifty a day – with twice that number appearing on weekends and holidays.
Presently, Jaipur’s coziest bookstore is managed by Rajat Batra’s energetic son Mohit, who heads a small staff and modestly describes himself as “having done nothing more than sit in the store and read.” But when the younger Batra joined the family business almost fifteen years ago, he launched a considerable two-pronged effort – to creatively innovate for a technology-driven future and to tirelessly spread the love for physical books amongst younger generations of readers.
A NEW ERA
In 2007-08, Mohit Batra was a gold medallist from Jamshedpur’s Xavier School of Management with an array of lucrative corporate sector job offers to choose from. Despite his passion for reading, writing, marketing and public speaking, Mohit had – until then – not seriously considered joining the family business, leave alone the book industry. But having never known his grandfather (Govardhan Batra passed away in 1980, a year before Mohit was born) and then losing his mother in 1998, Mohit felt the strong need to stay connected to his father, to carry forward the family legacy. He believes, even today, that “for traditional businesses, the challenge is not in value addition, but in sustaining the values of the previous generation.”
Mohit went to an all-boys school and jokes about how this led him to books. “By the time I started college, I realized that boys who were well-read were far more popular with girls,” he admits. But even so, Mohit realized that books could open up hitherto unexplored worlds of knowledge and understanding between people. “In my early days at the store, I read for hours each day, in particular, biography and memoir,” he says, counting amongst his favourites those of thespian actor Dilip Kumar and tech uber-legend Steve Jobs.
Reading voraciously led to Mohit’s debut as a writer for the city’s Daily News And Analysis broadsheet; by the end of the millennium’s first decade, he had published about 95 book reviews under his column Booked For Life. “Customers would come to the store with cuttings of my articles, asking for books I’d recommended. Sometimes they didn’t even know that I was the writer of the column,” he laughs. One book that Mohit had positively reviewed sold well amongst the store’s clientele of working professionals – this was R. Gopalakrishnan’s Case Of The Bonsai Manager, which offers uniquely intuitive lessons on modern management.
Soon after, Mohit started curating and broadcasting his articles to regular customers via his favourite medium – WhatsApp. Books reviewed and recommended by Mohit in this way sold an extra fifteen copies on average, and led to a spurt of customer interest in new authors and their work. Rajat Book Corner, which primarily stocked best-selling fiction and non-fiction, now began to actively promote lesser known writers. Mohit recalls, “I remember when the author Amish Tripathi dropped by the store – this was long before he gained fame for his widely-read Shiva Trilogy. Back then, we supported Amish by stocking a few copies of his debut novel, The Immortals of Meluha. He and I joke about that to this day.”
Community and personal relationships had formed the backbone of Rajat Book Corner’s success in both its home cities. During the early-to-mid 2010s, it was loyal customer support that helped the Jaipur bookstore stand tall against the fierce winds of competition – first from chain stores like Crossword and later from hyper-sales e-platforms Amazon and Flipkart. Drawing upon Mohit’s expertise and love for gadgets, Rajat Book Corner launched a dedicated, user-friendly website and started local delivery services for all books ordered via phone and online. Mohit also continued to curate book lists and exhibitions for schools in and around Jaipur; at a recent event at Campus Nursery, he gave an open talk to parents of toddlers on the importance of reading. In this way, the bookstore fostered strong bonds not just with children, but with mothers and fathers, teachers and educators – all of whom had questions about appropriate reading material for young minds and how one could inculcate a love for books in a world being rapidly overtaken by screens.
A similar spirit of community came to the fore when Mohit opened an extension of the bookstore at Jaipur’s government-run Jawahar Kala Kendra Arts Centre in April 2018. Days before the launch, customers doubled up as volunteers, unpacking and arranging giant cartons of books. “We set up the space in 48 hours,” Mohit smiles, “and had a pizza party going on all throughout.” Mohit also started a Book Club from the premises; one of his signature events included an online discussion with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, whose late husband Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air had touched millions of readers around the world. Organized in tandem with the Ted Talks platform, the highly anticipated event played out on screen to a live audience of over fifty people.
Yet the real feather in Mohit Batra’s cap has been an ongoing initiative called ‘A Book Is The Smartest Handheld Device’ – a live platform for authors and thought leaders to discuss and debate ideas, as well as interact with readers of all ages and walks of life. While the Jaipur Literature Festival had been curating such events for almost a decade, Mohit believed its annual five-day run was too brief a time to sate audiences, nor did logistics permit it to cover the range and volume of quality books flooding the market.
The driving force behind ‘A Book Is The Smartest Hand-Held Device’ was – and remains – its steadfast commitment to sustain physical books. “We don’t offer a single e-book at Rajat Book Corner,” says Mohit matter-of-factly. “I had read a lot about the dangers of digital addiction, the darker side of technology. Given my family’s long-standing ties to the medical community, I also got advice from a team of doctors, psychologists, neurologists and educators who believe that excessive reading online comes with severe health risks – for adults and especially for young children.”
The initiative first took shape in late 2017, when Mohit read Sreevatsa Nevatia’s How To Travel Light : Memories Of Madness And Melancholia. The memoir was not a commercial success but its subject matter – the author’s struggle with mental health – impacted Mohit deeply. On impulse, he shot off a handwritten letter to Nevatia, who wrote back promptly to thank him. In December that year, Mohit hosted the author in Jaipur, organizing a live discussion in front of a 100 + audience at a well-known city café. The ticket price for those attending was the cost of Nevatia’s book, which ensured that every guest went home with a copy.
Live author events were held continuously all through 2018 and 2019, with a few prominent ones set against the visually stunning backdrops of Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar. Writers who participated included, among others, Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi, Sooni Taraporewala and Francesca Cartier. What pleased Mohit especially was a conversation featuring social entrepreneur Srijan Pal Singh, who had co-authored ReIgnited with Dr. A.P.J. Kalam. The book explores career paths in robotics, aeronautics and neurosciences; at the packed event, two schools showed up in full strength and made up its rapt audience.
Mohit stuck to his strategy of pricing a ticket according to the cost of a book. “Books are often thought of as freebies,” says Mohit candidly. “I wanted to change that mindset, to remind people that a physical book has value.” To date, ‘A Book Is The Smartest Hand-Held Device’ has hosted over fifty events and benefitted all those involved. According to Mohit, “readers get to see and hear an author live for the price of a book, authors get to promote their work, and publishers and retailers gain in visibility and sales.”
As a new year and decade rolled around, Mohit found himself most excited about a mega event slated for March 2020. With tickets priced at Rs. 600, it would feature the globe’s most decorated chess player Vishwanathan Anand and discuss his most recent book Mind Master : Winning Lessons From A Champion’s Life. Anand’s many fans in Jaipur were abuzz with excitement, but then, just days before the event was scheduled to take place, it was abruptly cancelled.
The pandemic had hit and the world was about to plunge into months of unrelenting lockdown.
Across India, independent bookstores stayed closed from mid-March to late June of 2020. Rajat Book Corner was no exception; its two main stores in Amritsar and Jaipur were shuttered for the very first time in their respective histories, and by the end of the year, the Jawahar Kala Kendra branch shut down permanently.
The first few weeks of the nationwide lockdown left Mohit – and most other private booksellers – in a state of limbo. But then serendipity struck just as unpredictably as the pandemic had. One of Mohit’s more influential customers happened to be a police officer; he was also an avid reader who needed a supply of books to get through a time of physical and social isolation. Mohit was given permission to transport (or “smuggle,” as he puts it) more than five hundred books from the bookstore to his home. Using social media, Mohit spread the word amongst his customers; soon, calls were pouring in with enquiries about which titles were available and when they could be collected. Mohit remembers, with some amusement, how his living room was crammed with books at the time, and how his whole household pitched in to organize orders. Within days, Mohit had sold the entire stock.
When bookstores formally re-opened over the summer, combined average customer footfall was at a mere quarter of pre-pandemic figures. Undaunted, Mohit rose to the challenge by rebooting ‘A Book Is The Smartest Hand-Held Device’ – this time, going fully digital with his original schedule of author events. On June 17, 2020, Vishwanathan Anand appeared in an online discussion to a virtual audience of over two hundred people. The event was a triumph.
More than twenty ticketed online events followed over the course of the year. These included sessions with Indian writers Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murthy, and international names such as Jeffrey Archer, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. Mohit innovated further by incorporating digital signatures in books sold, thereby offering viewers at home a personal connection to their favourite authors. He also kept enthusiasm levels high within his online network of readers; for an event with writer Deepak Ramola, Mohit sent out forty hand-written invitations to regular customers, urging them to attend with friends and family. More than sixty people tuned in to the discussion and in the course of that one day, Ramola’s 50 Toughest Questions of Life sold over 150 copies. Another success was a twice-held session last August featuring Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the authors of the Japanese-inspired motivational manual Ikigai. This event – planned in collaboration with the CII-Young Indians platform – was heavily promoted across Rajat Book Corner’s social media pages and led to sales of 2,500 copies over the next four months.
With schools closed all through 2020, Mohit turned his attention to online education by collaborating on a new digital venture called Tinkerbola. The hybrid platform – aimed exclusively at children, parents and teachers – offers interactive learning experiences, courses and podcasts; it also publishes creative reviews of contemporary children’s books such as Anand Neelakanthan’s The Very, Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales For Kids.
Meanwhile, Rajat Book Corner’s own website has grown its database to include 10,000 customers. It has also launched video reviews of recent and forthcoming books and integrated a blog that welcomes aspiring writers. According to Mohit, the pandemic has been less of a crisis, more of an opportunity. With the rise in online orders for books and increased public interest in digital author events, he believes overall sales have recovered from last year’s slump, and in fact increased by 40 per cent over those in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Born just after Indian independence and a brutal partition, raised over seven momentous decades across two centuries, and having survived a fierce pandemic, Rajat Book Corner has stayed rooted in its past even as it evolves along new paths towards the future. This synergy echoes through third generation bookseller Mohit Batra’s own learnings over this last year : “In trying times, technology connects us to each other but it is books that will forever connect us to ourselves.”