Sonali Verma explores a one-of-a-kind left-wing bookstore in Delhi that has become a unique cultural space for idea exchanges and community involvement.
Every rickshaw puller at the Shadipur metro station knows his way to the Mayday Bookstore and Cafe or “bayaasi number” as often identified by its address. Amidst the hubbub of the ‘Shaniwar Bazaar’ at Shadi Khampur in New Delhi on a hot summer afternoon, it is not a task to notice the dull yellow coloured door at the far end of the street full of vendors. The motto of the ‘Eight-hour movement’ with a twist, “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for books and coffee” adorns the door, announcing the presence of this left-wing niche bookstore in a place you’d least expect it to be.
The Bookstore and Café was founded four years ago, on Mayday of-course by the publishers Left Word Books. The bookstore is not only one of its kind in the city, but is also home to Studio Safdar, (named after martyred theatre activist Safdar Hashmi), the adjacent theatre performance space started by the left- wing street theatre company, Jana Natya Manch.
When Sudhanva Deshpande, the director of Left Word who also moonlights as an actor, opened the bookstore in a part of the city which is not known to be frequented by the likes of people who are enthusiastic about art or literature, he was pleasantly surprised that people started to thank him for choosing West Delhi as the location.
This community space is home to actors, theatre enthusiasts and creative minds of all kinds. It is also a centre for film screenings and can be hired for performances too. What might have appeared to be an intellectual desert initially turned out to be the exact opposite since the bookstore opened.
The plight of independent bookstores is no secret, there are hardly any left in Delhi. Therefore the success of Mayday is important as it gives you hope that all is not lost. Deshpande runs the bookstore not with any commercial principals, but exactly how a book store ought to be run—with passion. The bookstore doesn’t earn any profits but wants to spread a culture of reading. “You need many more such spaces and you need them in offbeat places. You’ll be surprised of what an impact such a place starts to have.” The presence of Mayday in the area led to the brisk business of Rupa Ji next door, who as Sudhanva claims makes the best samosas he has ever eaten. The rickshaw pullers too have profited with a rise in their business. Furthermore, one of them even confessed that his customers who come to the store are more polite and do not haggle with them for the mere 10 rupees fare for the journey from the metro to the store. The rickshaw-wallahs are also welcome to watch the theatre performances and to fill their water bottles, which is helpful on a hot summer day.
The store promotes and sells independent publishers. Books of history, caste, gender are just a few of the many categories they have. “You won’t find the latest bestseller in my store”, says Deshpande. Among the many photographs in the room, the black and white ones from the Jana Natya Manch grab the most eyeballs. On the other side of the store, is the ‘used books’ corner donated by people who have some spare. The used books are sold for as low as 25, 50 and 100 rupees. From J.K. Rowling’s books to a collection of Amitav Ghosh’s novels, you can find almost everything you are looking for under one roof. Mayday is one of the very few places where you can discover books that you didn’t even know existed. Deshpande, like many of us, is saddened by the dearth of independent bookstores in Delhi. “The experience that an independent niche bookstore provides is not available online where suggestions are based on your browsing history or previous purchases or at a chain bookstore where you don’t have a lot of options.” No wonder Romila Thapar on her first visit here compared the place to the bookstores in Paris. The space has a cafe too, but it mostly functions on important events and gatherings.
Being at Mayday on May Day is actually a thing.
A day long programme of performances, music, speeches and readings is conducted to mark the occasion of the opening of the bookstore. Book lovers from all over the city pour in for the book sale every year. The next time you’re in Delhi on May Day, you know where to be.