A place where you can buy books by the kilo.
On a Sunday morning, while walking through the Jama Masjid, Lal Quila and Chandni Chowk area, I saw hundreds of books lining the footpath making up the famous Daryaganj book bazaar.
I noticed the biography of Marilyn Monroe amidst a diverse range of books, the names of which were unknown to me. Despite hundreds of people flocking here every Sunday, founders of the bazaar struggle to keep it alive. "Numerous attempts were made to dislodge it, we resisted, fought and won so far," said Farid Anwar, a 70-year-old, tall, bearded man, who is the founding member of the Daryaganj Sunday Book Bazaar Welfare Association. The association was formed a few years ago to save the book market from external intrusion.
A book lovers’ paradise
"This market started in 1964 but from 2007 we started facing trouble. It began with a few local businessmen who have shops nearby playing foul games. Eventually, we had to go to court and the bazaar was temporarily shut down in 2009 by a Delhi High Court Order before resuming business a little later," said Anwar. According to him, local politicians along with neighbouring shop owners had a hand to play in several allegations made towards the book bazaar. "Allegations about the bazaar causing traffic jams to, creating pick pockets, to even women harassment issues - these couldn’t be farther from the truth!" exclaimed Anwar, before returning to a horde of customers.
One of the oldest book markets of Delhi. Image source: hindustantimes.com
Every Sunday for the past 53 years, the 2km long footpath transforms into a makeshift book market. I could see bookworms from all walks of life hunting for rare books in different languages. I even hear that diplomats from foreign countries come here to buy original copies of French, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese books. There were also university students, management trainees, hardware or software tech enthusiasts, lawyers and university professors.
However, the book bazaar still faces local level political trouble that eats into its profits. According to Afsarilal Sharma, one of the oldest book sellers in the market, it has been six years since the market was legally registered with the Delhi municipal corporation. The owners of book stalls have been paying Rs.15 per stall as tax. But local goons still sniff around causing trouble and making money off the vendors. “We are forced to give weekly money or hafta as it’s commonly known to the local administration, goons and local political leaders, this amounts to two thirds of our profits,” said Sharma, sighing irritably. According to him, the weekly payments were brought about by other neighbouring shop keepers who partnered with politically motivated goons to ensure they benefited from the Sunday market.
Classics at ridiculous prices! Image source: staticflickr.com
As I rummaged through the collections, I found some extremely rare books at dirt cheap prices. According to Sharma, despite the national and global book market being hit by the popularity of e-books, one thing that ensures repeat customers at the Daryaganj book bazaar is this very exclusivity and cost. He pulled out a 145-year-old edition of 'Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens. I could understand why a voracious reader and book lover would be ecstatic about this find.
Bhole Vishwakarma, a writer and activist has created an entire library from his weekly visits to the bazaar. He knows exactly where and how to search for books that interest him. "I was looking for a book called 'I thought of Daisy' written by Edmund Wilson for quite a few years. Recently the book has been re-published and is available on Amazon for $30. I got the same book from the market for Rs.10. Can you believe it?" said Vishwakarma, enthusiastically showing me the book.
For Rs 200, you can get a kilo of stories
I found the entire Greek tragedy collection at a meagre price of Rs.7 (imagine paying for a book with coins), The Colossus and other poems by Sylvia Plath for Rs.15 and The many lives of Marilyn Monroe at Rs.50. This is also possibly the only place where one can buy books in kilograms. Prices start at Rs.50 per kilogram, depending on which books you pick.
However, since many of the books are second or third hand, passed down through the generations, there is always a likelihood of pages missing. I met Amitava Roy, who recently retired from Delhi's Planning Commission and spends several Sunday mornings at the book bazaar. "I had to throw away the entire set of stories on Winston Churchill's life after realising that several pages were missing."
Books of all kinds, shapes, sizes and prices. Image source: dubeat.com
At the end of my visit, I began wondering about the source of these precious, rare books. Who did the books belong to? What was their history? Or the story of the people who owned them? How did the book sellers get them? I figured no one wanted to disclose the trick of the trade. However, from what I could gather, that there was a wide circle of agents who collected the books from families, old homes and schools. These agents sold them to the book sellers and that's how the circle continues.
Made me think that the stories of all the owners was possibly as interesting as the ones in the books.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Rituparna Roy
Photographs by Rituparna Roy