What happens after a bookshop closed it door for the last time? Were there eulogies and marches, or did it disappear without a sound? Are they well remembered, are they loved? Did they matter at all?
On the first week of October 2015, I walked around Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi under a string of rainbow-colored umbrellas, looking for a bookshop. India is my favorite place in the world to hunt for books. Not only because it is one of the most affordable countries to do so, but also because it is rich with authors and independent publishers that could shift the way you look at the world. There was an envelope full of rupees in a secret compartment in my bag, the rupees I’ve put aside to bring home books for my own little bookshop; books by Indian authors that the bookshop keeper think Indonesian readers should get to know. I have come to learn that where we put our money matters. Spending a few extra dollars to support an independent bookshop that makes books matter whenever I could does make a difference, and that in Delhi, that bookshop is called Yodakin.
I have heard of Yodakin long before I have plans to set foot in Delhi. I read about it in New Yorker in 2013, an article that paints it as one of those legendary bookshops that seem to symbolize hope in a weary, nearly forsaken metropolis.
Yodakin is a kin of Yoda Press, an independent publisher for feminist and alternative work founded by Arpita Das in 2004. She wondered whether it would make sense to establish a space that is the antithesis to mega-bookstores, one that celebrates alternative writers and the values they stand for. She decided to experiment, and so Yodakin opened its doors in 2009 at Hauz Khas Village, then a sleepy residential neighborhood that was just beginning to enjoy the energy brought by artists and entrepreneurs setting up shop in the area.
The Hauz Khas of today was certainly not sleepy. My travel companion brought us to the back alleys instead of the main street to avoid the crowd, commenting on which shops that wasn’t there when he last visited (the leather goods shop that sold a patent leather turquoise trunk) and which have been there for years (the antique shop that calls its maps “wintage”). None of the shops were Yodakin, though. We checked Google Maps, which told us that the bookshop was open. We asked some of the shops about where it might be, but no one seemed to have heard of the bookshop.
I found it strange. This was the bookshop that New Yorker wrote about because it had been more than just a bookshop. It was a place where people could easily read books written by authors who support Kashmir’s independence from India, a space where initiatives such as the Pleasure Project gathered people for a night to read their personal sexual fantasies out loud, believing that they could make sex safer. Yodakin was where activists and students came together with fury after a student was brutally gang raped in a bus. They shared personal experiences with harassment, discussed other cases of violence against women that had been flying under the radar, read out poems – feeling that they were together in a safe space. “I’ve been taken by surprise how much Yodakin has come to mean to people in city,” Das said in the New Yorker piece. “It stands for something that reassures them.”
“It might have recently moved,” I said to another shopkeeper we stopped by to ask, this time an aromatherapy place with a Scandinavian décor. Reassuring as Yodakin might have been to the people, it was not immune to the skyrocketing rent in Hauz Khas. Das shared her plans to move to a smaller space in one of the back alleys after the landlord decided to double her rent. The shopkeeper shook her head.
My travel companion had the brilliant idea to ask one of the few surviving first generation tenants of Hauz Khas, a travel café called Kunzum. A smattering of words in Hindi, and then in English. “It’s closed, for good. Yodakin is no more.”
“They are emerging, these creatives, in spite of everything, and they are essential because they are the signs of hope in a place that, like all other places on the limited earth, needs hope.”
And so Teju Cole wrote of Jazzhole, an independent music and book shop, the only one that sells Michael Oondatje’s book in Lagos, in his novel, Everyday is for the Thief. His sentiment is echoed by many other writers in many other places, so much that there is a book in which 84 American authors write about their favorite independent bookstores across the country and another that documents unique independent bookshops across the world. Every bookshop has a story, they wrote. Every bookshop does so much more than sell books, they are the place where books find people and people find themselves. Independent bookshops are symbols of hope, indeed.
The problem with symbols, however, is that they stand to inspire and reassure others. Their very existence is enough of a statement; their vulnerabilities render them charming and endearing, but never serious enough to raise alarm and action.
The same goes with independent bookshops. They are portrayed as David to the Goliath that algorithm-based e-bookstores and price-slashing chain bookstores are. There are certainly examples where this is true. Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books, which started and thrived after all bookstores in Nashville closed down. The legendary Shakespeare and Co in Paris, the Strand in New York and Powell’s in Portland are landmark destinations. If only all independent bookshops should be so lucky. Atlantis Books, that dreamy underground bookshop in Oia, is under threat of closing down a few months after they successfully brought David Sedaris to their book festival. Jen Campbell wrote the Bookshop Book while working for an eighty year old bookshop called Ripping Yarns in London, only to see the bookshop closed permanently a few months after her book was published. The fact is independent bookshops are always a small business that require all wits in full gear to survive, but between soaring rent and the shift to online reading and purchase, surviving another year is a clear and present challenge for almost every bookshop in the world.
The same goes for Yodakin. Apparently, it does not matter what kind of symbol an independent bookshop is and the hope it has given a city. Sometimes, a bookshop could close down and its neighbors did not even know it existed.
Yodakin haunted my mind even long after I left Delhi. I didn’t know the bookshop that it was, but there is a hurt in my chest every time I thought of the evening when we searched for it in Hauz Khas Village. Leafing through web pages for Yodakin did not ease my obsession, so I started searching for Arpita Das, the woman behind the bookstore, and found a blog post, simply titled ‘What Yodakin Did For Me’.
Written on the eve of the close of the first Yodakin shop in May 2013, Das shared what life was like for her in the days leading to Yodakin’s opening. Her then four year old daughter suffered a terrible burn on a Diwali night, and days of working to construct Yodakin interlaced with nights at the hospital’s burn ward. Her daughter was still in the process of recovery when Yodakin finally opened its doors. In the six months leading to the time where she could go back to school, Das’ daughter spent her time among the shelves of Yodakin, and when she got bored, in neighboring shops at Hauz Khas Village. She found friends at the shops, people who took her in as one of their own, although the only name I recognized from my visit was Kunzum. Of this time, Das wrote: “This was also when I stopped saying I hated Delhi for the first time in a decade. I had found my physical niche in the city at last, and my new community of friends seemed to me to be a long-lost band of soulmates.”
She ended her blog post with a reassurance for the readers. Although rent hike has forced the first Yodakin shop to close, they will soon reopen. Somewhat smaller, but with the same spirit and vibrancy. How could she not, when the bookshop has meant so much for her personally?
Arpita’s – yes, Arpita, for I could not keep referring to her with an impersonal last name after reading such a heartfelt, personal revelation – made me understood that the narrative around independent bookshops does not represent the entire story. It is never about the symbol, the bookshop, you see. It has always been about the people behind them, the one whose passion and hard work results in the symbols so cherished by anyone who finds life in books.
I suppose I understand why it’s easier to focus on symbols. Symbols are neat and could reflect people’s ideals. People are messy, much less predictable, and bound to disappoint once you hold them to ideals. Despite her heartfelt note and opening another Yodakin two months after it first closed, Arpita decided to permanently close Yodakin in July 2015 because she could no longer keep up with the soaring rent.
I looked her up again. After closing Yodakin, she has since taken up post in a business school in Delhi, where she is currently mentoring students who are planning for a cooperative campus bookstore. She co-launched a self-publishing platform called Authors Upfront, and as it has been for a decade, runs Yoda Press. Arpita’s world is still a world of books, although Yodakin has ceased to exist without any of the eulogies and uproar I think it deserves.
People may be messy and they may disappoint, but they often are more resilient than symbols. The person and the passion behind the symbol is alive and well, pressing on and moving ahead even after the symbol ceased to exist.
What happens after a bookshop closed its doors for the last time? The person behind the bookshop takes the fire that help her lit the bookshop somewhere else and start anew, perhaps in a different form, for people who have committed themselves to books will never let their fire be blown away until it is no more.
Jakarta, 31 January 2016
All photos were taken at Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi.