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Royal Book House, an old shabby book store, lies behind the Governor’s residence at Imphal. Longjamcha Sanathoi Piba and Hijam ningol Longjam ongbi Phajabi Leima, a couple in their mid fifties, run the Royal Book House at the heart of Imphal city. It has been more than a decade, they have been selling books on history, politics, society, and culture of Manipur written by mostly indigenous authors, both famous or less well-known ones. For those who are interested in these matters, it is the right place to find something to read and explore.

We met Phajabi Leima and Longjamcha Sanathoi Piba and interviewed them about their bookstore. They told us that they opened the bookstore at Keishampat Leimajam Leikai back in 2009 as they became more aware of the importance of books and the culture of reading in building a society that understands its roots. The couple said, “We started the bookstore so we can make the books that deal with our culture, society, politics and history available to the people. It is a space where we can publish the old manuscripts by collecting them and sell them here.” 

Phajabi Leima used to teach Meitei mayek to school students free of cost. She was part of the linguistic movement. She transliterated puyas from Meitei script to Bengali script so that they become accessible to a large number of people. She told us that she became interested in the manuscripts written by the Meitei maichous because of her father, Hijam Ibobi, who was the pandit achouba of pandit loisang. She said, “after I got married, I had to earn money so I started running the bookstore with him. I am more focussed on the bookstore now. So, I am not able to work on the puyas much. But, I still try.”  Longjamcha Sanathoi Piba, her husband, transliterated the palace manuscript of Cheitharon Kumpapa (Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur) into Bengali script. Manipuri Sahitya Parishad, Assam published the book in 2015. Before he started the bookstore,  he was an activist in the movement for cultural revivalism.  For him, the bookstore is a continuation of his activism. 

Lonjamcha told us that when they started the store, there were some people privately publishing these manuscripts but there was no shop like this. They both felt that it was necessary to read books on our indigenous culture and society if we have to work for the society.  Unfortunately, they suffered a setback in 2013 when the government had road expansion projects. They lost their store at Keishampat Leimajam Leikai. For nearly two years, they struggled finding a space in the Imphal market area for their bookstore. In 2015, they finally got a space for the store at Governor Road and they started again. Their motive is still the same, publishing the puyas and making it available to the people. Remembering those days, he said, “It is difficult for the Meitei businesses to get spaces in the Imphal market. We could not get a space for the shop for almost twenty months. It was a setback in the business.”   

While narrating the difficulties in publishing the puyas, Longjamcha says, “since these manuscripts are important, some owners do not want to make them public by publishing them. They want to hold on to them. Also, there have been cases where scholars have borrowed these manuscripts and never returned them to their owners.” Given these things, it is sometimes difficult to obtain these manuscripts, let alone publish them. For Phajabi Leima, “These manuscripts written by the maichous should be made available for everyone to read. So, I am working towards that end.”  

They say that things have changed since the time they started.“The demand for Meiteilon translation of Bengali novels used to be high earlier. Now, it is not the case. Instead, more people are buying puya-s and reading them. We even see young students coming here and buying puya-s these days,” Longjamcha told us. He feels that this trend is desirable but he also cautions saying that “we also see a loss of interest in books that deal with Vaishnavite tradition in Manipur. But we need to read these books also because we need to understand the society more thoroughly. We cannot just stick to a few books. We must read extensively. The society as a whole must develop a culture of reading books.” He further added, “Whenever I tell these things to people, they think I am selling books to them [laughs].” He worries for the business because he thinks “the habit of buying books and magazines and reading them has declined because of the internet and social media.” Though the business is not very profitable and sometimes it becomes financially challenging for them, both of them are dedicated to the cause and have decided to continue what they have been doing.

Talking about the difficulties in the business, Lomjamcha told us, “There are times when we do not sell much and it creates a lot of difficulty, but when there are bulk buyers, the situation becomes better. Nevertheless, we have regular customers, scholars and activists who come and buy books.There are also times when people come to buy books because there is an issue going on in the state. They want to know more on the matter. So they come to buy the books.” Another roadblock to their business is the difficulty in getting new books from the writers and publishers. Many refuse to give them books since their business is not that big and there is not much return. Having said that, the Royal Book House is also a favourite go-to location for many scholars and researchers to find some of the rarest books on the history and society of Manipur.

Longjamcha added, “It is a challenging business as we do not sell school books but we have so far managed it as it is also important to sell the books that we sell here. We keep some college books and state civil service books but most of our business is in books that have to do with Manipur’s history, politics, culture and religion.” He also told us that “the COVID 19 pandemic has severely affected his business.” The situation is becoming more challenging for Lonjamcha Sanathoi and Phajabi Leima. But they are hopeful that if their Royal Book Store gets more support from the scholars and authors, things will definitely improve.

Also read: Puya, Laichat amasung Physical Distancing

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By Michael Samjetsabam

The author is a scholar of history of philosophy and Meitei history.