City Landmark – Nini KD Singh’s The Bookshop, Jor Bagh Market & Khan Market
The portrait of a marriage.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A lone customer steps in. Miles Davis is gently filling the hushed corners. The doorman stands erect at his post in a brown safari suit, and an elegant woman sits at the counter. She is surrounded by books—on shelves, in display cabinets, stack after inviting stack.
This is The Bookshop, an institution as genteel as its posh address. Jor Bagh Market is that rare place in the Capital that shunned the rat race to become a bazaar. Urban freneticism is not allowed here. Big cars glide over speed breakers. Presswallas iron clothes under giant trees. The stillness is broken briefly by laughter from the Sarvodaya Vidyalaya school nearby.
The surrounding bungalows stand aloof under a canopy of trees, shielded by hedges. Most of the shops are nearly as old as the market that has been around for almost 65 years. Kim Brothers is known for custom-made shoes. One grocer discreetly stocks DVDs of films that one might choose not to watch with the family. For a long time, a dry-cleaner’s shop displayed the notice, “Clothes Made to Order Over Night For The Hurry People”.
And then there is The Bookshop, a sanctuary for those who love the written word and the printed page. This refuge was founded in 1970 by Kanwarjit Singh Dhingra, known to friends and customers as “KD”. A few years ago, The New York Times described it as “perhaps the coziest bookstore in the country”.
KD died of cancer last year at the age of 73, but the little shop continues his passionate undertaking. The new torch-bearer is the woman sitting at the counter. She now calls herself Nini KD Singh, having taken on her husband’s initials “so that KD continues to live on with me”. She is waiting for the current spell in the weather to end so that she can organize author conversations in the park outside.
While KD was running the shop, Nini remained in the background. “People miss KD and want me as their connection,” she says.
The first few months as proprietress were painful. Customers would ask for KD, looking forward to a discussion on a variety of writers and novels in his balmy voice. Every time, Nini would have to share her loss.
The Bookshop has the vibe of a global village. Emmy award-winning author Geoffrey Ward says, “During our annual trips to Delhi over the past 30 years or so, The Bookshop has meant the world to me and to my wife, Diane.” The New York-based writer shared a love for jazz with KD. “We never felt we were fully back in India until we had walked in through the door and been met with KD’s warm greeting, as though 11 months hadn’t passed since we had last seen one another.”
At a time when Delhi has lost enough independent book stores to warrant a special tomb, KD has become the subject of wistful talk.
“KD Singh…,” muses author Arundhati Roy, one of the book store’s many faithfuls. “I will always remember the sheer joy of seeing him smile the day The God Of Small Things arrived in The Bookshop. He had ordered cartons and cartons of copies. He greeted me with his naughty smile and his standard salutation, a line of dialogue from (the film) In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones— “Hi Sir, I’m so confused, pata nahi kuch samajh mein nahi aa raha hai what to do….” He used to keep video tapes in The Bookshop years ago, and colluded with us, me and Pradip, in the small matter of stocking copies of our own film, which technically belonged to (state TV channel) Doordarshan. I miss him…”
The novelist is referring to a film she scripted and acted in, and which was directed by her husband Pradip Krishen (in 1989). The book store she is referring to is the second outlet KD set up in nearby Khan Market in 1982. The more famous of The Bookshops, that outlet shut down in 2006 after a rent dispute.
This year yet another Delhi book store closed. The eclectic Fact & Fiction started almost 30 years ago, inspired by The Bookshop. Ajit Vikram Singh, its owner, frequented KD’s Jor Bagh store as a college boy. “I wanted to open a bookshop just like KD’s…. It was there that I first met writers like Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut and Jerzy Kosinski.”
In a note posted in August 2015 on the website DailyO, Vikram Singh highlighted the inability of local book stores to survive “in this current environment of reduced retail sale and high rentals”. It triggered an outpouring of emotion on social networking sites.
KD was also the guiding spirit behind another great Delhi book store. He helped launch The Bookworm in Connaught Place—it was loved for its collections of film studies and its spiral staircase to a mezzanine filled with coffee-table books.
Not many know of The Bookshop as a one-time publisher, but KD brought out film-maker Pamela Rook’s poetry collection in 1984. Final Exposure copies are still available in the poetry section, priced at Rs.30 each.
The day after Fact & Fiction announced its impending closure, The Bookshop posted on its Facebook page: “This is too sad. We feel alone today.”
The solitude is likely to grow. Independent book stores have been downing shutters for a few years now. In Connaught Place, The Bookworm shut down in 2008, the New Book Depot in 2012, and ED Galgotia & Sons Book Sellers emptied its shelves earlier this year. In Khan Market, Tharia Ram & Sons closed almost 15 years ago. The Yodakin in Hauz Khas Village shut down in 2013. Spell & Bound book store and Timeless Art Book Studio in south Delhi will soon be shutting down. Mumbai has also suffered the loss of local bookshops, including the New & Second Hand Bookshop and Danai Book Shop. The lights have also been switched off in book stores in Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Will The Bookshop survive?
The popular villain in the saga of book stores worldwide is online sellers. Two years ago, France even passed a law to ensure that online book prices were higher than those charged by independent book stores.
In Delhi, however, the needle of suspicion points elsewhere. “It’s not shopping websites that scare us but the rent,” says Sonal Narain, a long-time colleague who is now Nini’s business partner at The Bookshop. “If that goes up, we’ll have to shut down.”
This is not a pressure felt by Internet-based booksellers. Their businesses can be located far away from cities. If the owner of the warehouse raises the rent, the stock is simply relocated to a cheaper region outside city limits. Customers don’t care if their books come from Haryana one month and from Uttar Pradesh the next.
While customers love the low prices that online sellers can provide, they come with a hidden penalty. With the loss of local bookshops comes the loss of a literary community. Without local shops, there are no author salons, no browsing with tea in hand, no discussions in book aisles on the relative merits of William Dalrymple and Ramachandra Guha. Without local shops, there are no spiral staircases.
Many book stores in Delhi, including The Bookshop, sit in commercial spaces where they pay low rents that were set decades ago. The crisis comes to a head when landlords try to raise the rent to the market rate.
One family-owned book store in Delhi that is lucky enough to stand on its own property is Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market. Unsurprisingly, it exudes a rare confidence in these tough times.
Bahrisons has an extensive, friendly staff, and is always crowded. Navigating between Romance and Erotica, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with a celebrity TV news presenter or cabinet minister. Its no-nonsense owner, Anuj Bahri Malhotra, says his fellow book- store owners have to accept the high rents as part of their monthly costs. His father, he acknowledges, demonstrated great foresight in making the bookshop rent-proof by buying the land, a decision that entailed great sacrifice at the time, including the sale of family jewellery.
Thankfully, The Bookshop’s story did not end with KD. In fact, the shop stayed open even on the day he died, though it closed early at 5pm. The next day, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia was spotted at The Bookshop, holding a stack of coffee-table books.
A section of the political circle often hangs out at The Bookshop. Senior Congress leader Karan Singh comes every week; pausing in front of the graphic novels, he often shakes his head disapprovingly and murmurs, “Tch tch, why will anybody read this?”
“Once, many years ago, I accompanied V.S. Naipaul to The Bookshop in Jor Bagh where he encountered (politician and writer) Maneka Gandhi,” says writer Namita Gokhale. “Sir Vidia told her that he admired her writing. Maneka looked quite startled!”
The Bookshop cemented its reputation in the 24 years its branch enjoyed in the more popular Khan Market. It was in that outlet that Salman Rushdie signed copies of his newly published Midnight’s Children. It also had one of the Capital’s best collections of English films and Western classical music.
The Khan Market store was also popular with young men keen to get a glimpse of KD’s eldest daughter, the beautiful Rachna. “She used to sit (behind the counter) in the afternoons,” says Vivek Menon, founder and chief executive officer of the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India. Rachna is now married to publisher David Davidar.
When the Khan Market store announced its closure, customers scrawled on the walls, “Please don’t go. Khan Market won’t be the same without you!” Today, a Swarovski showroom stands in its place, gems of wisdom and sparkling wit replaced by crystal jewellery.
The original Bookshop in Jor Bagh could meet the same fate. And Delhi would lose another beloved book store, another literary salon.
On a recent morning at The Bookshop, Ms Narain could be overheard denouncing modern Indian fiction to Raghu Karnad, who was signing copies of his new work, Farthest Field. A college-going assistant, Sugandh Chaturvedi, who used to work there in the afternoons, was often seen reading Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel. Longtime doorman Sohan Singh knows the individual reading taste of every regular customer. Nini herself has tips on almost every novel you ask for.
She says a number of people visited The Bookshop after news about the closure of Fact & Fiction came out. They asked her hesitantly if she too planned to close down. “A shiver runs down my spine each time this question is put to me,” she says. “I always reply that we are here as long as you support us.”
Ms Narain, though, regrets the lack of support from publishers and distributors. Book stores like theirs are forced to stock what the big players believe will sell. While this may work well for chain or online book stores, she feels independent ones are defined by their collections, which are curated carefully and not necessarily defined by mass appeal.
The number of daily visitors to The Bookshop is barely more than 15, and not all, of course, buy books. Bahrisons Booksellers sees around 200 visitors daily.
Sometimes, says Nini, hours pass without a single visitor. While that certainly makes The Bookshop a perfect urban oasis, a loyalist would be justified in worrying about its survival.
Its closure would mark the end of an era in Delhi. For the shop and the city are entwined in each other’s stories. KD’s own life was a glimpse into the privileged world of a highly Anglicized Delhi that is beginning to disappear. Born in 1941 into a business family in Amritsar, he graduated from Delhi University’s (DU’s) Hindu College. After working briefly at a family owned factory that manufactured Olympus cameras, he opened a delicatessen with friend Kuldeep Shankar in Jor Bagh Market.
Steak House was perhaps the first Delhi store to stock imported cheese and meat cuts. KD, however, could never bring himself to enjoy dealing with raw meat. As a foretaste of things to come, he installed a book-spinner in the meat shop, stacking it with the season’s best-sellers.
This was about the time that KD was dating an army officer’s daughter. He would pick her up after classes from DU’s Lady Shri Ram College in a chauffeur-driven Ambassador and they would drive to Connaught Place restaurants such as Volga or Gaylord, both of which closed long ago.
KD and Nini married in 1967. They opened The Bookshop in 1970. Nini remembers her husband single-handedly arranging all the books. When he was done, the two of them waltzed between shelves that smelled of wood polish.
It was a dreamy opening scene. The new book stores may not be able to compete with this but they are fast weaving their own tales. Some of India’s most famous writers and publishers now meet to discuss book proposals at the Café Turtle in Khan Market, a restaurant that is run in partnership with Full Circle Bookstore, where novels are stacked alongside scented body lotion. The book-store’s staff does, however, make the effort to understand the individual tastes of regulars.
The relatively new Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place has pulled in crowds with an unending series of readings and launches. As with Full Circle, Oxford merges into its tea lounge, Cha Bar, hoping to encourage people to cross over.
The Delhi Walla asks Nini about the future of The Bookshop. The mother of three and grandmother of four takes a long time to answer. “I’m not thinking far ahead. Sonal helps me,” she says, referring to her colleague, who runs the show during the first half of the day. “You see, it started as KD’s and my bookshop and that’s what it is….”
It is a quarter past seven in the evening. Doorman Sohan Singh switches off the air conditioner. Nini turns off the credit card machine, picks up her handbag, takes one last look around and turns off the lamps one by one.
The next morning, at 10am, Ms Narain arrives to open the shop. Nini walks in an hour later and sits down on a moora with a novel. Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet In Paris is playing. It’s a new day at The Bookshop.
KD Singh’s legacy
1. (Nini KD Singh with KD Singh)
3. (Nini KD Singh, Sonal Narain)
4. (Picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
5. (The Bookshop, Khan Market; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
6. (KD Singh, Salman Rushdie; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
6a. (KD Singh with author Arundhati Roy)
7. (The Bookshop, Khan Market; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
8. (The Bookshop, Khan Market; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
9. (William Dalrymple; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
10. (Picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
11. (KD Singh and Nini at The Bookshop in Khan Market; picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
12. (Picture courtesy: The Bookshop)
13. (Sohan Singh)
13a. (Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia)
14. (Author Valmik Thapar)
15. (Nini KD Singh holding the only book published by The Bookshop)
17. (Nini KD Singh with Sugandh Chaturvedi)
18. (Author Raghu Karnad)