The Hazratganj boulevard starting from Jahangirabad Palace all the way to the intersection linking it to the Vidhan Sabha Road, is a scene of much activity, commotion and hustle-bustle throughout the day.
People ganj languorously, strolling, chatting, gorging on the famous basket chaat at the Royal Cafe or just window-shopping! The kinetic energy is very palpable. But amidst the clutter and clamour of the plush marketplace there is peace and quiet in the corner of the legendary Mayfair building in a sanctuary for book lovers.
Yes, we’re talking about Ram Advani Booksellers. This bookstore is a labour of love of Ram Advani who was born in pre-partition Karachi but the unpredictable designs of destiny made Lucknow his home for life. The man is not a mere bookseller, he’s a connoisseur! One is indeed transported to a bygone era while listening to his anecdotes from the rich repertoire of his life experiences.
“My father played an instrumental role in building this Mayfair complex as he was the administrator here. My father and Seth Gyan Chand Thadani came to Lucknow in 1926-27 in search of a new world, instead of going to Hong Kong or Barcelona, as many Sindhis do,” he asserts.
Indeed Lucknow proved to be a new world but few know that Ram Advani came from a family of leading booksellers. Their bookshop in Lahore was called Ray’s Bookshop which had branches in Rawalpindi and Nainital. In fact, few are aware that initially Ram was employed in Bishop’s Cotton School, Simla, where he made life-long friends with the likes of Ruskin Bond who was a student there. That friendship still holds. He had a job that was the envy of every young graduate. But the family business beckoned Ram that he opened a branch of Ray’s bookshop in Piccadilly House, Simla. Through the kindness of Acharya Kriplani, who was also a close friend of his grandfather, he got space in the Gandhi Ashram, Lucknow where he opened another bookshop.
“Though the opening was scheduled for February 1st in 1948 but Gandhiji was assassinated on January 30th and therefore we opened on February 15th, 1948. But after two or three years we were told to vacate the place and it was only because of the goodness of people like Mr. Larkins and Mr. A.P. Singh, then District Magistrate of Lucknow, that we got this place,” says the nonagenarian.
Nostalgia brims over his misty eyes as Ram reminisces about the good old days. Whether it was playing golf with Wajahat Habibullah, sharing a drink with Larkins at Mohammad Bagh Club or having animated discussions at his bookstore-cum-open house with the likes of Attia Hossein, V.S. Naipaul and Shanti Hiranand.
Ram symbolises Lucknow in letter and spirit. Especially in today’s times when the city is ever-expanding and in its cosmopolitan nature losing a lot of its charm. In those circumstances, Ram’s punctilious, sedate and staid demeanour is a happy reminder of the precious tehzeeb that Lucknow is known for. And just like the mere presence of books is soothing, even though one doesn’t read them, its the presence and aura of people like Ram that is like balm for the soul even though it is not possible to meet him every day.