Save the Daryaganj book bazaar, once again
Kolkata’s College Street, Mumbai’s Flora Fountain, and Chennai’s Moore Market were also once known for their pavement book stalls. But, having used those places extensively too, I can testify that Daryaganj remains in a class of its own
Recently, Hindustan Times carried a report entitled Is it curtains for Daryaganj’s book market?. It spoke of how the Sunday book bazaar in Daryaganj, which has served so many readers so well over the years, had been closed by the municipal authorities, perhaps temporarily, but maybe even permanently.
I read the report with sadness, but also with a certain sense of deja vu. For the book bazaar had been shut down once before. This was in the early 1990s, when I lived in Delhi. I had then written an anguished article in the press, which was forwarded to the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. Rao was both a reader and writer of books; and some officials in the PMO were of a scholarly bent as well. Meanwhile, letters in support of the book bazaar were sent to the PM by, among others, poet-policeman Keki Daruwalla and scholar-civil servant VC Pande. The prime minister saw merit in the campaign, and got the police and the municipal authorities to have the book sellers back on the pavement every Sunday.
The HT story notes that the Daryaganj book bazaar ‘is known for rare book titles — biographies, memoirs, quiz books.....¬which are available here at throwaway prices’. Over the decades, I have bought many rare books here; from a first edition of the best biography of Nehru (by Australian diplomat Walter Crocker) to White Papers on the India-China war of 1962 to a privately printed biography of the great cricketer KS Duleepsinhji, which had once been owned by the Test player KM Rangnekar. Many other readers and writers likewise owe an enormous personal debt to this great Delhi institution. Students, teachers, lawyers, artists and professionals of all kinds and all ages have patronised it over the years, and found it vital, even indispensable, to their lives. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan once even dedicated a scholarly essay to this book bazaar; which, in the absence of a world-class library in India’s capital city, had provided him the resources with which to conduct his research!
Kolkata’s College Street, Mumbai’s Flora Fountain, and Chennai’s Moore Market were also once known for their pavement book stalls. But, having used those places extensively too, I can testify that Daryaganj remains in a class of its own. College Street now only sells textbooks. Moore Market has burned down. Flora Fountain has four book stalls where it once had 40.
Unlike those other book markets, the one in Daryaganj is held only once a week, on Sundays. And unlike them it has retained its quality, range, and character. Because I live now in Bengaluru I go there infrequently; but younger friends in Delhi find as much joy from weekly visits as I did when I was their age. Especially in winter, when the weather is conducive to hours and hours of browsing, interrupted by eating gajak off the street or by a leisurely lunch in one of the Old City’s splendid (and still splendidly affordable) eateries.
As a social worker quoted in the HT story put it, the bazaar ‘is a market with over 50 years of history and heritage value, and it is also a source of livelihood for more than 250 book vendors’. Indeed, the Sunday book bazaar in Daryaganj is as vital to the capital’s cultural life as the Siri Fort or Kamani Auditorium or the India International and India Habitat Centres. It is much more accessible than those other places. One does not have to be a member; or pay for entry. Dilliwallas of any class, caste, age or gender can go there and soak in its riches, taking back with them books of one’s choice matched to one’s purse.
Back in the 1990s, a citizens’ campaign that caught the ear of a sympathetic prime minister saved the Daryaganj Book Bazaar from closure. It was given a fresh lease of life; helping it to serve Dilliwalas long after migrants like myself had left for our respective home towns. It must not be allowed to die now either. The philistine and anti-democratic ban on this wonderful weekly bazaar must be rescinded at once.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India.
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed are personal