Bookish nostalgia

Topics books

On the first Sunday after I moved to the National Capital Region nearly six years ago, a friend offered to take me to Old Delhi for a special treat. I did not know where I was going — I wasn't even familiar with the roads or areas in my new city. And, I was down with a severe case of nostalgia for my hometown, Kolkata. But my friend promised that the place she was taking me to that morning would be a perfect antidote. “You'll love it!” she said. We boarded a yellow line metro from Malviya Nagar to Chandni Chowk, and then took a rickshaw to Daryaganj. Our destination that morning was the weekly book market.

My first instinct was to compare this temporary market to the more permanent one on College Street in central Kolkata. As a student, I would frequent the shops selling second-hand books in the locality around Calcutta University, often dropping into the famed Coffee House for a chicken kaviraji or Paramount for green coconut sherbet, having purchased a coveted volume. Perhaps quite naturally, my first reaction that Sunday was one of disappointment. “That's it?” I said, standing on the footpath opposite Delhi Darwaza and casting a glance towards Netaji Subhash Marg. But my disappointment was soon belied; like every treasure of Delhi, Daryaganj revealed itself to me slowly, over the years.

A couple of years after my first visit, I began taking people to the market when they asked me to show them around my adopted hometown. Not only outsiders visiting Delhi but also natives who were either unaware of this urban treasure or had never visited it despite knowing about it. For booklovers, of course, this was a treat, but also for those planning to pick up stationary at a discount. At least two shops on Netaji Subhash Marg sell paper by the kilo. There are also notebooks to be got, as well as pencils, pens, ink, folders — all the paraphernalia with which you need to clutter your writing desk before you can call yourself a writer.

But this privilege will be denied to old timers such as me or newcomers discovering our city. The Hindustan Times reported on August 3 that following a July order of the Delhi High Court, the temporary shops which occupied the footpath along Netaji Subhash Marg every Sunday would not be there anymore. “The order came in response to the Delhi traffic police submitting a report to the court suggesting that the [road]... is a very busy road which sees high traffic volumes at all times and that book sellers occupy the footpath, leaving no space for pedestrians,” the report said.

Over the years, I developed a protocol of how I would show people around this place. The trip would usually begin on a winter afternoon, near the Delhi Darwaza, about which there are several urban legends. I would begin by narrating the most famous one: “If you happen to find yourself around these parts on a rainy evening, do not seek shelter under the Delhi Gate,” I would tell them. “The roof leaks, and what drips on your head or shoulder will not be water — but blood.” The legend was that the sons of Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal emperor, were hanged here in 1858, after the British recaptured Delhi in the First War of Independence. I’m told the story can send a chill down your spine even on a sunny afternoon.

Once you had bought your books and stationary, it was quite natural that you would be hungry. And then, I would take you — no, no, not to Moti Mahal, where butter chicken was apparently invented — but to Changezi Chicken. If you were accompanied by one or more women, you could enjoy lunch in the relatively quieter mezzanine floor. Else you would be confined to the ground floor. The usual order: A quarter plate of zafrani kheer for dessert. The legend is that the recipe apparently travelled to India with the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. This is, of course, sheer mythopoeia — Genghis Khan did not attack Delhi; Timur did in 1398, capturing the city and unleashing a massacre.

Of course, I have a personal legend as well. On my first Sunday at Dariyaganj, as I was perusing the stock of one of the booksellers, I came across a hardbound copy of Iain M Banks's Whit (1995). Flipping open the book I found that the half-title page had the author’s autograph. “How much for this?” I asked the disinterested bookseller, my heart almost in my mouth. “Fifty rupees,” he said, nonchalantly. I quickly took out a crisp note and handed it over to him. A minute later, I was excitedly showing my loot to my friend and she was smiling. “So is Daryaganj better than College Street?” she asked. In some ways, yeah, it was.

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