Blork! Bluurf! I seem to have caught Gajapati Kulapati’s cold. Just wait till I catch hold of that elephant again! I feel a little biffsquiggled with this cold to be honest. But what I was saying was…when I walked in to Kahani Tree, an independent bookstore in Prabhadevi, I had but a few cats in my hat. Now, I have a few elephants, a rather curious cow, girls that are not named Coraline and boys called Ismat.
Sangeeta Bhansali, the founder of the bookstore, would approve. “Our bookshelves have always been full of wonderful stories from around the world,” she says, “but we barely had any books that told stories about our people and country.” The realisation sunk in for her in 2006 when she came across the range of children’s books published by Tulika in Chennai. By then, her own sons – then 14 and 12 years – had grown up without seeing any Indian children’s books that were not about gods, goddesses, and the Panchatantra!
Yet Tulika’s range wasn’t available anywhere in the city. “As a mother and a book lover,” says Sangeeta, “I felt it was important for every child to have access to Indian stories and folk tales, as well as engaging story books in Hindi and the regional languages, so that they were not growing up as strangers to their own culture.”
It was that singular thought that gave birth to Kahani Tree a year later, out of a single wall in the office of Vakil & Sons (where Sangeeta is the head of the publishing division). Now, it has found its legs and grown a few square metres into the bookstore I find myself in. There are shelves upon shelves of curated Indian books sourced from across the country: five-minute bilingual reads such as Five Little Monkeys, the Dev and Ollie series by Shweta Aggarwal, or books like Ismat’s Eid that explain Indian festivals, a Manipuri gem with brilliant illustrations called Who will be Ningthou?, and many more.
But what about the gods and goddesses? I ask. Do they still have a following? It seems they do, but they are a far cry from the staid, text-heavy dictums they were, Sangeeta tells me. Out comes The Mahabharatha: A Child’s View by Samhita Arni (written when she was just 12 years old) from the other wall, and I’m immediately taken in.
I silently keep it next to my growing pile in the inner section of the bookstore. This is the extended area where you will find a curated range of international picture and middle-grade books. It is here that the metaphysical Kahani Tree has gotten a physical manifestation. Alongside sits a happy looking kid on a tortoise, but he doesn’t look half as happy as me as I sneak glances at my pile. Conspicuous by their absence, though, are Jeff Kinney, Lemony Snicket, Elizabeth Dami, and others. “The idea is to get the kids to read beyond bestsellers,” explains Sangeeta, handing me The Book With No Pictures.
“What’s important is to promote reading for pleasure,” she says, “to create thinking, open-minded and empathetic children.” That’s where literary events, school book-fairs and festivals help. I’m handed an orange coloured book, called Advaita The Writer, about a little girl who finds solace in books in a far off boarding school, and how her life changes when one day the librarian asks her if she would like to meet Ruskin Bond. “It’s a beautiful book by Ken Spillman,” she says with a smile. “When children get a chance to meet the author of a book they’ve read, or if a storyteller makes a book come alive, a special connection is made.”
That’s the very connection this little bookstore has grown on – by facilitating author interactions and events at Kitab Khana, the Kala Ghoda festival, and plenty of Mumbai schools. To ensure that all kids, cutting across backgrounds, get to sit under this growing tree, the bookstore helps set up mini-libraries and reading corners by collaborating with non-profits. “We encourage their librarians and teachers to come to Kahani Tree, browse, and select books that are simply not available in retail,” she says.
A lot has changed in the past decade, though. The digital market has become a contender, but there is growing awareness and acceptance. Many more publishers and authors are now willing to explore India’s multiculturalism. Besides Tulika and Pratham, Kahani Tree’s own list has expanded to Tara books, Karadi Tales, Young Zubaan, Eklavya, among others. English remains the main draw, but there is a publisher that’s looking at turning Scandanavian tales into Hindi. Then some like Duckbill are bringing in the concept of divorce and adoption into books in an evolving cultural landscape.
“Now there is a growing appreciation for every child to have access to a selection that has both windows [that allow them to see the world] and mirrors [that reflect their own realities],” she says with a smile. As I walk away thinking of walls, windows, and mirrors, it strikes me that’s it is a happy home to say the least – one that’s effortlessly brought out the child in me and given me new friends.
This essay was published on The City Story