Sunday, August 05, 2007

Balram Dass and the Great Indian Book Bazaar

I loved Stephen McClarene's piece in the Times about Delhi's huge weekly book market and a certain gentleman called Balram Dass who has had his pavement stall for 40 years. Then there were only 3 other dealers. Now there are 160!:
They make up the Great Indian Book Bazaar, often described as the world’s biggest weekly book market. Every Sunday, from 9am to 8pm, Daryaganj, a hectically busy commercial street in the shadow of the Red Fort, is lined by literally a mile of books, mostly secondhand and in English.

If you want a copy of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale (slightly scuffed) for about 20p, or Increase Your Height – Well Tried Methods for Wonderful Results (80p), or a clutch of Danielle Steels at 65p each, this is the place to come. There are tales of first editions of A Passage to India changing hands for 60p.

Mr Dass, aged 67, delves into a pile of Mills and Boons and “hot-cakes” (bestsellers) and pulls out the Woman’s Journal Home Cookery manual. With its colonial recipes for stuffed sheep’s heart, sardine sandwiches and Nell Gwynne pudding, it’s the sort of book left behind by British memsahibs when they went home to Pinner or Oxted. “Very good copy,” Mr Dass says. “150 rupees only.” That’s less than £2.

He and his son Manish have a pitch halfway along Daryaganj, the street where all the wonders of the Orient are sold, plus air-conditioning systems.

These shops open during the week, but on Sundays the shutters are pulled down and the bookstalls set up in front of them. The dealers sit crosslegged behind their stock, wads of rupee notes stuffed in their shirt pockets, cannily observing the passing crowds. If it’s raining, they shelter under plastic sheets.

For Mr Dass, the bazaar, which lures customers and dealers from all over India, is his only source of income. Like three quarters of his colleagues, he has no shop, and spends the week scouring Delhi for stock.

Some books come from private libraries; others are left on trains and buses and auctioned by the transport authorities; others still are bought from radhi-wallahs, who cycle around middle-class enclaves collecting wastepaper for recycling.

On a good Sunday, with successful haggling, Mr Dass may take £35; on a bad Sunday, perhaps as little as £10. “It is hard to predict,” he says. “Nothing has a fixed price. People are looking for value, not price.” So what has his best sale been? “ Encyclopaedia of Ports and Cities, 1928 edition,” he intones reverently. “Sold for 1,200 rupees.” At about £14, we are not talking mega-books.
The article also mentions some more upmarket bookshops, those of:
Khan Market and Jor Bagh Market (twin haunts of expats), the glitzy new western-style Oxford Bookstore at Connaught Place, the city’s commercial hub, and the air-conditioned showrooms of upmarket South Delhi dealers.
and here's a list of New Delhi bookshops!

I am always envious of Malaysian friends who head to India to do their book-buying, especially as they always gloat about the choice and the price. (But isn't Mumbai more the centre of the bookselling world?)

If you have had a chance to check out Indian's bookshops please leave a note as to which you recommend. And maybe one day I'll pop over with an empty shopping bag.


enar arshad said...

sharon,you are making me daydreaming of being exactly at that corner, at that particular bookseller's corner.

Read@Peace said...

When I was a gal with nothing but stones in me pockets, I dreamt of shelves filled with books.

Each Sunday, I pulled out my Hero bicycle from my granny's garage and made a trip down to Chandigarh's Sector 17. There stood the grand dame of books - Capital Book Depot. I'd feel guilty about the extent of browsing I did in those days, about the fact that I couldn't afford any one of those books, but grateful that the people who ran it never once shoo-ed me away or feel like a free loader.

While so many book stores have dotted the Indian landscape over the years, Capital remains special for me.

Whenever I head back to India and a trip to Chandigarh features, the empty bags are saved for that. The folks who run it know their books. They'll tell you about the hidden treasures, the ones that you missed and the ones that you really should be reading. By the time you step out of the glass door, falling over with the weight of newly acquired tomes, they leave you with that wonderfully warm smile, some candy for the kids, a book mark in each of your newly acquired books, making every flip of that page something to remember Capital by.

Not entirely sure about the centre of the bookselling world, my hunch is New Delhi would be it, though the eastern city of Kolkata must figure prominently in that list.

Greenbottle said...

during the early eighties mcalister road in penang was lined with bookstalls selling all kind of novels and occassional playboys under the counter.

sadly the bigshot morons of penang see it fit to replace these with durian sellers and other assorted hawkers and consigned these good booksellers (who were mostly indians) to the upper floor of chowrastra market. don't know if they are still there. last time i visited there several years ago their stalls looked really crappy and depressing.

thinking of it makes me feel very angry and make me want to bomb something....

Anonymous said...

There's a big book chain called "Landmark" that you can check out. Available at most Indian airports.

Just wondering around popular tourist areas like Delhi's connaught place and chadni chowk will yield many book peddlars. Quality varies though. Most Mills and Boons fans will coo in approval...

Head to any independent bookstore and you will be happy enough with the choices, from Dostoevsky to Murakami. Expect to pay 20-30% cheaper than home.