In Conversation With...

siddhartha lokanandi

siddhartha lokanandi is the owner of Hopscotch Reading Room, an English language bookstore in Berlin that centres on non-western & diasporic perspectives. Their aim is to expand and deepen the experience of the non-western world in the realms of discourse and literature. They do this with an extensive and constantly growing selection of books, papers, and other material from the various publishing centres that flourish outside the Western orbit. They complement this with an extensive programme of events—readings, discussions, screenings and workshops and reading groups—that draws upon the vibrancy, political agency and the cosmopolitan texture of the city. Hopscotch Reading Room is guided by a vision of a world rich in fugitive visions and mongrel tongues; resplendent, unbidden.

siddhartha was born in Hyderabad and grew up in Odisha on the east coast of India. He got a scholarship to go to an international school in Wales that was funded by a German exile from Nazi Germany, called Kurt Hahn. Later he went to study in New York. In order to help his mother financially, he dropped out of school and got a job in a bookshop. After 20 years in NY, he moved to Berlin to found Hopscotch Reading Room.

Whose shoulders do you stand on?

It’s a very standard answer but true in this case: my mother's. Partly because it's financial, but emotionally also, I need her presence, just to know if the whole thing goes belly up I can close and go back. The better answer would be my parents because my father taught me some street-smartness which you need to be a bookseller, which these days is not totally steady business. To want to sell books comes from going to buy books from street vendors because we didn’t have too many bookstores growing up in India. There was one bookstore which was a once-in-a-year treat on my birthday. Mostly we bought a lot of used books from street vendors. Then the third is other booksellers, clearly. I very deliberately wanted to be a bookseller. I worked in publishing, I did many things, but being a bookseller is somewhat unique, different, so I decided I’ll do this. 

What do you wish you had learned in school?

That’s a very good question because most of what I am now I mostly learned outside school. I wish I had learned a little more self discipline, or self organisation. This is what I do now, it's a constant process of self organisation, learning how to do that and then imparting it to others, my colleague, and then to customers.

What have you learned recently that you would like to share?

Living in this country, I have learned that choosing to be powerless is a thing. People choose to be powerless in the face of things they see that are not fair or right because the social system here allows for that to be a viable option, and for life to continue. You can gently endure, because not much will change, but also because not much is allowed to change. (I’m speaking about the structure, the system which is a very top down system in Germany, very hierarchical.)

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration from the world. There is a lot of great stuff happening in the world. My job really is to channel this, to let this flow, so to speak. So, there are lots of great cultural producers, writers and so on, and what they do is inspiring and what they do helps me think about the kind of world I can contribute to. I choose to do this and what I do is constantly facing the world. There is no way to back out of facing the world. And it’s not for everybody. In fact that’s one of the reasons I’m a bookseller. Most people who want to work in bookshops don’t want to be booksellers, they want to be around books as a way of avoiding people.

When was the last time you changed your mind and what was it about?

Every day. Constantly. My whole thing is very fickle. Partly because I value flexibility, spontaneity, improvisational abilities, but also because I had to think on my feet for some of these jobs, or things I’m confronted with. 

What should you apologise for?

I’m quite direct and brusque. It’s really a problem. Also I have a very short temper so I get very upset in 30 seconds and then the next 30 seconds it’s gone. There is a lot to apologise for in the world, but on a very small level, I wish I was a little bit more even-keeled. So I can absorb a little bit more and be a little less angry. 

What should you never apologise for?

I think you should never apologise for trying to change the world. It’s very important. But having said that, there are pitfalls to that approach. 

Do you have a daily practice?

This will sound ridiculous but since the last two years, I have made an almost mantra to sleep enough. Sleep does the work of exercise, yoga, for me that’s what it does. It’s become a daily practice. Actually if I don’t sleep eight hours, I will make sure not to leave the house. I can already feel things happening in my body. 

You have spoken elsewhere about confusion and its importance. Can you talk about that? 

Confusion can unsettle you, even the degrees to which you are confused can unsettle you. And being unsettled, to me, should lead to curiosity. And that’s the problem here. Here, unsettlement leads to withdrawal. People here withdraw, they retreat into the social milieu to which they are most familiar with. That’s why [they have] the same friends since childhood. And for me if you want to change the world, you need to learn about other things of the world which is what I offer here. It often works, for example, in anglophone settings, in America or in the UK, I can really see that happening. Here I don’t. I see people coming, being overwhelmed and choosing something safe if they feel like they want to support me, which is also a very laudatory emotion, so they choose to buy something banal or that they can get anywhere else, or they walk out. I mean one in three customers walks out. 

You also describe this as a space for abstract thought and postcolonial thinking? 

Postcolonialism is part of abstract thought. A lot of people are capable of abstract thought. I just give it a front, unfamiliar, which happens to be a non white lens. You can display abstract thought, with a familiar litany of Western philosophers, you know Wittgenstein, Kafka, Kant and so on, but my goal is to let it come from other perspectives, which also creates tensions, it creates real tensions for people. 

What role does music play in your life?

It used to be a lot bigger than it is now, simply because I have become used to silence. Berlin is a remarkably silent city. (Yes and no. I live really near a busy road so there’s 24 hour traffic). But overall it’s a very silent city. I listen a little bit in the morning. Now it has become a way for me not to look at my phone, I listen to music and read a paper object, that has become a very nice way of doing it. 

What should we do upside down? 

We should hang from a place upside down. Yes, you should hang upside down. It’s not quite the same as burying your head in the sand but it’s somewhat similar. Let the blood rush to the head. It does something. 

The last book you read?

What I’m reading now, although I put it away for a while because I go through periodic disenchantment with this country, is a trilogy of detective noir novels set in Berlin, featuring a private detective called Bernie Gunther. These three particular novels are set in the years 1928 to 36, and they describe many things about this country in some acute detail. 

There is a lot of trafficking on the holocaust, so [Germany] needs to pay and so on, and I understand it, but living here, I see that it only thinks about the holocaust, it doesn’t think about relating to the world and the problems of the world in more contemporary, more useful terms. So it kind of circulates the trope of the holocaust, continuously, so it becomes, as some people have called it holocaust-kitsch. I don’t know if you know this but there is very little international history taught here except through the lens of holocaust history, so international history, global history is holocaust history - and it’s spoonfed.

Most of the books I read, I buy on the street. I don’t necessarily read a lot of the books I sell. I read enough about them. I read books that are so battered and so on, that there is one life in them, which is the one I’ll give by reading them and then they get recycled. 

When are you most human?

Great question, I don’t really know. I think when I am by myself maybe. Because then I’m more real, cause I’m faced with some of my own problems, then I think about them and try to share them with two or three people. 

What would the world look like if from a young age, children were made to read books from all over the world?

It won’t be utopian, but we certainly would not have, and I choose this very advisably, but like in America you would not have people voting for Trump, a man who seldom leaves his country, a man who is proud to not read. I don’t necessarily think that much will change generally, but we will definitely have developed more empathy. Because books create that space between you and the book, between here, and that goes inward, and then later on, it comes out. 

I was never a big believer in children’s books until I came here, which is a very active paper culture, kids touch, touch, touch, touch. They touch screens but reading, touching books is really ever present. [But] then I see that because there is no diversity in children’s literature here, there is curiosity, but no empathy. Because I see these customers in their 20s, coming here, from art school and so on, somewhat curious, but lacking empathy. 

Because there are many stories to be told which ultimately is one story. But we don’t really know other stories. I mean I carry a lot of German children’s books about the other, but again, it follows a pattern of western children’s books but it’s about co-relation, existing in time and space. I’m going to go with empathy. 

A question on your legacy: for whom do you want to open the path?

To all those who want to come here, who choose to come here. Because all things being equal people would come here more often if they had money and so on. So all those who choose to come here. The goal is for this to outlive me.

Mar 3, 2023

Let Me Think

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Oct 15, 2021

Why We Walk

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking.” — Henry David Thoreau

Oct 27, 2023

Seeds of Hate

“I believe that he who hates is destroying himself.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Feb 17, 2023

Why We Read

“As a reader, I have often felt the magic of literature, that sudden internal shiver while reading a novel, that glorious shock of mutuality, a sense of wonder that a stranger’s words could make me feel less alone in the world.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Oct 15, 2021

Why We Walk

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking.” — Henry David Thoreau

May 28, 2021

In Pursuance of Curiosity

“It’s not always easy to be comfortable in the space created by open questions. It’s tempting to hide in small rooms built from quick answers.”― Merlin Sheldrake