Quaint book café in Shimla, inspired by Kullu’s, a vibrant cultural landmark today

An innovative experiment in Kullu inspired a similar initiative in Shimla, where the book café, managed by jailed convicts, has turned into a vibrant literary hub, attracting the city's creative fraternity. Such has been its success that three more are being planned.

One summer day in 2015, Rakesh Kanwar, a young IAS officer who was then deputy commissioner of Kullu, happened to walk past a dilapidated old government building on his way from his office, located next to the historic Dhalpur, also called Dassehra ground. Known for his innovative ideas and public outreach efforts, Kanwar was shocked and dismayed seeing the dirty building and its poorly maintained interiors.

But the building was full to capacity. It was Kullu’s public library and was filled with the town’s reading enthusiasts, both young and old. The building and its contents were crying out for attention, and Kanwar was just the man for the job. Returning to his office, he summoned his officials and decided to transform the old library building into something which the people of Kullu had not seen ever, or even thought of.

Turning the dilapidated structure into a classy Book Café, a unique experiment not tried out in any other Himachal Pradesh town.

“Joined at the hip with a freshly refurbished building, the (Book) café is a newly added attraction, fronted by a large ground, which has long been used as a resting place for deities during Dussehra festivities,” wrote Puneeinder Kaur Sidhu, a noted travel writer, a few months later. “The bookshelves are stacked with an eclectic mix of reading material in both Hindi and English and visitors are welcome to browse, read even, while the preparation of their favourite beverage or bite of choice is underway.”

“To create, or re-create, this Book café in the old library was an idea that had been floating in my mind from my visits broad,” recalls Kanwar, who is now secretary to the Governor. “In some towns in US and other countries, a rich culture of reading and engaging in activities for the enrichment of life, creating innovative spaces to just think and relax have become popular. I read a lot of literature on how and what such spaces should look like. I also scanned some pictures and videos on the Internet before embarking on renovating the library into a book café. Nearly Rs 70 lakh was spent on this. Now, when I read reviews, blogs and travelogues of noted Indian and foreigner travellers, or local people sending compliments, it gives me a lot of satisfaction”.

New must visit cafe

One fallout of this officer’s idea happened not far from Kullu, in Shimla. Located at ‘Takka Bench’, a pre-Independence vantage point next to the town’s iconic Ridge, the Shimla Book-Café is a must visit landmark today. It is not just a place to taste some of the best beverages, made and served by jail inmates with grace and warm hospitality, but a favourite haunt of the town’s literary figures who often gather here at weekends and other special occasions.

The credit for creating the Shimla Book Café goes to Pankaj Rai, another young civil servant, posted as Commissioner, Shimla Municipal Corporation. “I was solely moved, motivated and inspired by Rakesh Kanwar’s experiment in Kullu,” said Rai. “The place where Shimla Book café stands today proudly was an ill-maintained public toilet, which was neither usable nor restorable. The foul smell emanating from the toilet, a big black spot on the Ridge, was literally polluting the city’s reputation. When I discussed my plan to knock-down the toilet and use most of the space for a Book café, the then city Mayor Sanjay Chauhan readily agreed”.

The whole ambience of the site was changed. Lawns were developed, the natural environment of the area comprising tall deodar and other trees was restored. A new aesthetic structure was built by demolishing the foul-smelling public toilets. The new Book Café was designed with book shelves, reading space and service area for tea, coffee and snacks.

The books were donated by citizens, including Minakshi Chaudhary, a noted author of “Ghost Stories” of Shimla, who is also Kanwar’s wife. The Book café has books on subjects ranging from literature, spiritual matters, poetry, general knowledge and fiction, besides a separate section for children’s books. Evenings are packed with children and young people besides tourists, including foreigners.

Managed by convicts

Rai introduced another innovative idea when Director General of Prisons and Correctional services Somesh Goyal suggested that the Book Cafe allow services to be handled by convicts. Not all visitors to the Book Café are aware that the venture is run by convicts serving life terms at Shimla’s Kaithu Jail, situated 7 km from the Ridge. Initially, four jail inmates were entrusted with running the café, which opened its doors in 2017.

Today, Jai Chand, 50, a convict serving a life term, is the most familiar face at the Book Café. He, along with three other inmates, were selected as part of the correctional service on the basis of good conduct in the prison. Goyal got them trained at leading hospitability venture hotel Radisson. Chand leaves Kaithu Jail in the morning around 7 am and returns before sunset, after doing his day’s job at book café, which is open from 10 am to 7 pm.

Jai Chand is the most familiar face at the Book Café. Pic: Pradeep Kumar

As one walks into the Book café, a smartly turned out Jai Chand and his companion Ram Lal greet the visitors with a smile and question, “ Kya Sewa karun, Sir. Chai ya Coffee?” (What can I do for you, Sir, Will you have tea or coffee). In all 17 prisoners, all life convicts, are doing jobs outside the jail in Shimla. They also include three women who work at local beauty parlours. The others run outlets opened by the Prisons department to sell products like bakery and handicrafts made by the prisoners inside the jail. There is no supervision or checks required on them. They are a reformed group earning their livelihoods and finding acceptability in society.

Vanshika Sood, a Shimla-born girl now working in Bengaluru, who came with her friend appreciates the idea of a ‘book-café’ with convicts handling the services. “I read about it sometime back and wanted to drop in,” said Vanshika. “How nice it really is to see these men. After all, they are also part of the society and have been given a second chance to live a part of their lives outside the jail walls”.

The café’s success is also due to Shimla’s culture of reading and interest in culture. The British took pains not only to build some of the town’s architectural landmarks but also left behind some cultural legacies like theatre (Gaiety theatre stands as testimony to this), clubs, ball-dances, fetes (at the famous Annadale ground) and special gymkhanas. Over the years, Shimla‘s literary activity, its art and cultural shows like the Shimla Summer festival have attracted celebrities.

“Shimla’s climate, environment and hill life-style are compelling factors to foster creative engagements in literature, poetry, theatre and folk art,” says S R Harnote, a noted literary figure who heads Himalaya Sahitya Sanskriti Avam Paryavaran Manch (HSSPM). “The Book Café ‘s popularity is due to two factors: one jail inmates running the venture successfully and second our literary meets at the café.”

Protesting privatisation

Last month, when the Shimla Municipal Corporation decided to float open tenders for offers to run the Book café, Harnote and other well known literary figures of Shimla took to social media to raise a revolt against handing over the Book Cafe to a private player. Harnote even led a delegation of writers to Pankaj Rai to dissuade the Municipal Corporation against any such retrograde step that could kill the spirit of the Book café culture and also divest the convicts of their earning and the correctional opportunity.

The corporation, however, hasn’t yet dropped the move arguing that it will earn revenue if a private entrepreneur takes-up the venture. “The arrangement with the prisons department is an ad hoc one. We will continue to provide the same services and retain the concept but management will rest with a professional, not with prisons,” Rai told Citizen Matters.

“We run three to four other ventures in town through these jail inmates as part of our correctional services,” said Somesh Goyal. “We have rationalised the staff at the Book café. Others run outlets at the state secretariat and High Court to sell products made in the jail by convicts. They are doing an outstanding job. I wish the Municipal Corporation understands the spirit and lets those poor guys continue in service and enable them to assimilate with society.”

The writers’ group led by Harnote has motivated Rai to take the Book café experiment to the next level. Three new sites, mostly Municipal Corporation’s properties in the town, have been identified to replicate the experiment. “Three new book cafes will come-up soon at Sanjauli—a most happening locality and gateway to Shimla from apple-area, Chotta Shimla, next to the state Secretariat and Tuti-Kandi, close to the Shimla ISBT,” said Rai. “I have also chosen Boileu Ganj ward, 3 kms from Himachal Pradesh University campus for a Book Café”.

All the new ‘book cafes will have modern and smart facilities for visitors with separate reading rooms and activity areas for students, youths and senior citizens. The funds will come from the Shimla Smart city project to create a chain of facilities that hopefully will transform the town into an altogether new kind of popular hub.

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