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The Death Of The Bookstore

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The cities I have lived in always had more liquor shops than bookstores. This meant that the people in these cities drank more whiskey than they read books, finished more beer cans and wine bottles in a month than novels – and frequented bars on weekends much more than they went to book-cafes.

It was strange because it told me a lot about the culture of a generation. The denim brands at the shopping malls grew in number – inventing slim-fits, mid-rise and ripped jeans and flare jeans – and wooing people by bringing back the same old fashion every five years. In retrospect, I think that they attracted them anyway since that is what the famous actresses were wearing. Outside the hookah bar, there were queues of people who wanted to be accommodated. Tremors shook the dance-floors of pubs on Saturdays. Theatres ran the same clichéd love stories packed with misogynistic songs and gender stereotypes – but the shows were always houseful.

Only the bookstores remained empty. Shelves stacked with books by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin stared into the oblivion, slowly acknowledging that Russian writers are destined to live lonely lives after all. Kafka was disheartened, Hemingway grunted in anger, Plath returned to her bell jar and Shakespeare could not decide whether to be or not to be. The tables had chess games which were never won or lost, cups meant for coffee which was never made, walls with framed book covers that no one looked at with coveting eyes. Maybe, nerds these days did not go out for dates at all. Maybe it was just Amazon, e-books or their hectic work lives. Whatever the reason was, it was apparent that bookstores did not get the attention they deserved.

Despite the convenience offered by e-commerce sites, the effort that goes into visiting a bookshop to buy a book is worth it – and for important reasons. Discovering a book is often difficult online – since at this stage, an algorithm often ends up suggesting you books which are ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘good’. My experience of online purchases has been limited to Pullitzer and Booker-winning books, or those by Rowling and Murakami. However, in bookstores, I found the rare gems – “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk, Mohsin Ahmed’s “Exit West”, Murugan’s “One Part Woman” or anything by Aubrey Menen, books on Adivasis, Africans and Native Americans with which the general masses might not connect to and hence never ‘popularise’.

On the internet, the closest you can get to Charles Bukowski’s works is “Post Office” or “Women” – but at independent bookstores, you will not be able to ignore “South of No North” placed just below these. Academic reads like Chomsky’s “On Language” or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” or a random read on Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif might not necessarily be to our taste – but in bookshops, there is a chance of love at first sight.

The mere system of arranging books according to genre (in bookstores) can work much better than the recommendations you find on Goodreads. Such sites often rank books on lists according to ‘ratings’ – but on the assumption that all these books are read equally, which is far from the truth. So, “The Life of an Amorous Woman” by Ihara Saikaku will not convince you with the stars it has been rated with, as much as a book by Dan Brown or Tolkien. On the other hand, in a bookshop, the exploration is completely your own – free from the bias and tyranny of majority views. This lets you pick books which you wouldn’t, otherwise.

For broke bibliophiles, independent bookstores offer a very good price. Though it is unanimously believed that books are cheaper online, a little more patience and research may help you understand that discounts are often offered mostly on best-selling books. A book which is slightly less popular, almost never has a price-cut online – and if there is one, it might vary from 5% to 20% – while discounts at most of the bookstores would begin at the 20% or 30% mark.

The variety of second-hand books is also larger in a brick-and-mortar store. And with this comes the little notes written on the margins by previous owners, reminding you how stories are universal legacies to be passed on to minds that haven’t read them. I wish e-books would make us feel something similar.

Walking BookFairs book-cafe, Bhubaneshwar (Photo Courtesy: Walking BookFairs/Facebook)

Only last month, I discovered a book-cafe on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. They went by the name “Walking BookFairs” – because previously they had a book-van with which they used to travel across the country to libraries and villages donating story books to little children.

If one thinks about it rationally, reading was often a luxury only the privileged could afford – since a hungry farmer or wage-labourer never had the time, peace of mind or ability to read and interpret a book. But the owners of this bookstore believed that knowledge is for everyone – irrespective of their position in society. They carried this vision forward and even started a movement – publishing poetry books written by common men, organising library events in which you could ‘borrow’ a person and ‘read their lives’ through conversations.

Finally, they built the book-cafe with handpicked books – from Faulkner to Chinua Achebe, and from Atwood to Ishiguro. In my opinion, this is what makes independent bookstores different from Oxford/Crossword chains or websites – the motive behind them, a vision for which they relentlessly struggle, making books more affordable and available to a larger number of people.

Ray Bradbury once warned us, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Culture is the essence of human existence – and books are its very embodiment, where our history, politics, mythology and scientific advancements are preserved and remembered. They deserve to be kept alive – in libraries, bookshops and the bookshelves of little children who should not grow up with a closed mind.

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Featured image for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint Via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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