Leaping Windows Comics Cafe: The Indo-Manga Connection II

Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

“It’s in the suburbs,” I was told. But what this means in Mumbai is not what it means in the States. Despite the unpleasant realities of sprawl in America, there is still a lingering notion that the ‘burbs are between town and country, combining the best of both: convenience without crime and congestion, green and fresh air while still being plugged into the grid. Not so in Mumbai, where suburbs means, simply, at the fringe of municipal limits and, more importantly, relatively affordable real estate. It does not mean freedom from big city troubles, for while things might be more spread out in the Mumbai suburbs, with more big leafy green tropical trees, the traffic is worse than in town and the roads are a permanent wreck.

I begin with this to preemptively dissuade readers from thinking of Leaping Windows – India’s first comics café, located in Versova, near-ish the sea just northwest of the large and tangled “suburb” of Andheri – through the clichéd American lens of “comics in the suburbs.” Leaping Windows is very much an urban institution. Were it not, it could not exist. Despite being geographically inconvenient for most of Mumbai’s population, Leaping Windows has done well enough to inspire a second outlet in Bangalore. This is thanks to a diversified business model. It not only has a café with a full menu, free wi-fi, and a quietish place for locals to come and chat or work. It also has a library with a collection of some 2,000 comic books (counting only the trade paperbacks and graphic novels) that you can use for 30 INR an hour (that’s 50 cents in your Richie Rich dollar). It also has a membership program through which comics can be borrowed, delivered straight to your door (4500 INR for a one year, approximately 75 USD).

Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

You might ask, considering the hassle, why don’t readers just buy the books? Perhaps Slumdog Millionaire and Katherine Boo have given you the impression that Mumbai is divided cleanly between haves and have-nots, and the haves have whatever they wish. These extremes definitely exist, but there is a large and growing demographic of have-somes, a.k.a. the highly heterogeneous Indian middle class. It is this middle that largely shapes Indian comics culture today. Leaping Windows is an instructive example of this on the consumption side.

Of course, comics culture generally today, across the world, is defined by the middle class. Let me explain how the situation in India is distinct. While by no means suffering, the bulk of India’s middle class is definitely pinched. For all the talk of India rising, inflation in the costs of rent and food and transportation in a place like Mumbai leave limited funds for luxuries. Foreign books fall definitively in that category. There are some English-language comics in India from domestic publishers that are reasonably priced (350-550 INR, or about 6-9 USD, is typical for a graphic novel). But those make up just a small fraction of Leaping Windows’ stock, and a smaller fraction of what people really want to read, which are the trade paperbacks from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and the like, and translated manga likewise from American publishers.

These are all easily purchasable online at or slightly above their full retail price in dollars. But when the average middle class family in India makes approximately 500,000 to 600,000 INR a year (8500 to 10,000 USD), in a city where average rent is 300-400 USD a month for a two bedroom flat (and much higher in many neighborhoods), you can easily imagine how daunting is the price tag of the newest trade paperback at $19.99 or the newest hardcover reprint at $29.99. Imagine, North American reader, paying three or four times for comic books that you already think are too expensive. Having English as your mother tongue in India is an incredible economic asset, but it also means that you might not be able to afford your tastes in entertainment. It can be cheaper to have a maid come to clean your apartment everyday for a month than to buy a single American graphic novel. Such is “pop culture” for the middle class in the developing world in the age of globalization.

That, as far as I understand, is the economic background enabling Leaping Windows to exist. While advertising itself plainly as a “café and comic library,” its real appeal, for the comics fan, is that it makes prohibitively priced foreign (mainly America-published) books available to local readers at a massively reduced rate.

During my afternoon at Leaping Windows, however, I used it more in the style of a Japanese manga café: as a place of respite from the big, bad, and currently monsoon-flooded city, where I could caffeinate myself to get through as many comics as possible in the allotted time, not because I can’t afford to buy the books, but because there’s no room for them at home. That was the goal anyway, but I picked up the DC Comics Classics Library of the early Len Wein and Berni Wrightson Swamp Thing ($29.99 retail, which is about as much as I have ever spent on a single night out in Mumbai, to give you a sense of scale) and the first Alan Moore Swamp Thing collection. I know the latter gets tons of hype, but the original stories and artwork from the early 70s are superb, no? Anyway, there went three hours, on just two books. I sat, literally and metaphorically, with my back to the wall of manga.

Bidisha Basu and Utsa Shome of Leaping Windows.
Bidisha Basu and Utsa Shome of Leaping Windows.

Before I got mossy, two of the three co-founders of Leaping Windows, Utsa Shome and Bidisha Basu, both transplants from Calcutta, submitted to an interview. I was lucky to catch them, for these days they spend most of their time in Bangalore, overseeing the second Leaping Windows, which just opened in early July.

What is the idea behind Leaping Windows?

Bidisha: When we first started off, we couldn’t afford a space. We started with the catalogue online and delivering across Bombay. The problem we faced by not having a physical space was that we were only getting people who already liked comics. There were no fence-sitters. There was no way of letting other people in. We wanted to introduce more people to comics, to convert people to this world that we ourselves enjoyed so much.

You felt that only a physical space could make that happen?

B: We felt that it would be good to provide an opportunity to come and browse and spend some time reading here, rather than having to take a membership plan, which is a much bigger investment.

To use the library today, what is involved?

B: If you come here to sit and read, it’s 30 INR [50 cents USD] an hour. No membership is required. The membership gives you the option of delivery. We deliver books across Bombay once a day. You order the book on the site, and it is delivered within 24 hours. If you order by 1030AM in the morning, it will go out the same day.

How does that work? Mumbai is a huge city.

B: We have two delivery boys. We usually divide the deliveries into two routes, one for the suburbs and one for town.  There are not more than 10-20 deliveries on normal days, so even though Mumbai is big, it's pretty well connected by public transport, and they manage to finish everything. The only time when this sometimes does not happen is during the monsoons and during the Ganpati festival, when lots of roads get blocked due to the multiple immersions [of giant Ganesha statues] that happen during the festival.

Leaping Windows, Mumbai.
Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

And how long does one have to read the book?

B: Seven to fifteen days, but we’ll start chasing you if someone else wants the book.

Does one pay by the book?

Utsa: No, there’s a three-month membership, a six-month one, and one-year. It’s 1500 [25 USD] for three months, 2500 bucks [42 USD] for six, and 4500 [75 USD] for the year. You can take as many books as you want, but only one at a time. We deliver the book to your house. We deliver on every day but Sunday. Pick-up and delivery are simultaneous. And how it works on the website is that you place a pick-up order then place a delivery order.

Before the physical store existed, this system was already fully operational?

B: At that time, it was like a few shelves of books in our house, quite a few shelves, which kept growing. Houses in Mumbai being what they are, it was a bit tough to have all of these books and our other belongings all in one space. It operated basically the same way as the delivery service now.

How did you publicize the service?

B: We were terrible about that, mainly using just Facebook and word-of-mouth. We tried Google ads and other things. At that point Utsa still had a full time job. I was the only one working on it full-time, while doing some freelance writing jobs on the side. We started it because it sounded like fun, not as a money-maker, but rather something we enjoyed.

U: We always wanted to start a library. When she first had the idea, we talked about it and realized that we couldn’t have a separate space because of the costs. So we thought the best way was to start it out of our home. There wasn't much planning initially. We had the books, we wanted people to read them. I think our first marketing effort was to rent a stall at the Bombay Comicon. We used to organize events showcasing new artists, events where comic lovers could gather and meet, and the word started spreading from there.

When was this?

U: This was in 2010. We started the library and then, within three or four months, started doing these monthly events at cafes like Mocha and Mojo in Bandra, which is a central location, so people from both Colaba [south Bombay] and Borivli [northern suburbs] could come. We hadn't even thought of doing events. Friends that were more marketing oriented said, look, you guys should do something to spread the word. We thought the best way was to get comic lovers together and work from there. And then Comicon happened, and then this space opened. That’s when things really got serious.

Leaping Windows, Bangalore.
Leaping Windows, Bangalore.

When did this space open?

U: April 2012, quite recently. When it started, it was the two of us, the café manager, and a librarian, just four of us. We were strapped for cash, strapped for time. We didn’t have deep pockets, and all our savings went into buying new books and setting up this space. There was no marketing budget, no time to even think about marketing. For six-seven months, we were too busy cleaning the loo! We did everything ourselves. We got lucky. People started liking the place and more footfalls were generated. Writers and directors who live in this area [Versova is near the Bollywood studios] started coming to the café to work. Membership increased. Still, in Bombay, it seems like people don’t have much time to read. We’ve been in Bangalore now for about a month, and the response there for the library is far superior to what we have seen in Bombay.

B: It’s hard to tell, though, because in Bangalore we started with a physical space from day one, where people could come and see the books, whereas in Bombay we started out quietly. No one knew who we were or what we were doing. The scale was much different.

U: The reading population in Bangalore is quite large. There are a lot of libraries already existing in that city, not comics, but other kind of libraries, and they seem to be doing moderately well.

Is Bangalore more of a comic book city?

U: I think it’s more of a reading city. A lot of people say techies are comic book nerds, but that’s not necessarily true. But there’s definitely more book readers.

Leaping Windows, Bangalore.
Leaping Windows, Bangalore.

When did the space in Bangalore open?

B: In early July.

So recently? Does it also have a delivery service?

B: Yeah, we wanted to keep that the same. More and more we’ve been sucked into the café part of it, whether we want to be or not. We try to keep it simple, but it’s not really an option.

U: In a city like Bombay, where the rents are high, where everything is really high, you need the café to keep the library running, which caters to a very niche audience, right now anyway. A lot of people just come and eat or have coffee, and that pays for the rent. It’s a constant tightrope walk deciding how many books or what books to buy each month. Once the books are bought, the overhead for the library is very low. Essentially whatever money we get from the library, we use it to buy new books and pay the delivery boy and librarian. The library doesn’t make enough to support the space. Without the café, we would have to work out of a garage or something. We break even. We haven’t had to put too much into the space, but nor do we take anything out, but that’s the case with any new venture. We knew we were setting ourselves up for two years of extreme financial hardship.

How do you obtain books?

B: We buy them. It depends. You just need one copy of a book. We actually bought a lot of books from a friend, who had a huge collection, with obscure things and things you wouldn’t be able to get on Flipkart [India’s main online bookseller], things that were expensive or out-of-print.

Leaping Windows, Mumbai.
Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

How many volumes do you have?

B: In Bombay, about 2,000 volumes. That’s only the graphic novels. Single issues are separate. We've taken many of the best single issues to Bangalore, because that’s a nicer space and there’s a librarian there all day to make sure that they don’t get stolen.  We had Lone Wolf and Cub single issues, Bone single issues, which are all in Bangalore now.

U: We like to keep the single issues where we can keep a closer eye on them. We spend most of our time now in Bangalore, because of the work involved in setting up a new space. We always wanted to have a single issues room, and Bangalore provided that opportunity. So there we have a room dedicated just to single issues. You can’t borrow them. You have to sit and read them there. There’s Bone, Preacher, Berlin, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . . .

What percentage of your books are imported?

B: Most of them. Even if we buy them in India, they are imported. All of the manga are imported, most of the independent graphic novels. There is an Indian shelf, but it’s small. That’s why I asked you earlier [over a chicken burger prior to the interview] whether there’s no one who wants to start publishing manga in India, because it would make the books a lot cheaper and lot more people would buy them.

U: The only Indian publisher that seems to be making some noise is Harper Collins, in terms of getting rights from established and serious artists, like Sarnath Banerjee, Amruta Patil, Appupen. It seems like they might go into comics more seriously. Penguin does some, but not so many.

B: There’s also smaller Indian publishers, like Holy Cow, doing Hindu mythology, where everyone looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They did a launch at the space once. We’re happy to support anyone who is committed to doing comics. Comics are still not really a recognized profession.

U: But Bangalore Comicon this year had a turn out of 60,000 people. It might have been mostly for the merchandising stuff, but there needs to be those steppingstones. Some people might pick up the book first. Some people might watch the movie first. Some people get into cos-play, and the fun things that happen around that, and then go and read the books. Definitely, the number of readers is increasing by the day. But the quality of Indian comics is not so great just now. I feel like the problem is that there are not many good storytellers.

B: We are talking about Indian comics in English, not Indian comics in vernacular languages, like Bengali. We talked about trying to translate those, but we talk about a lot of things . . .

Mural at Leaping Windows, Mumbai.
Mural at Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

How many members do you have?

B: 500 or so, but they are not all active at the same time. Some memberships expire and others are renewed.

How about visitors to the library?

B: Weekdays are very thin. Weekends we will get about 25 a day.

Are they mostly regulars?

B: Most regulars will end up taking a membership, because it makes more sense money-wise. Especially in a city like Bombay, no one wants to come so far. Out of those 500 members, I think there are very few who have actually come to the space to exchange their books. They might come once a month to see what there is and make a list of what they want to read.

Do artists come to the store?

B: Sometimes. Lots of people who like to draw. That top wall in the café was drawn by customers who asked us if they could paint on the wall.

U: More writers than artists.

Comic book writers?

B: No, film writers, scriptwriters. A lot of production and direction people live in this area. That they are self-employed helps a lot, because they need to have meetings frequently, and because they work out of home, so they like the change of pace of coming and working here.

Yogesh Chandekar and Saumin Patel, Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter (2012), a Bollywood graphic novel.
Yogesh Chandekar and Saumin Patel, Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter (2012), a Bollywood graphic novel.

Is there a Bollywood-comics connection?

B: Not with us. There have been a number of movie-comic book tie-ins recently, but they are hardly worth turning the pages. But the Hollywood upsurge has helped us a lot, with all the superhero movies in the past couple of years. That’s helped.

How many books do you buy a month?

U: Right now about ten new books a month, but we also have a backlog of 400 books we need to catalogue. It depends on how much money we have, but we try and maintain a minimum of ten new books a month.

What do people want to read?

B: First you have to keep updating series that people are already reading. Especially with the manga, at first we only bought about ten volumes of a series, just to see what people were interested in, then updated those. Some titles have remained at four or five volumes because no one ever reads them.

What are the most popular manga titles?

B: Bleach, Naruto, One Piece. Those we keep updating. A lot of people like Lone Wolf and Cub, but that we picked up as a complete series. Akira is quite popular. So are Battle Royale, Death Note, Monster. It depends on the age group. Older readers go for Lone Wolf and Vagabond, younger for Bleach.

Do manga lovers in India only read manga?

B: Pretty much, it seems like it. Other types of readers cross over more.

Leaping Windows, Mumbai.
Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

You also have a lot of American superhero titles.

U: Not too many, actually. We have more here than in Bangalore. They are very popular, but the reason we don’t stock them heavily is because they are so easily available on the net in pirated form. In Bangalore, we are really trying to grow the collection of independent graphic novels, things that people might not know about, so they can try something new out. Superman and Batman, everyone knows.

B: The independent section tends to attract people who read books, but have never read a comic before. It has things like Blankets or Habibi or American Born Chinese, or Joe Sacco. It’s more versatile, it can accommodate different types of reader. It makes the crossover from a novel to comics much easier. Many of the people who have never read comics before begin in this section and then they start reading everything.

Do you have a lot of people show up who know nothing about comics?

B: Yeah, there will be someone from the café that comes down into the library [which is in the basement] while they are waiting for the bill and not come back up for six hours. Then they start coming every day. That’s the best part of the job.

U: I think the best was when someone got on their motorbike in Lonavla [100 km away] and came all the way just to read comics. They had a coffee, read for three hours, and then went back again. The numbers have never been great, but the idea was to give people who wanted to read comics the opportunity to do so.

B: The thing is, comics are really expensive in India. They probably are everywhere, but especially so here. If I wanted to read The Sandman, for example, and I had to buy it, I would end up spending like 10,000 INR [170 USD], which is a really large sum in India. It would go a really long way. So people tend not to experiment, they only read things they know are good. Here they can pick up something for the heck of it, and it doesn’t really matter if they hate it or love it, they have nothing to lose. With that same amount of money, you could have a membership for two years and read our entire collection! Not really, if you count the days, but you could read a lot.

Do people come to read Amar Chitra Katha or other classic Indian comics titles?

B: They do, but mainly to reminisce about old times. It's funny, the kids don’t read them at all. It’s mainly people from our generation or older, who are like, oh wow, how nostalgic.

Is Tintin the same?

B: No, it’s very popular with kids still, like Asterix.

Let me back up and ask you about the inspiration for the space. I believe you [Bidisha] spent some time in Japan. Is that where the idea came from?

B: It definitely popped into my mind there, while I was on the JET Programme [Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, organized by the Japanese government, which places native English speakers in Japanese schools]. I wasn’t a huge comics fan before. I read them, but I read all kinds of things. I didn’t know any Japanese when I went, so it was hard to find a middle ground with my students. Since I liked reading, I thought comics were a good way. When I started reading Bleach, I realized there were sites like Manga Fox, and I thought, thank god I don’t have to buy them, I can just stay home and read them on my superfast Japanese internet connection, which was great because I had no social life the first six months there. That’s how it started. I read a lot, and became slightly obsessed with manga. I read Dragon Ball a bit in Japanese. I can understand the language if I hear it, but I was never good enough to understand the slang and shifting writing and katakana stylizations.

Mange Cafe, somewhere in Japan.
Manga and internet cafe, somewhere in Japan.

Did you frequent manga cafés?

B: Only a few times, because there was nothing there I could really read. The first time I went was because we couldn’t find a place to spend the night, so we slept there.

Did the idea of Leaping Windows come from Japanese manga cafés?

B: Kind of. But it was more the general culture of manga. In Japan, people of every age read comics, which coming from India was a real eye-opener for me. On the trains, I would even see old men reading manga. But here it has always been thought of as the domain of youngsters and children. That was the first thing that struck me, that comics can be accessible to everyone, that there can be so many different types of comics, that anyone can be a reader. And after I started reading more manga, I also started reading more Western comics. My interests developed together. And then I started wondering why no one in India was reading manga, when it was so addictive and so much fun.

Was the original delivery service designed as a manga propagator?

B: I don’t think so. It’s hard to say. The thing with the delivery service was that we didn’t have much contact with the end user. It was all digital and online. So it was hard to tell what impact a book was having, if someone liked it or not, unless they wrote and said something. It’s much more immediate now. I can tell better what people think. There were a lot of people who joined just to read the manga. Even if they had already everything online, they still wanted to see and feel the physical copy.

What is your [Utsa] comics background?

U: I have been reading them since I was four or five, starting with Tintin, Amar Chitra Katha, and Asterix, before moving onto the independent stuff. It’s been off and on. There have been times when I didn’t read comics for two or three years. Then when she came back from Japan, she proposed the idea to a common friend [Koel Chatterjee], who gave me a call to see if I would be interested. I said, obviously! It really excited me.

B: The irony is that none of us are fanatics. We each have our likes and dislikes. We wanted the space to be accessible to people like us. We didn’t want people to be intimidated by this world, to think that they had to know all the references in order to enter it. We wanted to create something more inclusive. Not a space for comic readers, but a space for more people to become comic readers. The collection has also been built with that idea in mind. Not just serials that require long-term commitment, but single stories, one-book comic books.

To go back to the Japan connection, did the idea to do a combined café and library come from there?

B: Definitely. But we had to tweak it, of course.

Manga and Internet Cafe, somewhere in Japan.
Manga and internet cafe, somewhere in Japan.

The other major attraction of the manga café is television and internet access, and all-you-can-watch porn.

B: We have free wi-fi access. But not in little booths with boxes of tissues! That would be a very bad idea in India. So that part was scrapped! Even the food we changed. You hardly see vending machines in India, so the café here has proper food and real coffee. But the idea of having a space where you can sit and chill and work, do multiple things in one space, along with a comic book library, that definitely came from Japan.

Is there anything that you want to but cannot do in this space, not because of money or time issues, but because of society? Are there certain kinds of comics you cannot stock?

B: We don't have any yaoi or hentai comics here.

Is that a conscious choice?

B: We had some, but . . . We also had Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, which we put way up on the top shelf. Then we had this illustrated guide to sex. Everything that we have had that is even vaguely pornographic, actually, has been stolen. So it doesn’t make sense to buy them. Lost Girls was really really expensive. It’s this huge tome. And you have to make sure the kids don’t read them, because those are the first things they want to read.

Do parents complain? Like, I don’t want my kid going to Leaping Windows anymore, he’s reading too many trashy comics now.

U: No, we’re careful about that. Actually kids were a group we only allowed later. Initially we were 18 and above. We also have a child filter on the online delivery system.

B: But just the other day I figured out that some 12 year old had successfully read and returned Kick-Ass volume 2, which is so incredibly violent. Thank god his mother didn’t realize. When I called him to ask about a book, his mother picked up the phone. Then I got suspicious. I thought, I hope you haven’t seen the book your son just read!

Mural at Leaping Windows, Mumbai.
Mural at Leaping Windows, Mumbai.

Do people here care about the ratings on the back of books?

B: Not really. Actually, this kid came the other day and pointed out to me the rating of the book, just so that I knew it was okay for him to borrow it. That’s why Dragon Ball went up to the top shelf. Dragon Ball Z is still down. But the original has a lot of toilet humor, flashing breasts and stuff. So this kid told us, hey, I think you should really put this comic book on the top shelf.

I never thought of Dragon Ball as problematic when I read it as a kid.

B: It is! Most parents don’t care what their kids read, but you will get ones who do. I mean, look at what they are watching on television, and Bollywood movies.

U: One parent was okay with her son reading The Hunger Games, but not X-Men. She said, I know he’s exposed to all sorts of things, but the pictures are more voluptuous than I care for. That was the first time we had that kind of problem.

If you wanted to stock pornographic comics, could you? Could you even get your hands on them?

B: There’s a law against obscenity. We could get them, but I don’t think we would be allowed to distribute them.

Have police or anyone ever come in and snooped around?

B: No. People are usually just too surprised by the store itself. A comic book library?! It wouldn’t ever occur to them to link it with pornography. People still think comics are just a kids’ thing.

And finally, where did the name Leaping Windows come from?

B: The name actually came from a story about my friend’s brother who tied a towel around his neck as a cloak and jumped out of their first story window thinking he would fly. Thankfully no harm came to him. But the name took off from there, kind of a leap of the imagination and thinking of the panels or windows in comics, a leap from window to window.