The bookish bookseller.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Ajit Vikram Singh is the founder of the cramped Fact and Fiction Booksellers, the capital’s most eclectic bookstore.
No other place in Delhi offers such rich selections of books in literary fiction, religion, cinema, philosophy, travel, music, science, history, wild life, cookery, ecology, economics and poetry.
And Fact & Fiction also has the distinction of being the capital’s only bookshop to keep the handsome Modern Library boxed set containing all the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. It is also probably the only shop in Delhi that keeps more than one edition of Simone Weil’s An Anthology.
Obviously, Fact & Fiction is strongly marked by the character of its bookish founder.
Born in Delhi, Mr Singh spent his school years in the well-set Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan. He graduated in science from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University; moved to a farm in Dhampur, Uttar Pradesh, where he tried to establish an agro-industry. It did not work out and he returned to Delhi with the intention to do something he was actually interested in. (Clue: as a university student, he regularly visited the legendary The Book Shop in Jor Bagh Market)
He opened Fact & Fiction in south Delhi’s Basant Lok Market in the summer of 1984, a few months before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. (He heard of her death in the bookshop.)
In a column he wrote for the respectable The Book Review in 2012, Mr Singh said: “I started with a very small inventory, replacing one book sold by two of the same genre. That’s how stock slowly started to fill up in every crevice of my shop. I kept a simple aim from the start; that any lay person walking into the shop with a desire to read about any subject, should find at least one book that would help further his or her interest; be it on occult, gardening, art or science, religion or travel.”
Mr Singh commutes daily from Gurgaon. Every room in his home is dominated by books. He has a wide taste in reading though currently he has shifted his loyalties from fiction to history. Years ago, he was fond of novelists Graham Greene, John le Carré, John Fowles, among others.
In music, Mr Singh likes to listen to the blues of the 1960s and 1970s.
He has two sons—Jairaj and Udai Raj.
A man of seemingly stern demeanor, Mr Singh once told me: “Most of my differences happen with customers due to their ill treatment of books. A bookshop requires a certain amount of sanctity and sometimes I have people rushing in with dripping ice cream cones.”
A notice pasted on the shop’s door helpfully warns—‘No Food or Drink’
Yet, the afternoon air in the shop is always redolent with the pungent smell of hot samosas.
Mr Singh, do you have Kate Marsden’s On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers?