In the mystic alleys of Delhi – The Sunday Book Bazaar

Once upon a time—-

On a chilly Sunday morning, my elder brother, Gyaneshwar asked me to get ready to join for a visit to Darya Ganj. With the army like discipline at home, despite my reluctance, I took a quick bath, grabbed a breakfast and was on the pillion of his bicycle on way to the destination. Moving from one stall to the other, finally we halted at a stall, where the books were parked on the spiral stairs. The owner shook hands with my brother, ignoring my presence and climbing like a monkey, produced some book, which my brother had indented. My brother almost immediately sank into the book and was startled by a strange remark “Yeh chikna Kaun Hai” from Oberoi, the stall owner. He gave him a nasty look and told him who I was. With no other customer around, Oberoi turned to me and said “Tu bhi kuch padta hai”. Already embarrassed by his earlier remark, I nodded in affirmative boldly and told him about the story “Mr. Know All” by Somerset Maugham (which was a part of our eighth class school syllabus). The naughty old man asked me if I had understood the moral of the story. Furious by his taunt, I bounced back and said “Sir, do you take me for a buffoon”. Smilingly, in an ape-like jump, he produced a hard bound edition of “The Great Short Stories of the World” and presented it to me with his compliments. On being told of my inability to accept gifts from strangers, he offered to sell the book at 50 paise. Humoured by our conversation, Gyaneshwar paid him and the book was mine.

This was my first exposure with the Sunday Book Bazaar.


Jama Masjid

With the passage of time, Gyaneshwar being a topper most of the times and with my interests divided between sports and studies, besides the distraction of the good looking girls of the neighborhood, he completed his masters in Mathematics and Psychology with honors and I managed to do my graduation in commerce. He joined NCERT and became a lecturer and I, as per my aptitude, landed in the lap of a multi national bank.

With the six days a week job loaded with long working hours, my visits to the Sunday Book Bazaar became infrequent, but to satiate my thirst, I did manage to go there occasionally.

About couple of years back, through a chance meeting with Surendra Dhawan, an extraordinary character from the bazaar, my frequency of visits to the bazaar surged. But before I tell you more about the prowess of Surendra like book sellers, let me say a few words about the bazaar itself.


Delhi Gate

The area known as Daryaganj, one of the oldest localities of Delhi is located along Netaji Subhash Marg, one of the main roads leading from New Delhi into Old Delhi. Though this is an important business district, and home to the head offices of some of India’s leading publishers and book distributors, Daryaganj’s main attraction on Sunday mornings is the Book Bazaar. Irrespective of the chilly winters, the scorching heat or the windy autumns and on clear days during the monsoon, dozens of book sellers set up stalls, either in the covered corridors of Asaf Ali Road or the open pavements along the Netaji Subhash Marg and sell books.

I don’t think, I have come across any book on the history of the bazaar, if there is any, but from whatever I have gathered during my association with the bazaar, I believe that fifty years ago, a Kabadi bazaar (flea market or market overt) selling used clothes, shoes, furniture, old tyres, glassware, etc was held each Sunday near Jama Masjid in the Walled City. The shops were normally lined on both sides of what was once Delhi’s biggest fish market, near Jagat Cinema (which seems to be going into oblivion. I still remember Vyajanti Mala’s “Nagin” did Golden Jubilee there). Over the period, a couple of Kabadis set up stalls next to the Kasturba Hospital (formerly known as – Victoria Janana Hospital) and started selling second-hand books.

It is said that after several years, with a view to cleanse the area around Jama Masjid, the kabadi bazaar was moved to the back side of Red Fort, towards Bela Road (now known as – Outer Ring Road), probably at the instance of Delhi Police or Municipal Committee of Delhi. The intended measure soon started showing the signs of discomfort both with the book lovers as well as the book sellers, as the new location was not easily accessible by public transport and with hardly any water facilities and the absence of trees in the concrete jungle, within a few months, three of the original booksellers of Jama Masjid’s kabadi bazaar opted to come back to Darya Ganj and started setting up the Sunday stalls close to the pedestrian iron over-bridge.

They were soon joined by other booksellers and the footfall at these stalls became visible again. Initially, a small number of passers-by would notice the stalls and stop to check out the books. Some ended up buying. Gradually, a few of these became regulars. The word of mouth from the regular visitors about cheaper rates as compared to the established book shops and availability of some rare books helped in augmenting the footfall.

Over the years more booksellers joined and the little stretch extended from the Iron over bridge to Golcha Cinema (one of the premiere theatres of those times) and then to the Telephone Exchange, near Delhi Gate and slowly extended its fold to the Broadway Hotel at Asaf Ali Road and beyond.

On Sunday mornings at around 7 A.M. the booksellers start arriving to set up their respective stalls and by 8.30 or so, the book lovers start pouring. From students to lectures, artists to designers, theorists to activists, children to oldies, the casual walkers, all start hunting for their favourite books. By noon you can see a throng of people all around and the atmosphere becomes a festival like. This is one place where you can find priceless books on any subject – be it computer sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, films and drama, novels – new and classics, children books, travel guides, autobiographies, encyclopedia, books on art, coffee table books, foreign magazines, home decor and lifestyle books. In the same bazaar, you can pick up stationery items, photo albums, audio / video CDs at almost throw away prices. The students form a major portion of the visitors as they can get most of the academic books at very low prices.

On the mile-long stretch pavement between the Delite Cinema and the Daryaganj over-bridge, you can come across some wonderful characters. I would rather introduce you to them.


Surendra Dhawan at his stall

On a Sunday morning, passing through a shop, I spotted two hard bound editions of Isabelle Allende’s – Daughter of Fortune and The Infinite Plan and while paying him noted the shop keeper talking to someone on Shakespeare’s works. Slightly bewildered, I introduced myself to him.

This was my first interaction with Surendra Dhawan, fondly known as the “Kitabon ka Badshah”, who has been putting up his stall near the Stock Exchange and bang outside the Asaf Ali road Branch of Union Bank of India for over 10 years. Over the weeks, I discovered that Surinder’s collection of around 5000 books included virtually everything – Harry Potter to Shakespeare, Jane Austin to Dan Brown, Agatha Christie to Jeffery Deaver, books on psychology, management, religion and what not. Not only the Delhites, the book lovers from UP and Haryana also visit him. Some of the book lovers from Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and as far as Kathmandu can also be seen picking up books from the shop. A sizable collection of my own books including the books on art, history, fiction, management and spiritual readings have come from the treasure of Dhawan.


Books on art and music procured from Surendra Dhawan

Now where does Surinder get all these priceless books from and sell at such low prices. Over the week, the small time junk pickers (Kabadis) keep on providing him the books and magazines. He also told me that the container loads of used books from the US and Canada land up at Mumbai and Gujarat. The big dealers buy in bulk and sell these in smaller lots to persons like Surinder, who after keeping a reasonable margin, sell the books to the booklovers at very low prices (pittance at times). At times he picks up the unsold lot of slow moving books directly from the publishers.

Walking for about 100 yds towards the Delhi Gate, just close to the Hotel President, Satish kumar puts up a stall selling text books of schools, colleges and has also some collection for the research scholars too. This is Satish’s family business. It was started by his grandfather Chaube Lal and was inherited by his father, Dev Dutt. While talking to me, he was also attending to a school girl, who wanted a book on economics, a good looking first year medical student, who urgently required some book on bio-chemistry and a boy, pursuing his MCA, wanted a book on computer sciences. Books given to the students and accounts settled, he turned back to me and told that the family has been in the business for over 50 years and he then showed me a part of the collection of books on medicine, engineering, computer sciences, management, etc. Let me warn you that at this bazzar nothing is kept in a categorized manner. You have to hunt for your rewards out of this large treasure yourself.

Sufiyan., a young boy, who has been in this business for over 10 years, puts up his Sunday shop close to the Shiv Temple, near Telephone Exchange. Though very young, his collection of books, neatly stacked, is also pretty impressive. My travel guide on Switzerland, which helped me plan a visit to meet my daughter, came from him. William Dalrymple’s White Mughal, The city of Djinns also came from his shop. He also puts up a stall at Gurgaon sometimes.


Ankur Nanda

And how can I forget the Nanda family, the torch-bearers of this bazaar for a number of years. Kuldip Raj Nanda, an old hand, has been associated with the market for over 50 years. He was away to Jaipur at the time of my visit and his son, Ankur was batting for him. Ankur told me that besides his father, the two sons he and Anand, set up individual stalls, close to Sablok Clinic. Almost beaming he told me that his father was one of the three persons, who initiated the comeback of the bazaar from the Ring Road location to Darya Ganj over-bridge.


Priceless Books

Nandas collection was amazing. There were books on just about every topic under the sun. Computers and IT, mathematics, physics, chemistry, automobiles, gardening, cookery, pregnancy and motherhood, architecture, art, history, religion, travel, humour, fiction, etc. Out of around half a dozen travel guides published by DK Eyewitness Travel, I picked up a book on Switzerland costing ten pounds at Rs 200 only. The good thing is that the books available at their shops are in a fairly good condition. He told me that their major procurement comes from the publishers, who either have come out with a new edition to replace the existing one or have large slow moving stock of books. Then there are lots of customers, who come to them for exchange of books. They also buy goods at the embassy auctions. At times, the railway authorities and other transporters auction loads of books, which remain unclaimed.


Author talking to Subhash Chand Aggarwal.

Now let’s meet the most outstanding character, Subhash Chand Aggarwal, the president of Sunday Book Bazar Patri Welfare Association (Darya Ganj), an unassuming person. He has been the president of the Assoociation for around 30 years. He offered me a seat at the pavement next to him, by relocating some of the books. Nostalgically, while telling me the history of the bazaar, he mentioned that some of the celebrities including Khushwant Singh, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Yash Pal (scientist), Ved Prakash (news reader) and some of the high officials from the armed forces have been visitors to the Bazaar. I personally had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Satya Prakash, the famous bibliographer on a couple of occasions. Despite his age, accompanied by one of his grandsons / workers, his passion brought him to the bazaar almost magnetically, all the way from Gurgaon to Darya Ganj.

Subhash Aggarwal also mentioned about the fear of insecurity looming large on the shopkeepers. Every now and then the police or the bureaucrats, in the name of traffic hazards or security, would come out with some kind of “farmaan” and make their functioning unstable. Once the plan of disbanding the bazaar, was thwarted by the untiring efforts of Khushwant Singh, the world renowned author. On another occasion, Vijay Goel, the then MP from Chandni Chowk, helped them in the matter.

We also met another extraordinary character, Shanky located bang opposite the Oriental Bank of Commerce. He deals in books related to Bollywood. Those interested in this kind of shopping can possibly hit a gold mine, as his collection includes some of the rare books on the industry, posters and publicity material of the old films.

The list of the interesting persons in the bazaar is endless and hence I am restricting myself to the most visited stalls in the bazaar.

And if you are fond of savoring some good “chaat”, then this is the place. The mouth watering Chole-bhature, kachhories, samosas, dosas are available at Mithas Restaurant and Mehta Restaurant located next to Golcha Cinema.


Lassi – malaai maar ke

To quench your thirst you will find the chaai and cold drink shops all along the pavements. The Lassi- malaai maar ke, at Saini Sweets is simply out of this world. And if you still feel that you didn’t have adequate kick from browsing through the books, then you can easily pick up the booze of your choice at three of the wine shops in the locality.

It is around 2 P.M. and high time to go in for a good lunch. You have various options – Chor Bizzare and Thugs, the two restaurants at Hotel Broadway, Bhaj Govindam, a 100 % vegetarian joint (just next to Delite cinema), the famous Moti Mahal Restaurant and if you go a little close to the Jama Masjid area , the famous “Karim’s” would be awaiting your arrival. But over the years, I have struck to my age old favourite “Ginza Restaurant” at Connaught Circus, where sipping a chilled beer and munching the won tons, I can review my day’s purchases.

And my friends, before closing, I wish that one of these Sundays we bump into each other at the bazaar. As Oliver Goldsmith said in his immortal poem – The Village School Master “I knew him well and every truant knew”, I can assure you that it would be very easy for you to spot me, as every book lover would possibly be another Ram Dhall.

Thanks for visiting.

P.S.. There are a few established book shops in Delhi, which offer handsome discounts. Some of these are Midland Book Shop (flat 20% discount) located at Aurobindo Place Market, Hauz Khas with branches at South Extension Part I, and Janpath, Om Book Shop at E-77, South Extension-I,45, with branches at Basant Lok Market, Vasant Vihar and MGF, Metropolitan Mall, DLF, Gurgaon. Oxford Bookstore, Bookworm, Variety Book Depot, New Book Depot, English Book Store are a few other names worth visiting.

56 Comments

  • Mirza Azeem Beg says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    Just back from Dubai, and going through my email.I just received a mail from Ghumakkar as a April Newsletter. At the instant it reminded me about you and yours post. It has been quite a long time since I read your post. It was really a very pleasurable experience going through the post.I was really left speechless just going through the post. It seams as if I am just roaming around the Sunday Market.

    Just can say – “Really a Masterpiece.”

    Willing to meet you soon,

    Bye and Take care

    Azeem

  • ram dhall says:

    Dear Azeem,

    What a joy hearing from you after a fairly long interval. I am so happy to be in touch with you again, thanks to ghumakkar.com.

    I am equally overwhelmed and grateful to see your heart warming comment.

    Warm regards and God’s blessings

  • Hansini says:

    NAMASTE TAAYAJI,

    another of your writings thats found its place in the list of my favourites…
    just mindblowing..
    papa used to often telle me about this bazaar,but it was so good to read about it ..and that too in such a detiled manner…

    take care..:)

  • Sir,

    I read this story after three years, courtesy a link shared by Nandan few days back.

    Excellent post and your description of the bazar, it’s people, personal touch made this post so lively and a real treat to read. Let me also admit this is the first time I read your post and I need to do a treasure hunt whenever time permits.

    Once upon a time during my bachelor days in Delhi, I was also a regular visitor in that market and it’s a pleasure to read about the place where you were a frequent visitor, searching for something of your interest. It’s been a long since I visit there and after reading post, I feel the urge to visit there once again. Whenever I go home, I used to spend some hours in College Street where we were regular at some point of time.

    Just wondering why you have stopped writing? I haven’t read any post of yours’ since I joined here last year. It would be great for everyone here to read your story once again. Take care,

    With Regards,

    Amitava

  • I am a book seller in south sudan,so please let me know more details about books India/new Delhi/Ansari road/daryaganj,have seen books been sold in street,so pleaes if you can send me some samples on my email + titles of books.
    Thanks a lot from ebong juma saidi

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