Meera Govil: Bookshop owner
Our Bell interviewer is Ruby who put together this wonderful interview. Thank you Ruby!
The Bell: How long have you been working at the bookshop for?
I opened bookshop 15 years ago so I have been working every day apart from a few holidays that I take. So you can do the maths.
The Bell: Where were you born?
I was born in India, in a small town called Dehra Dun, which is right in the foothills of the Himalayans; you know, the big mountains. But I grew up in the capital city, New Dehli.
The Bell: Was the food nice?
The food was always and has been always very yummy.
The town where I was born was the place where Basmati rice is from, so I am a great rice lover.
The Bell: What is your favourite author or book?
Oh, now that is going to be a problem.
You see, over all these years, not just as being a part of the bookshop, I have always read. To say who is my favorite author is very hard, as I do have lots and lots of authors I love and then there are authors that I am discovering everyday and I still haven’t got to know them.
I just finished a beautiful book yesterday last night called Flora. It was written by an American author Gail Godwin, it is one of the most beautiful books written and inspired through the eyes of an eleven year old. I was just mesmerized to see how well she captured an imaginative eleven year old and her voice, the town, the history….so if you asked me and pushed me to the wall.
When I was growing up, Thomas Hardy was one of my most favourite authors. He wrote beautiful, sad, romantic stories set in the English countryside. I was growing up in very steamy India but my school had a wonderful library and a great librarian. It was my dream to read from A to Z and all the authors on the bookshelves. I would start every term, and then I would go back again if I hadn’t read them all to discover more A’s on the shelves.
So, I read every single book and poem written by Thomas Hardy. I still remember the beautiful language, the landscape and the stories woven with coincidences, and also the sadness of life.
Since I have had the bookshop, I guess one author who stands out in my mind is Richard Flanagan. He wrote a book called Death of a River Guide. He is a Tasmanian writer who sets his books in Tasmania and gives a whole history of the place through the eyes of a river guide who takes you down the Franklin River. It is quite an adventurous trip that quite a lot of people take but in telling the story of that river and history he does a lot more than that.
As a child, I grew up read a lot of Enid Blyton. Her books were not as commonly available as they are now so every birthday I would get a new Enid Blyton or Secret Seven. I really enjoyed every single one of them.
With the contemporary writers I love Sonya Hartnett. She writes I think magnificently. Her stories are almost like fables. When you stop reading them you think perhaps this is what she meant or there is another layer to this which I didn’t get the first time.
I love her writing. She doesn’t write very often, but when she brings out a new book I can’t wait for it. Although they are meant to be for teenagers and younger readers but sometimes books cross all generations.
The Bell: Do you have any pets?
Yes, I do. However I don’t call him a pet I call him my friend.
It is my dog Sheroo. In Hindi, my language, it means lion. He is a mixture of dingo and red heeler because when we went to the lost dogs home, to find a puppy, I asked for a red heeler, and they said yes there is a red heeler. He was only six weeks old, and he was gorgeous. I got him and now he is 16 years old.
I bought him to the shop once or twice. However he loves his space and home. He is a bit puzzled about the rest of my life, but he has companionship at home. My mother lives at home so they are very good friends.
The Bell: My brother Oscar said that once he saw a dog here but he couldn’t remember when…
Yes he did, it must have been the one-day that Sheroo came in.
What has been your most exciting moment at the bookshop?
I will tell you a secret. I told you I have been doing this for 15 years? Everyday I get up at 7.30 and there has not been a day in the whole 15 years that I have said, “Oh no, I do not want to go to the bookshop.” I really, really look forward to coming here. I have a big garden, I have other things, I have family and I look after all of that but I am always excited about coming here because it means that I can share who I am through my bookshop. I am so lucky to have this huge world of ideas and stories that I hope people will walk into. And it is great the shop is in the heart of the town.
So that’s been very good but I guess the most exciting time in all these years has been one event that we organized for a man called John Pilger. He is a very big international star, and a very great journalist and writer. He came from the UK to talk about his ideas and his books.
We started off sending off invitations. We were going to do it at Montsalvat. We had 300 bookings and then we had 300 on the waiting list because Monsalvat’s hall could not take more than that. We asked Montsalvat what we could do and they didn’t have any answers. We looked outside Montsalvat and saw a big paddock. So we asked if we could have the event there and they said you can except you are going to have to do everything yourself.
So my husband and I and somebody from Eltham College helped us with a tractor and they pulled all the chairs out. I quickly sent emails to everybody and said that you can come except you cannot come in your cars, you must walk or you must share your cars and you must bring your chair with you.
So people bought their own chairs. They came sharing cars or by walking.
John Pilger said to me, “What if it rains?”
I said, “Well, if it rains, it rains.”
In fact, when I took him around Monsalvat it started spitting a bit, so he said, “Oh, dear”. I told him not to mind because people were still going to love this.
But it stopped raining and when he gave the talk it was very, very inspiring. It was about being courageous and honest, and facing up to the world when there is injustice. He spoke about the need to speak up and not to accept it whether you are a writer, artist, storyteller, you must find a way to speak against the injustice that is happening, especially for people who are very oppressed.
So he spoke very wisely and very interestingly and there were all kinds of different people, young and old, there. John Pilger loved it and he wrote back and said that he was a friend of the bookshop for the rest of his life.
We had never done an event like this, out in the open and so impromptu. So, I suppose it was beyond expectations.
The Bell: Do you think that books can change our lives?
I think they can, especially with this example that I have just given. I There are children who I first met as five or six-year-olds, holding their mother’s hands, who are now 20 years old and have gone to university.
I have had a few people come and tell me that they attended an event with Tim Flannery or they attended an event with Robert Mann or they attended something that was quite out of their normal comfort zone of reading but that they were so inspired that they have taken up international law or that they have gone on to be a doctor or something. When we asked them what happened and they say we heard this man or this woman come and talk and we were so awestruck by what we can do with our lives, so I think books do change lives.
But also by reading books. Every book changes you, because every book opens up a different landscape, a different geography, a different history. Sometimes they are just about people, but then it lets you know about people, different kinds of people who you may not be able to meet in your small life or you find out more about them.
So, unconsciously and consciously, the good books, when I say good books I mean books that are beautifully written, have good language and have a great story or a great piece of information and they are designed gorgeously as well as something you would like to cherish.
When you look at a book you think how many years have gone into making this. Literally a book can take up to ten years, before you can actually put it in your hands. I have heard so many writers say that it has taken them ten years to write a book.
Can you imagine that? That’s like every day they would sit down for at least two hours if not more, write, then re-write, then re-write. So when we read and then we put it away and we think oh my goodness we have read a story but we haven’t known the story behind the story.
And that is why I think when people have time to reflect on books, they will change because they will think of all the time and effort it takes to create a thing of beauty.
The Bell: Have you written a book yourself?
Long, long ago when I was in India I have wrote books, which are basically textbooks for teaching English. But they were fairly creative, so I tried to think from the children’s point of view how they came into a classroom and what kinds of things would hold their interest, what kinds of news stories, what kinds of essays or ideas they would be interested in rather than what teachers always wanted to talk about.
So I wrote the book from that point of view and I put in a lot of creative exercises at the end, not just questions and answers but also ways of doing collages and different ways of doing expressive things. So those books were called explorations and they were geared at grades 6, 7 and 8.
As India is such a populous country they went right around the country and I think lots and lots of people have read them…but that was another lifetime ago.
The Bell: How many authors have you interviewed at the bookshop?
I have not interviewed but I have showcased or I have bought them out to Eltham…but again I will let you do the maths because although I am a businesswoman I am not very good with maths.
For fifteen years, on an average, every week, we have had a writer. Sometimes even we have had two or three.
I said this to James Button yesterday, who is a very interesting political writer. He told me, “There can’t be that many writers within Australia”. But there are and that is the beauty of this wonderful literary culture that we have in our country and because our authors are for babies, for teenagers, for adults, for retirees, for gardeners, for chefs, you know all kinds of readings we have done. There really are that many because we also nurture new voices, fresh voices, their debut writing.
I will give you an example, yesterday we had James Button, on Sunday we have Sonya Hartnett, then the next Sunday we have Steven Lochran who is a young teenage writer and his book Wild Card and the week after that I am helping the library with Jane Goldman, a chef.
So you see every week and you can look at my Facebook I have listed all my events since about a year ago. If you multiply that by 15 times you will see how many there are.
What has been your saddest book you have read?
I have to go back to the one that I read yesterday because it is very, very sad. It is also very beautiful and it is also very funny.
So what can I say…it’s about this young girl who has lived most of her life with her grandmother. Her mother died when she was much younger so her father and her grandmother have bought her up. She has her mother’s cousin come to look after he while her father goes off to work somewhere else in another town. This woman who comes to look after her comes from a country town and has got very simple ways of doing things, she is a good cook but she is not very sophisticated. But this eleven year old though feels very sophisticated because she has been bought up by her very sophisticated grandmother and her mother was a teacher so in her thoughts and imaginations she puts down her mother’s cousin as someone who looks after her. She also looks at all her friends and her life around her and finds herself as quite an outsider because she has had this very strange upbringing.
But it also turns out that her father has been involved in, when he has been away working to try to get some money, in making the atomic bomb that blew up Hiroshima.
The interesting part of this story is you don’t know any of this at the start or even in the middle and it is all done very, very cleverly bit by bit so when you come to it you get such a shock…including the character herself. She is so amazed that this is what her father was doing. Her father also didn’t know what he was doing as they never told him what the chemicals were they were putting together and for what reason.
So when he found out, and everyone found out when the news was out and the papers proclaimed it. It was then the family and the town found out. Many people were happy as they believed that the Japanese were now going to be defeated but there were a whole lot of other people who felt that this was so wrong that 60,000 lives had been destroyed in this manner and then the ending is quite sad but there is still hope that life will find a way out.
I don’t want to give the ending away but I was thinking about it last night and I could actually recommend this book to lots of different people.
It made me very sad afterwards but I thought this sadness was a good sadness because of what we have seen in Boston this year. How these things happen, and what these stories are, and where is the real truth, we need to know these stories and read these stories over and over again.
Who has been the author that has most impressed you?
There is a writer and her name is Alexis Wright. She is an indigenous writer and she hasn’t written many, many books but whatever she has written, she has written from the heart and she has been very brave to keep her own voice.
There is the kind of storytelling in certain cultures which is more like oral story telling, like when I am speaking it is not how I would write but if people can put that storytelling into the paper then you are reading something very different. You are reading someone’s real voice and her upbringing and her culture.
So her books are very interesting and they also gives you a lot of insight into the history of indigenous people and the love of the country, the love of the sea and the love of stories and how stories completely inform their lives.
So if you see a bird, you get very connected to the bird. If it is a cockatoo or a kookaburra there is something more than just that, and if you once can imagine that, then many, many times in the morning or the evening if you hear that you think there is some magic in this.
Why does the kookaburra call at exactly 7.00 in the morning at my house and then he calls again at 7.00 in the evening and it has been going on for twelve years. What is this? There must be some mystery about this? Even I don’t get up at 7.00 every morning.
So it is really that kind of writer who tantalizes me.
Another person who I have loved is Arnold Zable who lives in Melbourne. He comes from Jewish origin and his parents came out of the Holocaust.
He lives and talks and writes a lot of historical books, which are kind of between fiction and non-fiction. He went back to his parents home In Poland and wrote Jewels and ashes, which was kind of a tracing back of what happened to his parents and why.
Then he wrote a lot of books about Carlton and growing up there. He also wrote about his wife who is Greek and Greek migrants who came out to Australia very early on in a book called Fig tree. He wrote about the Greek men’s love of boats and their love of journeys and how they came across and then the kind of things they did here.
So he has always been following people who came on big journeys. I guess I have travelled very far to come here so I love those kinds of stories about journeys and life.
What role does a bookshop play in a community?
Well I guess the community will have to tell me that, but I think it does many things. One it breaks up the strip, like there is a bank, a real state agent, then there’s a restaurant and then you find a bookshop, which I think is quite a surprise.
I also think it is a lovely place, not just because it is my bookshop but I think any bookshop is a great place to find a few peaceful moments to escape from all the noise and hurly burly, so you can come and spend time here and look at the shelves, talk to people and find out about and discover books.
I think that because it is based on ideas and stories it is a different kind of business. So we are selling ideas we are not selling hair dye or costumes or shoes we are selling something for the mind. So I think that is quite important and in a small community it is a very important meeting point for people who meet around not just food but ideas and then I think the bookshop also introduces people to the stories behind the stories, otherwise you would normally just get a book and that would be the end of it. A bookshop like this which does encourage writers to come in and has been a part of its philosophy from day one; to have this happen then it gives everyone an opportunity to come along and celebrate words and writing and so on.
How would you like to see your bookshop being remembered?
I would like it to be here. I always think that this bookshop will be here so that it never goes into the memory space in that sense. But I would like it to be known as the heart of Eltham. I would like it to be known as the beating heart of Eltham where people discover their imaginations and they discover beautiful, beautiful stories that they haven’t though about or heard about and a place where writers, especially Australian writers will find a way to be bought into the world.
Because once a book has been published, then what happens? It goes into the library so there is one place to showcase it; then if the library can possibly keep all the books it is good, but if not the bookshops have to be the place to bring these people out and also to create events and spaces for them to be in.
So I think I would like the bookshop to be thought of in that manner. It’s an interesting business. People often ask me whether I make a living from it and I just say that it is extremely hard work behind the scene lies many, many hours of very careful selection of books, presentation of books, tidying up, keeping them in alphabetical order and thinking of ways of doing good displays so people will look at the stories.
Also I think that no one is going to be a millionaire out of a bookshop but perhaps you could earn as much as a teacher does after many, many years and no holidays. So any holidays that you take are tricky but very important.