Mission Delhi - Sohan Singh, The Book Shop

Mission Delhi – Sohan Singh, The Book Shop

One of the one percent in 13 million.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

He is standing in front of the Indian fiction shelf. One cold evening, The Delhi Walla meets Sohan Singh at The Book Shop, a small establishment in Jor Bagh frequented by the capital’s who’s who, including novelists, bureaucrats and politicians — I once spotted Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia buying coffee-table books here.

As a doorman since 1999, Mr Singh gives The Book Shop its distinctive character of quietude. The much-loved landmark was founded in 1970 by KD Singh. He passed away a few years ago, and his wife, the charming Nini KD Singh, is keeping his legacy alive. Of course, she is ably assisted by her longtime doorman. Sohan Singh’s demeanor is so calm that merely standing next to him can be soothing — for some moments I even forget the chaotic metropolis I’m a part of.

In his 40s, Mr Singh is on friendly terms not only with regular customers but also with the neighbourhood’s dogs and cats who often hang around the shop knowing that he and Nini will inevitably treat them to biscuits.

Though he barely finds time to read novels, Mr Singh does manage to browse through news magazines. Sometimes we catch him reading and then we try not to bother him by entering the store.

Mr Singh lives with two friends in a rented apartment in Kotla Mobarakpur village. He always walks to work. “I take the route that goes through Sewa Nagar crossing and Lodhi Colony. It takes me not more than half an hour,” he tells me.

Mr Singh’s longest journey, however, was the one he undertook after finishing school. Like most of his childhood companions, he left Suhari, his village in the Garhwal hills, and took the bus to Delhi. Having started in the city as a gas-pump attendant, he initially took up residence in a relative’s house in Okhla.

“I had no idea then that I was destined for books,” he says. Most patrons of The Book Shop, too, have no idea that each time they purchase a novel here, they are not only supporting a bookstore, but also the lives of five village women — Mr Singh’s mother Hukma Devi, wife Godanbari, and daughters Lakshmi, Shobha and Sushma.

“I visit my daughters in the summer,” says Mr Singh. A few minutes later, a big car stops outside the bookstore. A VIP slowly emerges from the backseat – we often see him on TV news channels. Mr Singh opens the door for the famous man as gently as he had opened it for me.

[This is the 81st portrait of Mission Delhi project]

Standing by books