“We enjoy the service aspect of being independent booksellers the most. We love serving the needs of our local community and people interested in learning about South Asian cultures and languages. It’s a pleasure for us to work with them directly and understand their needs.”
India Bookworld in Surrey, BC has been serving readers since 1993. Experienced and dedicated, the management team at India Bookworld works closely with librarians, teachers, medical professionals, government officials, and others to provide a wide range of books and resources. We spoke with co-owner Dr. Rajwant Chilana about the store’s incredible history, expanding into publishing, and his vision for the future.
You began selling books in Canada in 1993 – almost 30 years ago! Can you tell us about the history of your store?
When we immigrated to Canada in 1991, we observed that there were lots of bookstores for English/North American publications, but it was rare to find books specializing in South Asian cultures and languages. This was surprising given the growth of the South Asian community in BC at that time. With 35 years of experience working in public libraries, universities, and special libraries in Canada, the United States, and India, I felt I could address this gap.
Although I had a PhD in Library & Information Science and extensive professional experience, I initially struggled to find full-time employment in Canada. My wife encouraged me to explore business ideas related to books and, in 1993, we started a small home-based bookstore under the name of Asian Publications. Around the same time, the Surrey School District started teaching Punjabi courses in elementary and secondary schools and the Ministry of Education approved us as an official supplier for public schools across BC. We eventually also set up an online portal, which helped us grow our customer base.
After 20 years of success in running the business online and through our home, we felt the need of opening a physical bookstore that would allow customers to access a wide selection of books related to South Asian cultures, religions, festivals, foods, and rituals. In addition to English language books, we also wanted to offer books in various Indic languages such as Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Urdu, among others. In 2014, we expanded our business and opened one of the first physical South Asian bookstores in Canada – India Bookworld. We felt welcomed when our opening event was attended by authors, teachers, librarians, dignitaries, and many residents. Even the Prime Minister’s office and MPs sent us warmest greetings on this occasion.
Today, people come to our store to browse our collection and get advice about various information needs, books, and research projects.
You are a leading supplier of South Asian books to institutions like libraries, schools, and agencies. You also have a storefront in Surrey where customers can browse. How do you curate your collection? What books are most popular amongst customers?
Given my extensive background, I carefully select and import books and other materials for India Bookworld. I attend book conventions and language book fairs and often travel to India to visit publishers and learn about their titles. Over the last 30 years, our team has built strong relationships with publishers and distributors across India, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. I also work with language specialists who help us select new and popular fiction and nonfiction titles in a variety of South Asian languages.
We also curate our collection based on customer demand. For example, public libraries often send us profiles of subjects and we select fiction and nonfiction titles for their readers. Popular titles are usually related to Indian arts and culture, history, politics, religions, such as Sikhism and Hinduism, learning English, and astrology/numerology. Recently, we have been seeing more demand for books on self-help, motivation, yoga, ayurveda, health, and cooking. Surprisingly, many customers are also interested in books related to Bollywood – particularly biographies and autobiographies of celebrities. We have a separate children’s section in our store which includes language-learning, dual-language titles, picture books, board books, novels, poetry, comics, and educational CDs/DVDs. We also provide printed and audiovisual resources for teaching of Punjabi language in schools and universities.
Why is it important to you to put books by South Asian writers and illustrators into the hands of readers?
South Asian authors provide a different perspective in their writings and their style of narrative helps our readers connect with our cultural backgrounds and identities.
South Asians have come a long way since the Komagata Maru incident in the early twentieth century and are now functioning members of Canada’s cultural fabric and actively participate in all sectors of the economy. As South Asians get assimilated in Canadian society, this has given rise to friendships, mixed marriages, co-working, and customer relationships. As such, we see non-South Asian readers keen on learning about South Asian cultures, their history, languages, faith, and traditions.
As the South Asian population is growing in Canada, particularly in BC, we often see parents and grandparents seeking books that have main characters from South Asian backgrounds so their children can relate to the experiences of the characters and feel empowered. Many people who left the South Asian subcontinent decades ago now want to read stories about their roots. For example, they prefer narratives based in a village or a small town, stories about love, loss, struggles, victories, defeats, and anything that evokes a sense of nostalgia in our readers.
The rise of South Asian books being depicted in popular culture has also generated curiosity in our readers seeking works by South Asian authors. Movies based on works by South Asian authors such as The Namesake (by Jhumpa Lahiri), Midnight’s Children (by Salman Rushdie), The White Tiger (by Aravind Adiga) and television series such as A Suitable Boy (by Vikram Seth) and Sacred Games (by Vikram Chandra) have depicted compelling moments in the context of South Asian history.
In 2012, you expanded to include your own publishing program. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Our main goal is to lower the barriers to entry for South Asian authors in Canada. For most of the South Asian books inEnglish published in Canada and USA, most authors receive royalties for their published works. But unfortunately, the same cannot be said for South Asian books in non-English languages, such as Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, and others. These authors face many challenges because of the dearth of publishers willing to take on their projects, high costs of printing and binding in North America, and limited sales for their books. As a result, most local South Asian authors seek to publish their works outside Canada, often in their home countries. Many of these authors spend a good amount of their hard-earned money in the publication of their manuscripts elsewhere and must pay hefty shipping charges to bring these books back to Canada.
Since these books are published outside Canada, these do not fall under the purview of the Library & Archives Canada. These books are not available in the National Library for the use and preservation, but they may be needed for reference and research. It is our small effort to get these books published locally in Canada and provide these writers more long-term exposure and recognition for their work. So far, we have published three books through our program. We are also in touch with Punjabi writer’s associations of North America to find alternatives for South Asian writers who seek to publish and distribute their works in languages other than English, such as through the formation of a Writer's cooperative or through another agency.
Can you share some of your favourite books to sell (whether they are recent/new or backlist titles)?
There are many popular authors whose books are sought after but our customers. Among children’s collections, dual-language books are very popular. Translated works of eminent North American, Russian, and British authors are popular as well. Examples include Rhonda Byrne, Dr. Joseph Murphy, Robert Kiyosaki, Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare, Swet Marden, Dale Carnegie, and others. Among Punjabi writers, Nanak Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, Amrita Pritam, Sohan Singh Seetal, Narinder Singh Kapoor, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, and others are beloved. Among English writers, Khushwant Singh, Chetan Bhagat, Rajmohan Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ravinder Singh, Sadhguru, Shashi Tharoor, and others have a strong readership.
We have a separate section of award-winning books by local and international authors. For example, Geetanjali by Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize and has been translated into various languages. We also stock many titles every year that receive India’s Sahitya Academy awards for the best languages books. In 2014 Braj Dhahan, a Vancouver based businessman, instituted the Dhahan Prize for excellence in Punjabi fiction. So far, 24 writers from Canada, USA, UK, India, and Pakistan have received awards for their excellent contributions to Punjabi literature. There are also many other societies and organizations in Canada that recognize popular South Asian authors each year.
What is your vision for the store’s future?
We are planning to increase our inventory of books and reach more people and libraries. We want to expand by including more South Asian languages and e-books. There are many prominent award-winning Indo-Canadian authors who have published bestsellers in various languages. India Bookworld is developing a special collection of works by local authors and will be actively promoting their publications among local customers and libraries.
We also hope to involve more young people and foster lifelong reading habits in different languages. Some of our customers have asked us to host book reading clubs or literary festivals for South Asian writers and we are currently looking at options.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
We enjoy the service aspect of being independent booksellers the most. We love serving the needs of our local community and people interested in learning about South Asian cultures and languages. It’s a pleasure for us to work with them directly and understand their needs.
We’re also privileged to have many repeat customers including established librarians, teachers, researchers, doctors, and lawyers, among other professionals in our community. With our expertise and experience we feel proud to help librarians develop multilingual collections in public libraries to meet their patron’s needs. We also enjoy meeting with teachers from the Surrey School District and helping them develop Punjabi teaching and learning resources for their students and schools. We feel honoured to provide information and literature to university students and faculty as well.