The vast majority of the books on my shelves today don’t come from organized bookshops. They come from two places that no longer exist the way they did the day I bought those books. I don’t know how I found them, and even a difference of a few seconds of my arrival there might have led to massive differences in the books that made me who I am today.
The first place is an amorphous event that seems to change every time I visit called the New Delhi World Book Fair. Ever since I can remember, it has been hosted in Pragati Maidan, a sprawling venue that I believe I have never managed to explore completely despite visiting many times. I am told that during my first visit (when I was very small and tiny), I managed to lose myself by darting away from my parents, lured by some books in a nice bookshop. My parents frantically searched for me (only for a few moments, though—I didn’t make it very far) to prevent me from kick-starting my Bollywood film protagonist origin story (of being lost in a mela (fair), being raised by someone else, and then reuniting with my birth family at the end of a long, epic, tragic tale).
Ignoring that mishap, every year, sometime in January or February, I would see an advertisement for the Book Fair in the newspaper, and I would beg my parents to take me there. The trick, you see, is not to go on the first day (when I am told it is horrendously crowded) or on the last day (when booksellers are packing up and most good books have been sold) but on some of the middle days, when you scout for hidden gems that you may like. I remember having bought some specific books from there - my copy of The Hunger Games trilogy was purchased at the Scholastic stall in the Children’s Pavilion at one of the Book Fairs, right when the trailer for the first Hunger Games movie was being shown on the large screens in the pavilion.
The best stalls at the World Book Fair for me, however, were not the organized stalls by reputed publishers, but the booksellers who had a fixed rate sign and a pile of books, often second-hand versions, tossed into a heap much like what I usually saw at clothes sales. A cardboard sign saying something like “One Book Rs. 200 Only” and “No Bargaining” would be hung over the pile, and a bunch of people would surround the box with the books, groping for invisible jewels hidden deep within the heap. If I liked the blurb of the book I had picked up, I would tuck it neatly under my left arm, else it would be tossed back towards the top of the pile and I would once again plunge my right hand into that vast mountain. Here, too, there is a trick, depending on how much you trust the people buying books alongside you - the books you see on the surface of the pile are mostly castaways and rejects that people have chosen not to buy; only deep inside the pile are the true gems everyone is looking for. Casual surfers pick books towards the top of the pile, but true treasure-hunters and bibliophiles really get into the meat of the pile, and it is not uncommon to see some amount of pushing and shoving happening around such heaps.
At the end of our day, sometime in the afternoon, the three of us, my father, my mother, and I, would pile into an auto-rickshaw and carry home the pile of books we had purchased in an assortment of backpacks (and sometimes even grocery bags). Those were some of the happiest moments of my life — when we would reach home, massage our arms and shoulders to relieve ourselves of the pain from carrying the weight of our purchases across the entire Maidan. Then, we would sit down, wipe the covers of each book with a damp cloth to get rid of the dust, and sort them into stacks depending on whose bookshelf the book would go to. I am very much pleased to say that I got the lion’s share at every such sorting ritual.
The final place where we conducted our family book-buying trips was unlike any of the others I have mentioned so far – it was a market more reminiscent of the old-style bazaars that kept popping up and vanishing across different parts of Delhi, existing in a transient state where all stalls are temporary, and all sales negotiable. Except, this one had somehow managed to survive through the many, many years of Delhi’s history and the several iterations of bibliophiles that frequented it.
In our household, we called it the Sunday Book Market, while others may know it as the Daryaganj Book Market, the Daryaganj Second-Hand Book Market, or the Sunday Book Bazaar. Like any other traditional bazaar, this would only be set up on a certain day of the week - in this case, Sunday. It was originally started, not by booksellers or book publishers, but rather, a handful of vendors who bought used books collected by kabadiwallas (rag-pickers). There were no shops to speak of, but books would often be arranged in rows on the pavement next to the road, in front of the buildings. Sometimes the books would be in crates, sometimes in mounds, and sometimes lying on blue plastic tarpaulins serving as a mat to protect the delicate books from the heat and dust of the pavement. Pedestrians strolling leisurely near the market became buyers as they peered over titles, bending and crouching as they tried to make out the names of the books and the authors. Many of these books would be old; some would be in literal tatters; but I have never heard of anyone going to the Sunday Book Market and coming back without something they liked, although all the patrons (the experienced ones, at least) looked absolutely disinterested in the objects on display.
For here, too, there was a trick, a game, and it was as fun to watch as it is to take part in. All prices in the bazaar are in flux (except the ones with the aforementioned “Rs 200 Only/No Bargaining” signs), for the books are all second-hand and there is no real evaluation of their prices. So the patrons look at the books, and the vendors observe the patrons - the more the patron seems to want the book, the higher the vendor charges, and then the patron negotiates. I have seen similarly used copies of the same book sold for a wide range of prices, and as a child, I admit it was fun to watch both sides of adults trying to second-guess the other’s intentions to try to get the best books at the best deals. Turn a corner of the pavement, and you may find the book you purchased being sold at half the price you paid for it; leave a book behind, and you may never find the same seller in the maze of a market again.
My father told me of another fun game he played as a college student with a few of his friends, nearly thirty years ago (yes, the market is that old, and even older than that!). There were two groups of rival bibliophiles—one comprising of my father and his friends, the other of some other students from the same university. Both of them would frequent the Sunday Book Market, and the race would be on to get the best buys at the market. The rule of thumb, once again, was that the sooner you arrived, the better books you would find, so my father and his friends would take the first bus to Daryaganj, early in the morning, and work as a team of three. One of them would choose books based on the titles, the authors, and the publishers’ logos, and hand them to another friend, who evaluated how good they were with respect to the trio’s shared literary tastes. He then handed the selected titles to the third, who would pay for them. It was a highly efficient system, and once they were done with the day’s purchases, they would pile into an auto-rickshaw and return to their hostel. There, they would sit and cover the books using brown-paper covers, and write the title and the author with a marker on these covers. These neatly covered books would form that day’s addition to their library, much to the woe of the other students, who had left the hostel too late, and had returned with less-than-satisfactory harvests.
In those hot, narrow alleys, with the sunlight filtering through the haze of dust and smoke, my father read what he believes to be the best books there were in the markets; I concur wholeheartedly considering the treasures I found. The many times I visited as a child, I walked away from them with books I wonder how I would have ever found, had it not been for the Sunday Book Market. In those dusty, hazy alleys I found several classics (my favorite is my second-hand, illustrated copy of The Wind in the Willows) and striking children’s fiction featuring a wide variety of perspectives that would otherwise have been absent from my library, for I doubt many mainstream publishers and booksellers stocked them on their shelves. While I was cataloging my collection recently, I learned that many of those publishers that published those books no longer exist today, and quite a few of them, I suspect, were treasured gifts sent from people abroad to their relatives in India, as evidenced by the numerous dedications to other people I find on the first page of my books. Among these, I feel I have a strange assortment of books, sometimes the third book in a series, sometimes a sixth, but I like to think what I have is better than not having heard of it at all, as undoubtedly would have happened if we all hadn’t decided to go out and buy forty volumes on a hot Sunday morning.
As a teenager, I did happen to go back once to the Sunday Book Market, and I am happy to say it is still there, although since I last visited it has moved to Mahila Haat from Daryaganj. The last time I went there was also the last time I went book-buying, before life, college applications, and my other activities caught up to me. The market was much smaller than I remembered it (or was I walking faster than I did then?) and the sellers felt as though they were much fewer. Most of the books on display were textbooks, preparation books, and guidebooks for clearing various exams, being sold second-hand to those that may need them. Fiction looked sparse, and we only returned with a handful of books, and in some way, that felt like an end in itself. With the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t know how much longer it shall be until I visit it again. I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss it tremendously—the books, the people, the games, the tricks, but most of all, just looking at books with my parents. Those book-buying sprees shaped me in many more ways than I can count, just like my father claims it shaped his reading habits all those years ago. He found Marquez; I found myself.