Illiterati Café and Bookstore

In the foothills of the Himalayas, a few hundred meters below the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamshala, on a quiet, winding, monsoon-eroded road next to a motorcycle garage, sits the bookstore/café Illiterati. Illiterati has no sign, only a chalkboard out front with a weekly quote, often from Fernando Pessoa, hanging above the bohemian characters who frequent the balcony.

Within, an airy, light-filled treasure trove of books greets you, with thick, hand-made wooden tables, fresh flowers atop them, a piano and other instruments for guests to play at whim, and, at the back, two balconies that open up onto the Dhauladhar mountain range. 

Although a few of the books, which cover an impressive range of genres and cultures, are in Hindi, most are in English, which, given the obscurity and rarity of some of the titles, required no small effort on behalf of the proprietor—Yannick Ramaekers—to hunt down in bookstores across India and transport back. Nearly every inch of every wall is covered in books, as is the grand, central coffee table, strewn with the new titles picked up, browsed, and abandoned there each day.

Ramaekers had soon cultivated a haven in the mountains where people from around the world—citizens of fifty-plus countries might walk the narrow paths of nearby Dharamshala any given day—could talk about anything and everything.

Ramaekers, a middle-aged Belgian man who speaks fluent Hindi and has been living in India for more than a decade, opened the bookstore café in 2012 as a means to support his family. He didn’t know how to create a bookstore when he began and claims he still doesn’t know how to operate one, but he loves books, and the adventures around India to collect enough for a bookstore were pure joy. Perhaps indefinite at first, his aims evolved as the character of his eccentric little bookstore evolved. Perhaps influenced by the characters drawn into the atmosphere he created, Ramaekers had soon cultivated a haven in the mountains where people from around the world—citizens of fifty-plus countries might walk the narrow paths of nearby Dharamshala any given day—could talk about anything and everything, an open forum where less accepted or more controversial thoughts could be expressed by people from a multitude of cultures. 

Somewhat repulsed by commercial enterprise, Ramaekers allowed news of his café to spread almost exclusively by word of mouth, sometimes even actively sabotaging his business by confronting patrons who he thought were diminishing the atmosphere. Although it has never thrived financially, Illiterati quickly became a cult institution among travelers, expats, Tibetans, and Indians from around the subcontinent, all drawn to its unconventional essence, the characters one might encounter there, and an atmosphere where on any given night literally anything might be discussed.

Before his departure to Belgium in 2016, Ramaekers could be found hanging around Illiterati most hours of the day, either outside playing chess or inside brooding, playing piano, dancing, or entertaining patrons and friends with conversation. After business hours, little changed except the front doors were locked and curtained and only the regulars could be found within, reading, discussing, singing, dancing, playing cards, and carrying on much as they did during the daylight hours. Some nights patrons would secretly drink wine and whiskey. Some nights they removed the tables and would swing-dance. During monsoon (Dharamshala has one of the worst in India), Illiterati would become drenched for months with sorrowful artists and dancers, lounging around all day next to the writers, monks, and local children (and village dogs), lost in books, waiting for the rain to end. During winters, it would close down completely and only the odd locals, who hang around all year, would emerge from their cold huts to gather around Illiterati’s fire and drink, smoke, play chess, discuss, argue, laugh, and teach.

Although Ramaekers departed India in 2016, Illiterati has been kept alive by a group of local entrepreneurs who couldn’t bear the idea of its demise. Since then, little has changed, with Ramaekers’s guiding spirit still at the helm. 

An essential stop for all literary-minded travelers in the Himalayan region of India, Illiterati is also one of the most important English-language bookstores in India. Located below Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamshala) on Jogibara Road, it has no address, but every taxi driver knows where it is.

David Joshua Jennings was born in Oklahoma in 1985. His photography, which began as an outgrowth of his nonfiction writing, explores globalization, alienation, desire, and cultural dissolution.