Last week we wrote about Uncle Moosa and his single-handed mission to take books and reading to the remotest parts of North East India.
Here is the story of another man with a similar mission, one that he has been pursuing with undiminished passion and fervour for over 70 years! He is Mahendra Meghani. And this is the story of Lokmilap, the bookshop that he started, and which became a symbol of all that he has devoted his life to. And one to which I too have old links.
In the summer holidays when we used to go to Bhavnagar, our ancestral hometown, one of visits most looked forward to, was the one to Lokmilap. For us this was treasure house from which we were allowed to select a few books. More precious, because it was perhaps the only one that stocked English language books, in addition to some of the best literature in Gujarati. We often met Mahendrabhai there, who was also a family friend, and he would show us the new arrivals including the beautifully illustrated children’s books from the Russian People’s Publishing House.
In those days this was as much as we knew about Lokmilap. Over the years as we grew, we learnt more about Mahendra Meghani and his tireless mission to take literature to “the people” in every way possible.
Mahendrabhai’s own lineage in literature goes back to his father, the famed Gujarati litterateur Zaverchand Meghani, who was given the title Lok Shayar or People’s Poet by Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that while Zaverchand took literature from people’s tongues to people’s hearts, Mahendrabhai took literature to every person, home and society.
Born in 1923, Mahendrabhai, graduated from high school in Mumbai, and joined L. D. Arts College in Ahmedabad for further education. It is said that when he was getting ready to move from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, his father advised, “It gets very hot in Ahmedabad, so make sure you cover your head with a topi”. Complying with his father’s suggestion, Mahendrabhai started wearing the khadi cap which became an integral part of his attire, and remained so through the years. After two years in Ahmedabad he returned to Mumbai to join the Elphinstone College, but left that to join Gandhi’s Quit India movement. He did not return to college, but instead helped his father with his journalistic work. After the death of his father in 1948, Mahendrabhai went to the US to study journalism at Columbia. Living in the International Student’s House in New York, he would, every day, buy two newspapers and peruse the many pages. It is here that he also discovered Reader’s Digest. And he found his calling! He decided to return to India and start a similar magazine in Gujarati. And so, on 26 January 1950, India’s first Republic Day, was born Milap, a monthly journal in Gujarati which set high standards of language and literature, and yet garnered a wide and faithful readership.
Tired of the hectic life in Mumbai, Mahendrabhai moved to Bhavnagar in Gujarat where the journal Milap engendered the publishing house as well as the book shop Lokmilap (meeting of people). It is through these that Mahendrabhai lived his passion to take good literature, at affordable prices, to as wide a reading public as possible. The bookshop, as he said, “included books from all publishers, but not all books from all publishers.” Lokmilap’s vision was not simply to sell books; they wanted to open windows to the best in world literature, to give people a perspective about life, and how to live life. They published hundreds of original Gujarati books, but also translated and abridged versions of classics of world literature (many of them translated by Mahendrabhai himself). More critically, the books were very nominally priced, to suit even the shallowest pocket. They introduced “pocket books”, initially to take poetry to the people, but later diversified to include a vast range of literature. Priced then, as low as 50 paise, the books sold in lakhs.
In 1969, the Gandhi Centenary year, he compiled a special collection of 400 books that celebrated Gandhi’s life and message, and a booklet titled Discovering India Book Exhibition. The books were exhibited in many countries across the world with the condition that the sponsoring organisation would buy the set, and donate it to a local library or community centre.
Mahendrabhai himself has travelled far and wide, always clad in his simple khadi attire, sharing his love for language and literature with wide and diverse audiences. In Bhavnagar he was a familiar sight, riding his bicycle no matter what the weather. His tireless quest to share the best with everyone had many facets—at one point hand grinding wheat and baking bread which he distributed, to starting a film club which screened some of the classics of world cinema, and to which he would bring people who had never before been exposed to such experiences.
The man and his mission have inspired and touched millions across generations and nations. Last month, on India’s 70th Republic Day, Lokmilap also marked its 70th anniversary by announcing its closure. Expressing the sentiment that everything that has a start will have an end; what better than the end that is brought about by the ones that made the start? For all of us whohad taken Lokmilap as one of those comforting points of stability and continuity in lives and cities that have changed so much, it is a sense of losing moorings. But secure that the seeds of the institution have been planted deep and strong.
A man whose mission has brought the love of letters to millions, Mahendrabhai, at age 97, carries on with his writing and reading, somewhat frailer in body but indomitable in spirit.