A Khan Market icon.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi; the black & white photos belong to Bahrsions Booksellers]
Balraj Bahri Malhotra, the founder of India’s most successful independently owned bookstore, died on February 26, 2016. He was 87. A man of immensely polite manners, he was essentially a beautiful composition of grave voice and stately dignity.
Born in 1928 to a bank manager in Malakwal in today’s Pakistan, Mr Bahri 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 all these years Mr Bahri was the last surviving representative of the market’s early years. Three weeks ago, after suddenly developing many health complications, he was admitted to Adiva Hospital in South Delhi’s Green Park, which is a few minutes away from his bungalow in Safdarjang Enclave. He breathed his last there. “He was surrounded by ma (his wife), my elder bua (his daughter), my mother (his daughter-in-law) and I”–Aanchal Malhotra, Mr Bahri’s granddaughter told The Delhi Walla on e-mail.
Due to his advancing age, Mr Bahri had passed down his work-hours during the last few years to his son, Anuj, and daughter-in-law, Rajni, and was only occasionally sighted at the shop, where he sat quietly with his arms crossed across the chest. Popularly known as The Elder Mister Bahri, his stern face dissolved into a disarming smile each time he spotted a familiar customer.
More than one generation of literary-minded Delhiwallas grew up buying books from Mr Malhotra. Veteran journalist Nandini Mehta was 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 is survived by his wife, one son, 2 daughters and 8 grandchildren. In reading, he was more of a newspaper person, a habit that he picked up when big dailies used to publish book review pages.
Mr Bahri’s funeral was performed in Central Delhi’s Lodhi Crematorium. All the staff members of Bahrisons Booksellers were there. Also spotted: the elderly Pran Chopra, Mr Bahri’s friend from his early Malakwal days.
The Elder Mister Bahri
4. (Mr Bahri without his trademark moustache, right)
6. (with wife, Saubhagya, last year at his home in Delhi)