Author Ruskin Bond was all of eight, a student at Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, when he met Ram Advani, then the bursar at the school. They would go on to be friends for life. At Ram Advani Bookseller, Bond’s books are autographed by him before they are sold.
Advani, the owner and soul of the oldest bookstore in Lucknow, died at his house in Lawrence Terrace area on Wednesday. He was 95. Condolences from scholars, book lovers, teachers and researches poured in, not only from different parts of the country but also abroad. His last rites will be performed in Lucknow on Thursday.
Born in October 1920, in Karachi, Advani’s family arrived in India after Independence. Since then, the store has been a favourite stop for historians, writers and travellers who come to the city of nawabs. It sits in Mayfair building in Hazratganj, a bustling neighbourhood with a Victorian backdrop. Not much of a fiction lover, except for storing Bond’s books, Advani had a wide collection on anthropology, history and politics. But many arrived at its doorstep mainly because of the ennobling conversations with Advani.
William Dalrymple visited the store for his research on The Age of Kali. “He’s unquestionably India’s greatest bookseller. He was courteous and had such charm. His bookshop was a scholar’s den and a fantastic place for bibliophiles. One would find every book there is on Lucknow, even the ones out of print. I met him for the first time in the late ’90s. I would find books soon after they were launched. Once I was in London and I waited for a book for three days. Here you could get it within 48 hours,” says Dalrymple.
Even until last year, Advani would often be seen talking to scholars, directing them to books they should read for their research. “Ever since he had a fracture, his movements were restricted, yet he would want to visit the store and sit there for sometime,” says Mohini Manglik, Advani’s younger sister.
Advani’s inspiration to open a bookstore came from his uncle, who had bookshops in Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Shimla. He had planned to open his store on February 1, 1948, but had to postpone it for a fortnight because of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. On the intervention of then Congress President JB Kripalani, he got a space at Gandhi Ashram in Lucknow, but in 1951, Advani moved the store to Mayfair.
“After completing his last rites, we will decide about the store. We tried convincing him to come live with us but the bookstore was his life, and he refused to leave Lucknow. The Lucknowi culture, wisdom and grace — it was all in him,” says Rukun, his son, a writer-cum-publisher, based in Ranikhet. His daughter Radhika is an English teacher in England. Rukun recalls British historians like Francis Robinson, and American professors of history especially from University of Texas, being in touch with him regularly.
Advani has had former chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh like Dr Govind Ballabh Pant and Sucheta Kriplani as his customers, and authors like Vikram Seth and VS Naipaul visiting the store. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too was one such visitor.
“It’s like losing a legend. He was respected all over the world for his tremendous knowledge. Apart from Ruskin Bond, author Rosie Llewellyn Jones, who has written widely on Lucknow, knew him well,” says Chander Prakash, who runs Universal Bookseller in the city. Advani maintained a visitor’s book at his house, which Prakash says was a piece of history in itself.