A bibliophile’s lament

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On the Sunday that followed the bomb blast that killed 12 people just outside Delhi High Court, there were no booksellers in Daryaganj’s weekly book bazaar.

Let me first tell you about this place. Well, it’s the best thing about Delhi. You see there are two kinds of people in this city. Those who have been to the weekly book bazaar at Daryaganj and those who haven’t. The first group doesn’t want the others to know that each Sunday, the mile-long footpath between Delite cinema and the Daryaganj footbridge (which was dismantled last year) disappears under the ‘maal‘. The ‘maal‘ being the seller-speak for novels, memoirs, whodunits, quiz books, classics, encyclopaedias, coffee-table books, pulp fiction, foreign magazines and, sometimes, rare first editions.

So, I went there this Sunday as always but… “It’s closed for security reasons because of the blast last week,” a paanwalla told me. I stood on the empty pavement and laughed. Trains were still chugging in Old Delhi station, chaatwallas were still frying tikkis in Chandni Chowk but this booklovers’ den was a security threat.

I can live in a Delhi minus the Red Fort, but not minus its bookshops. Imagine, what if Daryaganj’s Sunday Book Bazaar were closed for good? What if the Bahris, of Khan Market’s Bahrisons, shut down their 48-year-old store and return to Pakistan? What if the John Mayall fan Ajit Vikram Singh, of Basant Lok’s Fact and Fiction bookstore, burns his eclectic collection and turn the shop into a blues club?

Not possible?

In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy said, “Things can change in a day.” Sahi boli, things can change. Bookshops can close. Booksellers can disappear. And no, I will never read Anna Karenina on an iPad.

I knew a guy who would set up his stall each Sunday just below the footbridge in Daryaganj. He was old, crafty and, unfortunately for the bargain-loving buyer, very aware of the value of his books. From the private collections of Civil Lines bungalows in the genteel North Delhi, he would get me the rarest editions. Sample this: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1879), John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1860) and the most precious – all volumes of the 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Published in 1911, this edition is the most cherished if your primary purpose of reading is to seek pleasure. The volumes remained under my bed and I would use them only for weight lifting. But I always planned to read them… one of these days.

However, over the past few months, I haven’t been seeing the old guy in his usual spot. Somebody said he has left the book business. I strongly feel this loss.

But worse things have happened.

In Khan Market, a joote ki dukaan has replaced a coffee table bookstore. KD Singh’s store, charmingly called The Book Shop, has moved to the too-quiet Jor Bagh, where it must be missing Khan Market’s footfalls. In South Ex II, there was a Crossword bookshop atop the Ebony showroom. The then President KR Narayanan was a regular there. He has died, and so has that store. Meanwhile, The Bookworm’s Anil Arora, in Connaught Place, closed his store due to lack of business.

But worse things have happened.

In August last year, my library was flooded with rainwater and some of my volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica were ruined. I somehow coped with the loss.

But have you ever wondered what is the fate of the personal library of a bibliophile who has lived and died alone? The answer is: the collection finds its way into second-hand bookstores.

One Sunday afternoon, two years ago, while browsing in Daryaganj’s book bazaar, I came across a row of old hardbounds, all well kept. There were works by authors ranging from Agatha Christie to Charles Dickens to Katherine Mansfield, including many books on cinema. The bookseller, Muhammad Javed, told me that these volumes had come from the house of Amita Malik.

Malik’s name had lately appeared in newspapers. A film critic and radio journalist remembered for bringing world cinema to the notice of Indians, she had died in February that year in South Delhi’s Kailash Hospital, aged 87. Malik was suffering from leukaemia. According to Javed, the film critic had no children and her relatives and domestic staff, having no seemingly better option at hand, did away with her collection of around 2,000 books by selling them to a rag-picker. That man sold them to Javed for Rs 15,000. A steal, really, as the collection had rare Marcel Prousts.

The Assam-born Malik had been living in Delhi since 1946. With years she had become an institution and until she was admitted to hospital, I’m told, she would regularly go to India International Centre in the evenings. Though I never spotted her in Khan Market’s bookstores, I’m certain that she must have been a frequent visitor there.

On her death, Delhi-based Outlook magazine said:

“Amita Malik’s sad and almost-solitary death was preceded by a few years in a state of homelessness, under roofs not her own and gradually forgotten by those who once feared her, toasted her, loved her, even hated her.”

After her death, her books too were homeless. Javed said that he had more of Malik’s books at his godown in Jamia Nagar. He had planned to bring them in bunches to his Sunday stall in Daryaganj. As I was leaving, I could not resist buying James Joyce’s Dubliners. A green-coloured hardbound, it was a bargain at Rs 20. On the opening page was this inscription: With love. For Amita. 1.5.’45.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.