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Delhi’s elusive street artist.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; the photographer does not wish to be identified]

In a commercial district like Nehru Place where people flaunt books like Microsoft Windows for Dummies, I know a chain-smoking, chai-guzzling guy who recites James Joyce.

The bookseller of Nehru Place, let’s call him Kareem, lords over a dusty pile of second hand books. For a few years, I was a part of his evening durbar. Methinks he was not fond of me (declining as I did his offer of cigarettes) and would tolerate my presence as long as his friends didn’t turn up. Once they arrived, a gang of artists, poets, smokers, dope fiends et al, I would be ignored. It would hurt but I learnt to live with it. For Kareem’s books and Kareem’s company were my precious ‘getaways’ from this city.

Those were days when I was working in Kailash Colony, not far from Nehru Place.

My daily grind over, I would catch the bus to Park Hotel, jostle through the evening crowds at Nehru Place, and walk fast, faster, almost running till I reached the adda. There — the books; and there sitting on a chair – dear old Kareem, surrounded by stray dogs and paperbacks.

I often found him sketching a portrait of passers-by on the back cover of a random book. He would hardly notice my arrival. I too would pretend to ignore him and busy myself with browsing. Afterwards, one hand waving the books and the other resting on the hip, I would bargain like a fishwife. Kareem, still sketching, would howl — 35 rupees. I would howl back — 30 rupees.

Once the payment done, graciousness would return and Kareem would offer chair, chai and lectures on Matisse.

Looking back, I wonder if it was that highbrow bak-chodhi that made Kareem so seductive. There was hardly anything else to recommend him. He forever looked unwashed, ragged, not really handsome and yet women were attracted and seduced by him.

I saw beautiful girls spending long hours with this bearded, wrinkled bookseller, old enough to be their father’s age. Kareem himself told me stories of how so-and-so from Sweden or Spain or Germany or Portugal came to India, fell in love with him and how he broke her heart. The brute.

One day Kareem broke my heart, too. He said you owe me money. No I don’t, I shot back. He threatened to turn his guys loose on me. Scared, I haven’t stepped foot in Nehru Place since then.

A few months ago, in August, 2008, a writer friend went to meet him. Kareem painted a quite lovely picture of her, while she did a little charcoal sketch of him. Declining to be profiled, he protested he wasn’t a “freak, or a performing monkey”. So, she didn’t write about him. Good girl.

Maybe I don’t have the same integrity. Sorry, Kareem.

Kareem’s strokes

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