Sitting beside his second-hand books, Karim Khan, 52, lights up a Goldflake cigarette. In the evening’s gathering darkness, the surrounding office skyscrapers of Nehru Place are looking like sleepy giants. I’m meeting Khan after two years. I would come to this commercial complex, famous for its computer hardware workshops, to buy books from his stall. “I’m no longer only a bookseller,” says Khan.
The bookseller, who would draw charcoal sketches of people on the pages of his worm-ridden books, has become an established painter. The man who once found it difficult to pay his chaiwallah now sells his paintings priced between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh. Khan has moved up in life.“We all move… forward, sideways. I mustn’t get boring.” But where is the Khan I knew? That man who was not so polite. Talking to the painter, I miss the bookseller.
Every evening I came to Nehru Place to check out what’s new at his stall. Every day, we’d quarrel like fishwives over an amount as little as Rs 5. Khan called me names. I abused him back. Once, he accused me of not paying for a rare set of Time-Life cookbooks.
Two years have passed since that incident. This evening, we are talking like civilised people. Khan has started trimming his beard. His shirt has no crease. “You have to be compatible with the changing circumstances. Now I’m invited to parties. I have to look clean.”
A native of Assam, Khan was a college dropout who came to Delhi in 1989 “to find out what art is all about.” He ended up selling second-hand books in Nehru Place. During the day, Khan would half-heartedly hard-sell best-selling novels to the area’s software professionals. Often, he was seen drawing portraits of shoppers. Sometimes sad, beautiful women would spend hours in his company. In evenings, Khan had his durbar of painters and book lovers who would talk on life, sex and Tolstoy. I was never admitted to the coterie. “Because you were so silent.”
In 2008, Mahesh Bansal, a businessman who has a sanitary showroom in suburban Noida, came to Nehru Place, spotted Khan, liked his way of talking and started visiting him daily. “I would find him making these wonderful sketches but he would throw them away. I had this empty commercial space in Noida and I decided to turn it into a gallery to showcase his work,” Bansal told me. Introducing his first exhibition, Beyond the Obvious, critic Alka Raghuvanshi writes, “A deep melancholy hangs over Khan’s works... the inspirational mainstay emerging from imagery that is almost European in style... ”
As offices starts shutting off their lights, Khan invites me to a Punjabi eatery. Over dal makhni and butter naan, he suddenly starts on a Russian novelist. “If you read Dostoyevsky, you feel you are looking at modern art. His novels are not very straight. Freud went into psychoanalysis after reading him."
After our meal, Khan will return to his studio and paint. In the morning, he will take the auto to Nehru Place and sell books. “People come to me when they need books with strange-sounding titles. They have all sorts of faces. And since I’m into figurative art, I draw their portraits on the back of my books with my charcoal pen.” True, things have changed; yet nothing has changed.