A bookstore a little younger than the Republic, one that made notoriously penny-wise Gujaratis line up to buy books, and one that became a cultural landmark in Bhavnagar, Saurashtra – Lokmilap was all that and more, till it shut shop last Sunday, exactly 66 years after it began in Mumbai.
The store, as well as the publishing house by the same name, was set up by Mahendrabhai Meghani, 96, the eldest son of a legendary Gujarati man of letters. The late Jhaverchand Meghani was a poet, social reformer and writer, who was conferred the title of Rashtriya Shayar (national poet) by Mahatma Gandhi.
Lokmilap, the publishing house, was launched by Meghani on the day India announced itself a republic in 1950. It brought the best of world literature to the doorstep of the Gujarati reader, offering quality at affordable prices. The bookstore was started in the busy Sardarnagar locality of Bhavnagar in 1954 after Meghani shifted there. Till its last day, the owners refused to have a digital footprint, or a website. The bills were written out by hand.
It all began in the US, when Meghani went to do a journalism course at Columbia University between 1948 and 1949. He returned home, and launched Milap, a Gujarati magazine modelled on Reader’s Digest. The magazine led to the publishing house. Lokmilap published more than 200 books in Gujarati, many of them abridged and translated versions of Indian and foreign classics. To get Gujaratis to read was a challenge, says Meghani as were the high prices of books. The bookstore began an “advance customer scheme”, where an upcoming book was sold at nearly 50 per cent discount for early birds. “It was so successful that many other publishers also started doing it,” says Meghani, who has earned the sobriquet of “Granth na Gandhi” (Gandhi of Books) in Gujarat. The 96-year-old calls his work “punya no vepar” (business of righteousness).
To make poetry more accessible, Lokmilap also introduced the concept of khissa pothi or pocket books. “We realised that poems are not being read much. We also realised that many poems are difficult to understand. So, we selected simple poems, which could be understood by a layman, and made pocketbooks of them,” says Meghani. “These books fit into your pocket, size-wise and cost-wise, too,” he says, chuckling. The works of 40 Gujarati poets, such as Ramesh Parekh, Umashankar Joshi, Ushnas, Suresh Dalal and Harishankar Dave, were anthologised in these “kavya kodiya (lamps of poetry)” editions, each running into about 30 pages. They were so popular that Lokmilap sold lakhs of them. The pocket editions then diversified into a ready reckoner of famous quotes, condensed biographies and abridged versions of larger books, priced at 50 paise to a rupee (and currently updated to Rs 5).
“Generations of book-lovers not only bought and read, but also gifted Lokmilap books and booklets. Once upon a time, every poetry buff had sets of Lokmilap’s poetry pocket books,” says longtime customer and associate professor of English at HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, Sanjay Bhave.
At book fairs and exhibitions they organised across Gujarat and cities like Mumbai and Pune, Lokmilap was selective about what they put up for sale. “We would exhibit books of our choice, not just any book. The point was to frame people’s perspective of how to live life through these books,” says Meghani. Working on a “no-profit, no-loss” principle, the bookstore was sustained by the royalty from the books of Jhaverchand Meghani.
In 1969, the trust celebrated the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi by hosting a series of exhibition of 400 books by Indian authors in English, published in 15 countries, including the US and Mexico, through the year. A committee headed by former socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan selected the 400 books. Lokmilap printed a booklet introducing the books and sent it to different libraries and universities of the world. “We wrote to them that this is how (organising book exhibitions) we want to celebrate Gandhi’s birth anniversary. We didn’t want to install Gandhi’s statues or pictures. We wanted people of the world to know about Gandhi’s land, its culture, its songs, its literature,” says Meghani.
They had one condition. “We asked the libraries and universities to buy the set of 400 books at the cost of $1,000, while also providing lodging to two representatives of Lokmilap at their staff quarters. It was because we did not have money to bear this cost,” he says. Meghani’s son Gopal and his wife Rajshri have been running Lokmilap for nearly 50 years. “I am 66 and she is 65. Now, we feel that we have to retire. We want to watch good films, listen to music, travel and catch up with friends. We also want to read; despite being in the middle of so many books, we have not been able to read what we want,” says Gopal.
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