Book Box: A Delhi Bookstore Crawl
Three favourite Delhi bookstores to visit. Plus a bookish chat with Shobha Sengupta, bookstore and art gallery owner.
I am back in Delhi. This time in happier circumstances.
Everywhere there are amaltas trees, blazing gold and green. Parrots squawk and the koel shrieks a mating call.
I step out on a quest, into a still-cool morning. Tomorrow our youngest daughter will be awarded a bachelor's degree in Economics and I am looking for good graduation gifts for her.
Bookstore 1 of 3: Midland, Aurobindo MarketFirst on my port of call, is Midland Bookstore. Books and magazines spill out of a smallish shop, tucked between clothes, toys and spectacle stores. The bookstore owner, Mirza Afsar Baig, is perfectly positioned near the entrance, cocooned in colonnades of his most recommended books.
His phone rings. Yes, yes, I have many copies, don’t worry, I will keep a copy for you.
It’s Time Shelter the Booker prize winner, he says, handing me a copy of the book. I knew it would win, I even had a bet with the head of Westland Publisher, he declares.
Pulling out a pink paperback called Bunny and a second titled I, Mona Lisa, he proffers both to me as books I might like. I am impressed with his choice -- particularly as both blurbs intrigue me. I spy the first and second last books in two of the graduate-to-be’s favourite series - The Decagon House Murders and The Last Orphan and pick both up.
Bookstore 2 of 3: Bahrisons, Khan Market
The next stop is Bahrisons. The branch at Ambiance Mall, Vasant Kunj has more browsing space, but I choose the original Khan Market store for sentimental reasons.
Anuj Bahri, proprieter and publisher, is rarely at the store these days, so I ask the very competent manager for Breaking Through- the autobiography of Judge Ishar Ahluwalia. This economist worked around some of the policy areas my daughter will working in at her first job, making her story a relevant read. The book arrives in less than a minute and I marvel at how many books this bookstore manages to cram into its tiny two-and-a-half floors.
As an afterthought, I ask for a book a friend recommended, a translation from Chinese, that I haven’t encountered in bookstore browsing. And lo and behold, Love in a Fallen City arrives.
Bookstore 3 of 3: The Bookstore, Jorbagh
I decide to combine my final stop for the day with an evening walk through Lodi Gardens. Entering from the south-west gate no 7, I heard a guitar play and voices raised in song, from the tomb of Mohammed Sayyid - the fabulous acoustics amplifying the music. A peacock ambles by. There’s a light breeze, but by the time I get to my destination, I am drenched in sweat and happy to duck into the tiny air-conditioned space of the The Bookstore.
The first book I spot is The Covenant of Water and I am conflicted. I have spent the last few days, inside this book’s century of stories set on a Kerala backwater. Parts of this family saga were so sad, that twice I put the book down, determined to read no more. Yet I couldn’t stay away - from characters like the little girl who becomes Big Ammachi, Digby and Rune the foreign doctors and Elsie the artist. And Mariamma - there’s so much to say about her, but you have to read the book to find out.
Instead, I pick up another bitter-sweet book - a coming-of-age story. In two weeks my daughter will travel to Brooklyn, to visit her elder sister, before she returns to begin work. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the story of a young Irish immigrant is beautifully written and the perfect trip fiction.
There’s a whole set of Tana French books too, my favourite Irish American psychological mystery writer. I pick up The Secret Place for the graduation gift bag, it’s a book I haven’t read either - so that’s a bonus! Finally, I slip in Galatea, a provocative version of the traditional Pygmalion/My Fair Lady story.
By this time, it’s almost closing time and I walk out with a cloth bag full of books- graduation gifts, a starter kit for the summer holidays.
It’s late already. I will go visit a very special bookstore on my list, the next time. Quill and Canvas, in Guragon, is run by a former journalist and publishing executive, Shobha Sengupta. Instead, we speak, on the phone and on email about how books and art combine. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Tell us about your early reading?
I grew up in Kolkata, in a business family, who were not really readers But I have been fortunate to be surrounded by books no matter where I went. My mind was fertile, thirsty and curious. I worked as a journalist, as a film critic and in publishing. And my interest in art was honed while working with the Ananda Bazaar Patrika artists on book covers and layouts of coffee table books.
What is it like to combine art and books in one space?
We have got a lot of love and appreciation for this concept. Book buyers enjoy the ambience of great art while they browse and Art buyers enjoy the depth books lend to the art.
Tell us about the local reading community?Gurgaon readers enjoy discussing books and almost every gated community has meet-ups to discuss books and hosts authors as well. We also have meets at our bookstore and at Quorum. The book we will discuss next is Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay, which talks about the Bengal Renaissance and the great literary figures of bygone days. The translator Aruna Chakravarti will join us as well. We also have a Kids' book club, an under30 book club and a poetry circle.
What bookstores inspire you?
Fact and Fiction, a bookstore that unfortunately closed, was my inspiration. A very small space (unlike mine, which is 2600 sq ft) was crammed with the best possible books, in the most wonderful fashion.
Any books about painters that you would recommend?Lust for Life on Vincent Van Gogh wins hands down for the kind of intense emotion it evokes.
What upcoming titles are you most excited about?I am looking forward to stocking The Pebble Monkey by Manindra Gupta, translated by Arunava Sinha. Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo looks interesting too.
And finally, what are your favourite Delhi books?
With this, it’s a wrap. The day after tomorrow, I leave the bookstores of Delhi behind, and head up into the Himalayas, to bring you a pick of mountain books for summer reading. In the meantime, I’d love to know, what your favourite bookstores are - do write in and let me know. And until next week, Happy Reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at email@example.com
The views expressed are personal