A dying world

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With a cloth tied to the end of a wooden rod, the bookseller is busy cleaning the shelves – “wooshaaaacck” goes his duster. Puffs of dust rise all around me. “We have to do it every morning,” says Rakesh Chandra of the New Book Depot, Connaught Place, Delhi’s colonial era-district. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to touch the books. It gets so dusty.”

My dear Pakistani friends, the world I’m telling you about is vanishing. It’s like as if I’m in a museum. The bookshops, as we know them, are coming to an end. And I’m not just talking about reading John Grisham on iPad or Kindle. In India, more and more of us are ordering books from websites like flipkart.com, the desi amazon.com where you order books on the net and pay by cash on delivery. It’s a wonderful service. You get books that you won’t get in your neighbourhood bookstore and you get them at a good discount. In the last month, I myself ordered about 15 books from Flipkart. This means that independent bookstores will soon die. Before that happens, I must tell you about New Book Depot. It’s urgent. We need to appreciate things when they still exist.

Mr Chandra, the bookshop owner, has eight people on his staff, but every morning, he leads the battle against the Delhi dust. Finicky about his books, he occasionally gets into tiffs with customers who show no respect for the bound volumes. How I love that! “There are a few who do not hesitate to put a piece of paper on a book and write on it, without realising that this will leave an impression on the book cover,” he says. “When I object, sometimes they are mortified and apologise, and sometimes they say, ‘Who do you think we are?’”

With an accent that is more British than that of the British, this 54-year-old gent says, “Yes, I’m eccentric and I think it’s a good thing.”

Mr Chandra belongs to that dying breed of booksellers who are in the trade for the love of books. A reader of “light fiction” such as novels by Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsyth, John Grisham, Dan Brown and Dick Francis, his bungalow in Jorbagh, one of Delhi’s most upper crust neighbourhoods, is filled with books. “There is an actual relationship between books and me.” This passion, he insists, was what made him join the business, not because the shop belonged to his father.

On December 1, 1946, lawyer Kuldip Chandra bought New Book Depot from a French couple, who had started it in 1925. Taking me upstairs to his office, which was once the living quarter of the previous owners, Mr Chandra says, “After graduation from SRCC (Sri Ram College of Commerce), I joined (my) father (in his business) in 1976. He died next year. Since then, I’m managing it alone.”

Sitting down on a large leather chair that faces the portrait of his father, Mr Chandra looks down from the open office into the floor below. His son, Uddhav, is sitting on his chair – handling customers, dealing with the cash. As we talk, the son occasionally shouts up to Mr Chandra for author enquiries. “I had chosen my son’s name with much care,” he says. “While researching, I discovered that Uddhav was the one person besides Arjun (in the Hindu mythology) to whom Krishna had narrated Bhagwad Gita.”

Although Uddhav has started spending time in the bookstore, the father says, “At the moment, he is confused. To force something on him that he may not like doing may end in a… clash of civilisations.”

It is difficult to imagine the changes that the next inheritor will bring to this bookshop. Mr Chandra has retained its old-world charm of low-hanging fans, high ceiling, rosewood shelves and rickety wooden stairs. “Against the pressure to make the layout what is called sleeker and shinier, I have preserved the old look with zeal,” he says.

Of course, he can’t do much about the changing profile of customers. They have grown younger. Mostly college students on romantic dates, they commute by the Metro, get off at Rajiv Chowk (the Metro stop for Connaught Place), pick up a coffee or a patty and walk into the bookshop. “Sometimes I find chewing gum stuck on the floor. It never happened before.”

Similar is the case with Connaught Place. “The quality of people coming here has gone down,” Mr Chandra says. “Look… look at that hinjra,” he says, pointing to a eunuch harassing a shopper just outside his shop window. “Then there are beggars who are so aggressive.”

However, a bigger threat could be the advent of e-books. Once he would sell five sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, costing Rs 45,000 each, every year, but now thanks to the Internet, he stocks none. “The other day, I was reading a newspaper article on Google’s e-library, then there is Kindle,” says Chandra referring to the electronic book device. “But while the Internet will remain a source of information, nothing will replace the printed word.”

Lifting a phone directory (which itself is becoming extinct), the booksellers says, “The ability to browse, handle and smell the book is possible only in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.”

The collection in the New Book Depot is entirely made up of Mr Chandra’s personal choice. It makes for a high-brow browsing. Nietzsche, Rabelais, John Ruskin, Li Po, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Jean-Paul Sartre. For balance, there are all the Ian Flemings.

“We have only four real bookshops in Delhi,” Mr Chandra says. “Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market, The Book Shop in Jor Bagh, Fact & Fiction in Basant Lok and mine.”

To retain the sanctity of the New Book Depot, he is considering drafting a set of rules for customers. “It will be something like the Ten Commandments,” he says. “No phone chat, no coffee, no bags, no eating…” Just then, Mr Chandra’s son interrupts him from the ground floor. “Dad, do we have Spanish language authors?” The father shouts back, “Yes, Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa.”

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.

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