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Kitab Khana: One Of The World's Top Bookstores

By RAJESH KARKERA
December 23, 2021 08:05 IST
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Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com heads to south Mumbai to discover why Kitab Khana is considered one of the best bookshops in the world.

Video and photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com. Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

The Financial Times, London, in late October listed 20 most 'awe-inspiring places to get your literary fix'.

On it were the most brilliant bookshops in the world... from Lagos, Santorini, Mallorca to Tangiers, Buenos Aires, Marfas, Paris and London and more.

Guess what?

Mumbai made it to the list with Kitab Khana, located opposite the iconic Flora Fountain in the southern part of the city.

The entrance to Kitab Khana

IMAGE: Mumbai's Kitab Khana was voted one of the 20 most brilliant bookshops in the world by The Financial Times.

The entry for this south Mumbai bookstore read like this: 'When the motorcycles, shouting hawkers and stalls sizzling with frying snacks get too much, Kitab Khana -- a spacious, wood-panelled bookshop in a colonial-era building in Mumbai's southern Fort neighbourhood -- makes for a welcome respite from the heat and bustle.'

'The store, named after the palace libraries kept for Mughal emperors (it means 'a home for books'), stocks an intriguing variety of Indian and international authors, including collections in languages such as Hindi and Marathi, with staff on hand to provide guidance and cosy nooks in which to read.'

Kitab Khana

IMAGE: Kitab Khana was considered in the same category as the famous Strand Bookstore, New York, the storeyed Peter Harrington, London, and the glittering El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, among others -- for the wonderful refuge it provides to bibliophiles.

It's not so difficult to realise why Kitab Khana, with its personal touches for booklovers, features on this list when you meet Amrita Somaiya of the Somaiya Group.

She and her husband Samir started up Kitab Khana ten years ago as a project dear to their heart -- out of the love of books.

It's a passion that runs through the family. On the odd day their elder daughter might be found arranging books at Kitab Khana. Samir, who named the store, and their twins pop in often. Amrita allots time in her demanding schedule to personally choose authors and inventory, especially for the children's books section.  

WATCH: Kitab Khana Co-founder Amrita Somaiya on why she and her husband Samir decided to open a bookstore.

For Amrita, Kitab Khana, she says, is a labour of love. The sentimental attachment has grown even stronger because her father Jitendra Mistry worked on the interiors.

An architect, woodworker, art collector and dear parent, who Amrita tragically lost to COVID-19 late last year, Mr Mistry's work at Kitab Khana is nothing less than a work of art. This one can easily see, if you travel to this quaint corner of Fountain district, Mumbai, and step into a bookstore named Kitab Khana.

It is called a bookstore and sure it is a bookstore when you view it from the outside.

But when you enter, the vibe you feel is quite different from any other store you might have entered before.

Kitab Khana

IMAGE: The children's books corner is Amrita Somaiya's favourite spot in the store.

There is a special welcoming atmosphere -- a feeling that makes you want to come inside, sit, get comfortable and browse as many books as you can and not go home. So welcoming is Kitab Khana, that you are quite sure that you will never be told to leave the store and you may end up sitting inside reading a book even after Kitab Khana closes for the day!

There is history in every nook and corner of the bookshop. Every pillar, every wall tells a story. Mesmerising.

WATCH: How Kitab Khana got its name.

Kitab Khana caught fire last December, amidst the pandemic that had jolted our lives. The place almost burnt down completely and only a few books were saved.

The store itself survived, was reborn, and stands strong today, thanks to Jitendra Mistry, who foresaw the need to maintain Kitab Khana's original structure and iron pillars. Mr Mistry himself succumbed to COVID-19 in Ahmedabad, shortly after the fire on December 9, 2020.

In spite of the extensive damage to the book stock, his death spurred Amrita into carrying his legacy forward, along with her husband Samir.

WATCH: Amrita Somaiya on how her children became avid booklovers.

When Kitab Khana was being built, "The costs kept going up, and my husband would keep telling my father: 'Papa you know, this is not going the way I intended it to go. The budgets are going out of hand'," recalls Amrita.

And her father would say: 'Well, if you want what you want, then this is what it will cost.'

Kitab Khana

IMAGE: Jagath Tekkatte -- the general manager of Kitab Khana and director of Somaiya Publications Pvt Ltd, who worked for years together at Mumbai's legendary Strand Book Stall till it shut down -- organises the books on the shelves in Kitab Khana, a place he has made his home.

The Somaiyas knew they would never recover their investment into Kitab Khana. But then, this is their "labour of love" and not a "commercially-motivated" venture.

"Of course, we want to sustain it," says Amrita, "Because the idea is that Kitab Khana (their fourth child) should live forever and books should live forever."

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RAJESH KARKERA / Rediff.com