City History – Sunday Book Bazaar, Daryaganj

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City History - Sunday Book Bazaar, Daryaganj

The origins of the market.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

There are many eclectic titles available at the popular second-hand book market held weekly in Daryaganj, but you would never find this one – The Definitive History of the Sunday Book Bazaar. There isn’t any. With around 200 booksellers, there are as many versions of the market’s history. Sample this: The bazaar was established outside Red Fort. No… below the lohe walla pul in Daryaganj. The bazaar was founded thirty years ago. No… actually, in the time of Akbar Badshah. And so on.

After chatting with four really old booksellers, and cross-checking their reminisces, a more credible chronicle has emerged. Be warned: it could still be a fact-fiction hash.

Fifty years ago, a kabadi bazaar selling used clothes, sandals and furniture was held each Sunday near Jama Masjid in the Walled City. The shops would be lined on both sides of what was once Delhi’s biggest fish market. In 1964, three men gate crashed the bazaar, set up stalls next to the Victoria Janana Hospital (later renamed after Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba) and started selling second-hand books.

After five years, the kabadi bazaar was moved to Red Fort’s ‘backside’. It is unclear who ordered the move: Delhi Police or Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD) or some other government organisation. In any case the few booksellers there had a tough time. The ‘backside’ was not easily accessible by public transport; there was no water, no shade. Within six months, Kuldeep Raj Nanda, one of the three original booksellers of Jama Masjid’s kabadi bazaar, left the place. By setting up a Sunday stall just below the lohe walla pul, the pedestrian overbridge made of iron, he became the first bookseller of Daryaganj’s weekly book bazaar.

Mr Nanda was soon joined by another bookseller, then another, and another, and one more, and then one more. For six straight days, these men would ride all over the town on their scooters visiting the kabadis – from South Extension to Mehrauli to Malviya Nagar to Safdarjang Hospital’s backside to Garhi in Lajpat Nagar, and also to trans-Yamuna neighbourhoods. The kabadis would get used books from wealthy families in the city, and these booksellers bought them on the per-kilo basis. On the seventh day – that would be Sunday – the books would be displayed on a little stretch in Daryaganj.

Initially, a small number of passers-by would notice the stalls and stop to check out the books. Some ended up buying. Gradually, a few of these became regulars. They talked to friends about this row of book stalls, about cheaper rates compared to other such stalls in the city, about the variety – from sociology, anthropology, philosophy to fiction, current affairs, childrens’ literature. More people started coming. More booksellers joined. The little stretch extended from the lohe walla pul to Golcha Cinema; then to the Telephone Exchange, near Dilli Gate; then to Broadway Hotel. At the time of writing this piece, the last book stall lies next to Delite Cinema’s box office.

The Sunday Book Bazaar has evolved to be a city institution but its existence remains threatened. Periodically the Delhi Police blames the huge book-buying crowd to cause traffic congestion. The MCD frowns at the encroaching of the public land. Such talk spread rumors of the bazaar’s impending closure. Then a few newspapers carry stories with quotes by ‘intellectuals’ on the bazaar’s preciousness. This creates outrage among the ‘right thinking people’. Things cool down. The following Sunday thousands of booklovers from Delhi and other Indian cities again gather in Daryaganj to make a bargain.

Note There’s an underground parking area opposite Broadway Hotel, on Asaf Ali Road

Encroaching of the public land

City History - Sunday Book Bazaar, Daryaganj

But that’s OK with the bookworms

City History - Sunday Book Bazaar, Daryaganj