Three parallel streets capture Kolkata’s sense of humour. Ho Chi Minh Sarani houses the home and office of the US Consul General, ensuring that he will daily remember the Communist leader who fought the Americans in the Vietnam War. A congested stretch outlined with showrooms is titled Theatre Road aka Shakespeare Sarani. Park Street, the go-to place for hedonism and merrymaking, was renamed after the saint of charity, Mother Teresa Sarani. Nobody calls it that. The promise of Park Street is that it will not change. Its restaurants, watering holes and people will always be around. New eateries and shops have spurted here but they live in the shadows of the grand dames such as Olypub, Trinca’s, Moulin Rouge and Flury’s. That’s why the death of Satram Gunomal Motwani has shaken the people who grew up with literature from the 97-year-old Oxford Bookstore.
“It is hard to think of Kolkata’s Park Street and, especially, Oxford Bookstore without him. He had been there for
decades. I remember him since my school days. He was as kind and helpful then, as he was decades later. He will be much missed,” says writer Amitav Ghosh. Motwani was known as “the man at Oxford”, who would guide readers to a relevant pile of books or a shelf and leave. “He was always around. Sometimes you would see him, sometimes you wouldn’t but, when you needed to know about a certain book or author, he was there. He had the details on his fingertips,” says former Army chief Gen Shankar Roychowdhury.
Motwani did not speak much but he was always walking the floor. More dignified than the staff at new-age bookstores and better informed than Google, Motwani represented the courteous, old Kolkata of the ’40s and ’50s. “He was the bhadralok in the classic sense,” adds Gen Roychowdhury, who grew up in Kolkata.
Born in Pakistan in 1931, Motwani came to India as a young boy during the Partition. His father had a grocery shop in Jaipur but Motwani arrived in Kolkata to work for the Primlanis, who owned the bookstore before it was acquired by the Apeejay Group. He had been with Oxford Bookstore for 68 years. “I don’t think he had a formal higher education but books and readers were his life. When a reader enquired about a certain title, he would refer them to allied books,” says Maina Bhagat, Director of Oxford Bookstore.
A young boy, barely a teenager, from Mumbai once had an “edgy exchange” with Motwani. “Two years ago, he revealed to me that he remembered that interaction. I was surprised that he had recognised me as that boy. Few bookshops have that kind of person any longer who know books and customers so well,” says Amit Chaudhuri. The Kolkata-based writer adds, “Over the years, he didn’t change very much, except for the grey hair. I was surprised to learn that he was 85.”
On November 22, Motwani was at work before the store opened. He took his usual lunch break and came back for the evening shift. “He called me after work, around 9.30 pm. He had a habit of calling his family members, and never missed a special occasion to wish them. He shopped for a bit. On the way back, he suffered a stroke or a respiratory problem or both and passed away. He, literally, died with his boots on,” says son Narendra Motwani.