City Obituary – Book Man Ramesh Chandra Jain, Ansari Road & Gurgaon
Passing of a book man.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
His bookstore rarely pops up in cool slick Instagram stories.. But then venerable scholars are not known to be social media savvies. And they are the exalted ones who happen to be staunch followers of Ramesh Chandra Jain’s establishment. It is widely considered to have one of the cuntry’s best collection of books on Indian history, politics and society.
Bookseller, publisher and distributor Ramesh Chandra died on 20 May, following a brief illness, aged 80. He is survived by wife, Usha Rani, and two daughters, a son, and their families. He lived in Gurugram, where he was born, and shuttled daily to Delhi to direct his book trade.
Situated on Ansari Road, Manohar Publishers & Distributors resembles an Ali Baba’s cave of books. The browsing hall is a maze of crammed shelves. Regulars are treated to sweet milky chai. They included the late scholar Simon Digby, who would make two piles of books; one for immediate reading went to his apartment in Nizamuddin West, the other would be shipped to his home in England.
When it opened in 1967, the shop was known as Prabhu Book Service. It was the second outlet of the original Gurugram namesake specialising in rare old books. That store was started by Ramesh’s eldest brother, late Satyaprakash, in Nai Subzi Mandi. The initial collection was assembled from books randomly acquired at the Sunday Book Bazar in Daryaganj. Ramesh later joined Satyaprakash’s business, along with their other brother Vijay Kumar ( Gurugram’s most distinguished bookseller, Vijay presently runs the iconic Prabhu). Back in 1967, the three brothers opened a shop on Ansari Road. Subsequently the family business was divided and Ramesh received the Ansari Road branch. He renamed it after his father, Manohar Lal. Ramesh was 25.
The initial period was tough. Rescue for the young entrepreneur came from the US, where about 18 universities set up academic centres of Indian studies. Scholars who joined these centres needed specialized books on India. Ramesh would help them source the books. He would also send catalogues to those American universities. Gradually, he picked up repeat clients within the academic circles. Word-of-mouth publicity also followed. In 1970, Ramesh diversified the business by debuting in publishing with Sikhs and their Literature, authored by an American scholar at the University of Missouri. It was the first of the 1700 titles to be published by Manohar, so far.
Meanwhile Ramesh gave up active work about a decade ago, letting son Ajay hold the reins, himself indulging in a passion for coin collecting. Whatever, at the fag end of his life, he must have been a satisfied man at least on one account. The address across the road from his shop was disconcertingly popular as a landmark—the headquarters of Oxford University Press. Over the years, most of OUP’s offices moved elsewhere in the city, leaving only a showroom stacked with books. Ramesh would still say that “I will truly arrive when people will start saying that Oxford is in front of Manohar’s and not vice-versa.”
Today, Amazon’s warehouse stands where OUP was. While Ramesh’s legacy is thriving with five floors, 30,000 books, and production of 40 new titles every year.
Ramesh Chandra Jain, 1943-2023