It was a decade ago, in the monsoon time of the year 2002 that I first heard of Athree Book Centre. My dearest friend Aravinda mentioned about Abhaya Simha who was then studying in At. Aloysius College Mangalore and told me that he was his cousin and would be my senior in SAC, where I had got an admission for my Degree course. It was then that Aravinda and his mother who told me that Abhay’s father owned a “very good” book shop called Athree Book Centre near Jyothi Circle.
In a few days of my shifting to Mangalore I thought of having a look at Athree Book Centre and walked towards the shop near Jyothi Circle. It was just out of curiosity that I went and as I stood near the door I saw a man with a scary moustache near the door. When he asked me what is that I was looking for I did not know what to say because by the look of his moustache it did not appear to me like he would appreciate and tolerate the answer, “I came out of curiosity to see you and your shop.” So I asked him for some text book that my teacher had mentioned in the class that day. “We do not keep text books,” he told me and I walked back quickly to move out of the horizons of that scary moustache!
That was my first tryst with Athree Book Centre and its owner Ashokavardhan. I remember having walked back thinking, “What book shop is it, if he doesn’t keep text books?” for those days I could not think that book shops can really exist without text books. But soon, with more and more interaction with Abhay Simha, son of Ashokavardhan, I learnt that Athree Book Centre has never kept text books in their shop for their interest was not selling text books. When Abhay said so I got more curious.
In a few days after this my parents came to Mangalore to meet me and by then Abhay had got very close to me and I had spoken quite a lot to my parents about this ‘inspiring senior’ of mine. So when they came they wanted to meet Abhay. I decided to take my parents to Athree Book Centre that evening where Abhay used to spend sometime after college hours. I decided to take my parents to Athree because that would also let me feel more at ease in the presence of the scary moustache man and also the presence of Abhay would make me feel more at home.
That evening when I went to Athree Book Centre with my parents I got introduced to Ashokavardhan by his son Abhay who I introduced to my parents. When I told my father that I wanted to buy the book ‘Why I assassinated Gandhi’ he bought me the book, which was my first purchase in Athree, and my dad asked Ashokavardhan if the text books that I was in need of was available to which Ashokavardhan said, “No we do not keep text books.”
Ashokavardhan, who later I discovered as one of the most warm and friendly persons with a great sense of humor, with more frequent visits, says that when he started Athree Book Centre in the year 1975 he started it as a stall of “books meant for reading” which due to the constant answers of “no we do not have text books, medical books, technological books” became a stall which has “books which are not to be found anywhere else.”
Yes, Athree has been a book centre for the people of coastal Karnataka that book shop where the rarest of the books are available and the books which nowhere else is found. I must narrate an incident here about a friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ashokavardhan too . This friend found a rare book in Athree one morning- George Orwell being the title and Raymond Williams being the author of the book. A rare book considered as one of the best writings on Orwell and his works has been one of the much discussed books on Orwell. The book was quite expensive as it was a foreign publication. Unable to purchase the book this friend finished reading the entire book standing near the book rack till that evening! Ashokavardhan might remember this particular incident quite well.
A teacher of mine narrated this incident to me who also happens to be a friend of the friend who read the entire book at Athree. I was told about this when I got the same book by Raymond Williams from Delhi for this teacher who is doing his PhD on the works of Orwell. Saying how important a book it is and how he has been searching for the same he had narrated the incident to me which while speaking about the passion of a friend also speaks how some of the rarest and important books are found in Athree, which else is not found anywhere else in the nearby places.
While writing my M.Phil dissertation I had a lot of trouble to find literature on the topic that I had chosen for my dissertation was on a ‘movement’ which was not documented well. I had to resort, hence, to other writings of those times where people seem to have believed more in action and not documentation. No exaggeration but yes, on the first floor of Athree Book Centre I did find some rare books with good insights into those times and the cultural sphere and spirit of those times which helped me a lot to write my dissertation. My dissertation and I owe a lot to that one afternoon spent in Athree Book Centre.
I cannot have thought of purchasing and reading the books of Chinua Achebe, especially his essays, the autobiography of Pablo Neruda, writings of Rustom Barucha, Sartre, Said and many such authors, in my pre-Delhi days, if not for Athree Book Centre. Athree stood as an access to a lot of untouched ideas and thoughts through the rare books of the unknown authors. Athree widened intellectual horizons.
In case a particular book one is searching for is not available in Athree it would be made available in a few days. When A.R. Rahman and Gulzar won the Oscars my boss at The Hindu- Govind- asked me to write about Gulzar and the form of poetry invented by Gulzar known as Triveni, about which we were discussing while going back home the night we got to know about Gulzar winning the Oscars. I felt motivated to write and decided to write. But I couldn’t have written it without the biography of Gulzar. I walked to Athree the next morning, where years ago as a degree student, I had seen the biography of Gulzar ‘Because he is…’ penned by his daughter Meghana Gulzar. The book was not available after all these years. But it was made available in a few days when I said I wanted the book. After a few days I was sitting in my office typing that day’s report and the office phone rang. The familiar voice of Ashokavardhan said, “Because he is… has arrived.” What moved me was not that he got the book. But that phone call which he made, soon after the book arrived.
Athree Book Centre never gave carry-bags to carry the book. If many books were purchased Ashokavardhana would ask one of his employees to pack the books in a sheet of old newspaper. That is it. No carry bags. That was his way of living what he believed. Living an environment friendly life.
These not-available items of Athree makes Athree stand out, I feel at times. Text books- not available. Plastic carry bags- not available. Discount offers- not available. Though Ashokavardhan gave a discount if purchases of high amounts are made by regular customers he never advertised books or attracted buyers under the banner “discount sale.” Athree book centre attracted book lovers by its collection and friendly approach and the non-availability of any of the above mentioned did not boomerang Athree but made Athree more and more of a place for true lovers of books.
One day the Director of Kannada Pustaka Pradhikara was to visit Athree at 10:00 in the morning out of personal interest, having heard and read about Athree. Ashokavardhan got a call about the visit and said, “Anyone and everyone can come,” without attaching no special importance to the visit of the Director of Kannada Pustaka Praadhikaara. The Director of Kannada Pustaka Praadhikaara did not turn up till 10:30 and Ashokavardhan left the shop for he had to collect the parcel of books that were to arrive. When the Director came later on only Ashokavardhan’s assistants were in the shop and they too did not treat the special guests in a special manner but treated them like any normal customer.
There have been incidents when some undeserving cultural leaders have got themselves clicked buying books at Athree and gotten them published in some ‘leading’ dailies of this region, which Ashokavardhan, in his own witty way, remembers in his blog writings. These people were not the heroes of Athree anytime, to mean it did not belong to such pseudo people and that Athree did not entertain such people. The real heroes were always the real lovers of books.
Regular visitors of Athree never come back without a five minute chat with Ashokavardhan about books, literature, wildlife, nature, cinema, theater and yeah Yakshagana. His comments on the ongoing literary debate, literary events etc etc would trigger the dialogue which would hardly go beyond five minutes. But those five minutes would cover the vast canvas in a crisp and sharp manner, like the small shop (relatively) of Athree covers a huge canvas of ideas and thoughts.
Yesterday when I went to Athree, I received a warm welcome, as always. When I asked for Desha Kaala magazine Ashokavardhan said he had blogged recently about Desha Kaala. During the controversy around the same magazine, Ashokavardhan and I had discussed about the controversy and the then on-going debate in the same Athree Book Centre. As I remembered that in a flash of a second Ashokavardhan asked me if I had read his blog. When I answered him that I had not, he took out a printed version of his blog and showed it. The last paragraph of the blog write up said that Athree was going to be shut down soon.
I wanted to ask, “How can you?” but ended up asking “Why?” to which Ashokavardhan said, “Retirement time” and after a hearty laugh said, “I have done it for long and now I am done with it. The in-flow of the books has no variety as such these days and I have no much responsibility to carry on my shoulder now.” There was pain in his voice when he said, “The books have no variety.” I asked when would be the last day of Athree to which he said, “March 31.” Not being sure where I would be then and from a few days from now, I decided to spend some more time in Athree. I dug out some old books and bought them. When there is no variety in the now coming books, one has nothing but old books to look for. When there is no future to look ahead one can only look at the past.
Athree, when your shutters are closed it will be my personal loss. Thanks for nurturing and nourishing me all these years.
(Photo Courtesy: Irshad Mohammed)