A Khan Market icon.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi; the black & white photos belong to Bahrsions Booksellers]
Born to a bank manager in Malakwal in today’s Pakistan, Balraj Bahri Malhotra received his college education in Rawalpindi. He arrived in Delhi in 1947 as a 19-year-old partition refugee and met his future wife, Saubhagya, at the Kingsway camp in north Delhi. In 1953 he opened a bookstore in one of the city’s new bazaars. He arranged the initial investment of 800 rupees by selling his mother’s single gold bangle.
Today, Bahrisons Booksellers is one of the oldest surviving landmarks of the fast-changing Khan Market and its courteous founder-owner a representative of the market’s early years.
Due to his advancing age, Mr Malhotra has passed down his work-hours to his son, Anuj, and daughter-in-law, Rajni, and is only occasionally sighted at the shop, where he sits quietly with his arms crossed across the chest. Popularly known as The Elder Mister Bahri, his stern face dissolves into a disarming smile each time he spots a familiar customer.
More than one generation of literary-minded Delhiwallas grew up buying books from Mr Malhotra. Veteran journalist Nandini Mehta is one of them. Writing in Outlook magazine about the Khan Market as it used to be in the 1960s, she could not avoid mentioning The Elder Mister Bahri:
“In between these two shops were a couple of other mandatory stops — a pavement lending library for (forbidden) Mills and Boon romances, then on to Bahri’s, where we’d perfected the art of reading whole books in 10-minute daily installments while its owner, Mr Balraj Bahri, looked on indulgently (the other bookshop, Faqir Chand, didn’t encourage student browsers). Mr Bahri wasn’t always indulgent, though. My brother and I once pooled our money to buy James Thurber’s Is Sex Necessary, a classic of quirky (though squeaky-clean) American humour. Later that evening, Mr Bahri rang up my mother and said, “I want to warn you, your children are reading very unsuitable books.” And that’s one of the few things about Khan Market that hasn’t changed — Bahri Senior still presides over Bahrisons bookshop, and knows exactly who’s reading what.”
Mr Malhotra’s work philosophy was charmingly enunciated by him in the 2006 book Bahrisons, Chronicle of a Bookshop (co-authored by his son) in which he was quoted as saying:
“Books are like food. They satisfy your hunger for knowledge and the bookshop is like a good restaurant. The décor, the seating, the ambiance and the service are all important when we go out to dine but most important of all is the chef’s ability to maintain the quality of the food that you are served. This is what brings you back again and again. And so it is with books – display, presentation and service are essential but most important is a personal knowledge of each customer and the ability to provide the books that meet his needs.”
Mr Bahri has one son, 2 daughters and 8 grandchildren. In reading, he is more of a newspaper person, a habit that he picked up when big dailies used to publish book review pages. In the night, he watches Pakistani TV serials with his wife.
Mister Bahri, tell me what I read
2. (Mr Malhotra as a young man)
3. (Mr Malhotra’s father with his clan shortly after arriving in Delhi as partition refugees)
4. (Mr and Mrs Malhotra)
5. (A Bombay film actor in conversation with Mr Malhotra)
6. (Mr Malhotra at his wedding feast)
7. (Mr Malhotra on his wedding day)
8. (Mr Malhotra celebrating the birthday of his son, Anuj)
9. (Mr Malhotra without his trademark moustache, right)
10. (Mr Malhotra’s empire)
11. (Mr Malhotra’s empire)