The face behind the landmark.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi; the black & white photo belong to Bahrsions Booksellers]
Most booklovers in Delhi know of the landmark Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market. Many of them are probably familiar with Anuj Bahri Malhotra, the owner. The old-timers must also be familiar with his father, Balraj Bahri Malhotra–the ‘Senior Mr Bahri’ who founded the bookstore in 1953. (The Delhi Walla has written about him here.)
But very few know of Mrs Bahri, the founder’s wife. It was her day job that helped make Bahrisons Booksellers an institution of our city.
Bhag Bahri Malhotra was born on January 16, 1932 in Muriali, Dera Ismail Khan, which is now in present-day Pakistan. She was the fourth child of Lajvanti and Hari Chand Guliyani. Her father, who belonged to a family of landlords, died when she was four. Her 25-year-old mother subsequently moved to Lahore for higher education.
Today, Mrs Bahri, 83, has no memories of her father but she remembers the brutal scenes of the Indian partition, including “a train full of dead bodies” entering the Old Delhi railway station. Being Hindu, her family had to move to the Indian side of the newly-divided subcontinent and had to create a new life.
Working as a clerk in the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation in Delhi, the young woman met Balraj Bahri Malhotra in a refugee camp where he, a partition refugee himself, was a volunteer. The year was 1951.
“He was very handsome, very well-built,” says Mrs Bahri, sitting opposite her husband in their drawing room in south Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave. “I had decided in my heart that I would marry him and nobody else.”
The couple would regularly meet at a friend’s place. “We never went to parks or cinemas,” she says.
After their marriage in 1955, Mrs Bahri’s salaried job not only gave her a government-allocated flat in Netaji Nagar but also covered the expenses for the household and the children’s education. This was like a gift to her husband who got the freedom to invest all the earnings from the bookshop back into it.
Actually, Mrs Bahri had three jobs – at the office, at home, and also at the bookstore. Every afternoon when Mr Bahri would leave for the grander bookshops of Connaught Place to survey the new books stocked in their shelves, she would walk from her office in Jaiselmer House, near India Gate, to Khan Market; there she would take charge of the shop until her husband’s return when she would walk back to her office.
Mrs Bahri took an early retirement in 1977 “to marry my girls.” By then the Bahrisons Booksellers had established itself as one of the city’s leading bookstores.
Today, Mrs Bahri and her husband mostly remain at home. She visits the bookstore only once a year to attend the Diwali prayer. She has one son, two daughters and eight grandchildren. One granddaughter, Aanchal, has made Mrs Bahri a part of her master’s thesis—Remnants of a Separation: A Study of the Material Remains of the Partition of India.
Mrs Bahri’s husband calls her ‘Madam’; she calls him ‘Balraj-ji’.
Mrs Bahri, I presume
2. (with granddaughter Aanchal)
3. (On her wedding-day with husband, Balraj, in 1955)
4. (With husband, Balraj, in 2015)
5. (with mother, Lajvanti)