Our bookseller emeritus
Mirza Yaseen Baig, the founder of Midland bookstores is still with us. He is 93 and comes daily, without fail, to his shop at south Delhi’s Aurobindo Market—even in these risky times of coronavirus pandemic.Updated: Aug 08, 2020 08:34 IST
They all have died. Almost all the legendary founders of Delhi’s great independent bookstores have left us. Anil Arora of now-extinct The Bookworm passed away in August 2016. Balraj Bahri Malhotra of Bahrisons Booksellers passed away in February 2016. KD Singh of The Book Shop passed away in May 2014.
But one continues to be with us.
Mirza Yaseen Baig, the founder of Midland bookstores is still with us. He is 93 and comes daily, without fail, to his shop at south Delhi’s Aurobindo Market—even in these risky times of coronavirus pandemic.
With so many years weighing down on his back, Mr Baig has reduced his interaction with customers. He spent the day sitting outside the bookshop on a chair facing a shelf stacked with classics of English literature; the shop itself is handled by Afsar, his second son.
The bookstore is like Mr Baig’s second home.
One afternoon, before the pandemic, he was seen taking a nap. His head bent down and his face resting on his arm, his chest was heaving gently in a deep-sleep breath. A few shoppers walked about without waking him up.
This evening, however, he is wide awake but sitting quietly, his face covered in the ubiquitous face mask. And yet, he is looking every inch a bookstore emeritus.
Unlike the other three aforementioned bookstore founders, Mr Baig’s connection to Delhi is somewhat more recent. Like most of us Delhiites, he is not a Delhi native. Mr Baig is from Hyderabad in the south. There he used to run a small book stall on the bustling Sultan Bazaar Road. In 1970, he folded his business and moved to Delhi with his wife, four sons and six daughters (one more girl would be born later).
In the Capital, he set up a similar stall, later named Books Selection Center, just outside the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place — at that time the coffee place was not in its present location in Mohan Singh Place but on the site of present-day Palika Bazaar.
Eight years later, Mr Baig founded the New Book Land, the first of his four Delhi bookstores, just outside the Janpath flea market. It continues to exist and is managed by his third son, Salim, a charmingly moody man who can be nice or indifferent, depending upon your luck at that moment.
In 1985, Mr Baig opened the first Midland in the brand new Aurobindo Market, an aesthetically challenging block constructed by Delhi Development Authority (the market’s small garden has a gigantic cement butterfly).
The other two outlets in South Extension I and Gurugram came later.
Like almost every long-time bookshops in the city, Midland stores too have a following. The one in Aurobindo Market is a beloved of many well-known writers such as Namita Gokhale who lives nearby in SDA Colony. For many old-time regulars to this market, the ritual is to first have a burger and a glass of soft drink at the nearby Wimpy’s (a fast-food legend in its own right but sadly, not open these days) and only then to step inside Midland to browse for the new releases.
While Midland might be loved by its patrons, it didn’t appeal to at least some of the city’s booksellers. Its crime — it was among the first shops in Delhi to sell books at 20% discount, a scheme that led the spoiled customers to demand similar discounts elsewhere. The late Anil Arora confessed his disappointment to this reporter on Midland’s pricing strategy on the eve of closing his bookshop, The Bookworm, in Connaught Place in 2008.
But at such an advanced age, just why can’t Mr Baig sit at home, safe from the virus, with wife, Sardar Begum, in west Delhi’s Paschim Vihar? “Coming to the shop is my habit,” he says in his cracking voice full of affection. “I cannot sit at home. Here I watch people, see the world go to and fro about me and I feel good.”
In the pre-corona days, Mr Baig, who is addressed as Babuji by his employees, reached the shop every morning at 11 and would leave by eight in the evening. But now he comes by 2pm.
It is tempting to implore the readers to give this iconic bookseller an immediate visit but these are dangerous times. Perhaps you might wait for the pandemic to recede, following which you might visit Mr Baig, hopefully still sitting like a monument at his usual spot.