Happy fools who run bookshops
What's it like to start a bookstore in Mumbai, a city that cynics claim is losing its culture? Rehana Munir's protagonist relives her creator's life in a novel that negotiates Bandra's bylanes
In Mumbai, bookstores run more on nostalgia, and less on money. It's perhaps the only fuel that keeps them going. TN Shanbhag's iconic Strand Book Stall in Fort, which shuttered last year, and Smoker's Corner, a stone's throw away—started by the late Suleman Botawala in the 1950s—still manage to ignite fond memories. Stories of conversations with the unassuming bookseller. The smell of paper and print. The chaotic arrangement of books. The feeling of belonging.
Rehana Munir's debut novel, Paper Moon (HarperCollins India), has similar recall value. It won't take you back to the socialist days of Shanbhag and Botawala when bookselling was tough, yet fulfilling, but the post-liberal, all-embracing early 21st century India, where competition in business is sport.
Munir's protagonist is Fiza Khalid, a fresh-out-of-grad school woman, who discovers that the father she never knew, has died and left her a tidy sum in the hope that she will open a bookshop. Having studied literary greats at St Xavier's College, under inspiring English literature professor Frances D'Monte—a character modelled on Xavier's beloved professor Eunice de Souza—Fiza suddenly realises that her father's dream, is hers too. She rents an old bungalow in Bandra, naming it Paper Moon, and begins her bookselling journey.
It's no coincidence that Munir, 38, ran a bookstore called The Reader's Shop in Santa Cruz. That experience of "looking at books from an entirely different perspective," including bonding with customers and suppliers, and carrying out the dreary task of inspecting the daily sales register, has shaped the novel. But, she insists that this is where the similarities end. "The novel began with a simple premise: A young woman has the opportunity to live a bookshop dream in Bombay. The premise came from my own life, as did Fiza's worldview. But early into the book, invention took over, whether it was in Fiza's relationships or the events that scatter across her life. She's tall, for instance, and likes ice in her drink, unlike me. Could two people be more different? Seriously speaking, I stopped bothering about the biography versus fiction question early on, and that was liberating. Fiza is a hybrid—she's some version of me, with the addition of certain characteristics that I aspire to, and some that I dislike."
The novel reads like a 2001 travelogue of Bandra, taking you through everything that makes the suburb. Be it the "grotty" Yacht Bar on Hill Road, where Mumbai makes a pit stop for beer and beef chilly fry; Damian Furniture known for its annual Christmas display, featuring a life-size Santa, reindeer and sleigh, or A1 Bakery and Vienna Store, "where the faithful bought bread and eggs." "My relationship with the city is complex, and yet Bombay is such an integral part of who I am. I've tried living elsewhere but that didn't last long. Paper Moon gave me the chance to indulge my fondness for the city, and to celebrate what I love most about it. It helped that the book is set in the early 2000s. It's always tougher to romanticise the present," she says.
But, were she to set the book in the present, when bookstores are falling like nine pins, would Munir get her protagonist to take a leap of faith. "Maybe, a co-working space or an organic café [would be more prudent than setting up a bookshop]," she thinks. "But then, it has always been difficult to run an independent bookstore. This business has been about more than just profitability."
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