“On a Sunday…if you keep pushing through the crowd that is always there [in Old Delhi], go past the men cleaning other men’s ears by poking rusty metal rods into them, past the men selling small fish trapped in green bottles full of brine, past the cheap shoe market and the cheap shirt market, you will come to the great secondhand book market of Darya Ganj.
“You may have heard of this market, sir, since it is one of the wonders of the world. Tens of thousands of dirty, rotting, blackened books on every subject- Technology, Medicine, Sexual Pleasure, Philosophy, Education, and Foreign Countries — heaped upon the pavement from Delhi Gate onwards all the way until you get to the market in front of the Red Fort. Some books are so old they crumble when you touch them; some have silverfish feasting on them- some look like they were retrieved from a flood, or from a fire. Most shops on the pavement are shuttered down; but the restaurants are still open, and the smell of fried food mingles with the smell of rotting paper. Rusting exhaust fans turn slowly in the ventilators of the restaurants like the wings of giant moths.”
That’s an excerpt from Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning novel The White Tiger which like all other books that are published in the world, has found its own space on the pavements of Darya Ganj. A recent visit to this amazing book bazaar made me completely agree with what Balram Halwai, the ‘white tiger’ protagonist of the book, has to say about it to the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Generally book stores are an oasis of calm where noise is frowned upon, the business is organized with bibliographic search systems that consist of plain old wooden racks or computer databases. In Darya Ganj, you can forget about all that. Create as much noise as you can. Haggling is the mantra to be strictly followed.
If you haven’t come here, sir, I ask you to imagine the Hong Kong bazaar of our Bhrikutimandap in Kathmandu. The intensity and ferocity of haggling is the same. But the only products on sale are books. You have to minutely observe the product if you don’t want to buy a book that has some important pages missing. One thing that you must not do is to be shy of bargaining. Go for it to the level that stuns you. If the vendor says Rs. 50, you start from Rs. 7. In all probability, trust me sir, you will be securing the deal for Rs. 12 after a few rounds of haggling.
One might think that these are pirated books but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some might be but certainly not all. The vendors collect these books (mostly secondhand) from wholesalers, distributors, retail shops, houses of readers. Some books are new but damaged, like a copy of “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, the late legendary publisher of The Washington Post. The cover wrapper of the book is slightly torn and the pages that must have been attached when the book was shipped by the printer are separated. But those defects didn’t stop me from spending IRs. 100 for the book. [Vendor’s price was IRS 150.]
You don’t turn pages here; you go through one book after another and remove dust from the covers and pages before venturing into its content. Yes, don’t judge these books by their covers; they are dirty for obvious reasons. Vendors walk all over these books that are not only already used by someone else but also are thrown on the street. But that doesn’t stop people from buying these books that are cheap and unavailable elsewhere. Not only students with shallow pockets but book lovers of all kinds with varied financial backgrounds make it a point to come here and explore the unique book market. Salil and Surendra Chaturbedi have been doing the same for the past several years. Salil was looking for — of all books — The White Tiger while Surndera, his father, wanted to buy biographies of Pakistani leaders.
“The White Tiger?” I asked, and continued in excitement. “There is a mention of this bazaar in the book!”
“Yes, I read somewhere about that,” Salil said.
Salil, 23, an employee with a research organization was on vacation when I met him in Darya Ganj. “Earlier [when I was a student] I used to come here for educational books,” he said, acknowledging that price was one of the attractions of the market. “The best part of this place is that we get all kinds of books here. Even those not easily available [in shops].”
One of the things that is not easily available in India, the world’s largest democracy, is information about Pakistan, the rival and neighbour. That is exactly why Surendra wanted to buy biographies of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Pervez Musharraf: “Daughter of The East” and “In The Line of Fire.”
“What prompted you to look for those books in these times when there is a major crisis between your country and Pakistan?” I asked.
“Very little information about Pakistan is available in India,” he said. “We Indians don’t know much about Pakistan. I want to be knowledgeable about the social, political and military atmosphere of that country.”
“But I assume that Pakistan is the most ‘known’ country in India,” I said.
“Yes, but for all the wrong reasons,” he said and smiled.
Surendra said the current Indo-Pak crisis which resulted from the recent attacks in Mumbai motivated him to learn more about the country with which his country has fought wars.
Vendors of this book bazaar have their own war with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi that wants to remove them from Darya Gunj where they have been doing business for the past four decades. The Corporation thinks the book market is a security hazard that also creates problem of congestion in the already crowded area. Vendors continue to resist. But for how long, no one knows. And there is no book available about that uncertainly, not even in the Sunday secondhand bazaar of Darya Ganj.
(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)