[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
They are walking together.
One evening The Delhi Walla sees Nini KD Singh and Aanchal Malhotra at a public park in the quiet Jor Bagh. The two women are intimately connected to two similar but separate—some might even say rival—institutions that add beauty and friendliness to this city.
Ms Singh is the wife of KD Singh, with whom she founded The Book Shop in Jor Bagh in 1970. Ms Malhotra is the granddaughter of Balraj Bahri Malhotra, who founded the Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market in 1953.
Ms Singh and her husband went on to open a second outlet of The Book Shop in Khan Market. It was just a few steps away from the Bahrsions Booksellers. Both these Khan Market landmarks had their loyalists. Indeed, many were fond of both these places. Unfortunately, The Book Shop at Khan Market shut down in 2006 due to a rent dispute with the landlord and Delhi was left with only one The Book Shop. (The much-loved Bahrisons Booksellers continues to flourish in Khan Market, however.)
Two life-altering events took place since then. Ms Singh lost her husband two years ago. Ms Malhotra lost her grandfather a few weeks ago.
These days Ms Singh manages The Book Shop in Jor Bagh with her business partner, Sonal Narain, while Ms Malhotra, a Partition archivist, is working on a book. Her family’s shop is run by her parents, Rajni and Anuj Bahri.
This evening Ms Singh and Ms Malhotra are walking slowly beside each other on the paved path that runs around the park. The Book Shop is just across the road from the garden’s entrance.
The first time that Ms Malhotra met Ms Singh was only a week ago for an article she was writing on independent bookshops. (You can read that account here).
Slowing beside a bench, Ms Singh tells Ms Malhotra that it was in this garden that some of the last photographs of her husband were taken. Ms Malhotra stays silent.
They resume walking. The path is skirted with the season’s flowers. The city has just stepped into its short-lived spring. Ms Singh points out yellow flowers to Ms Malhotra. The older of the women seems to know the name of each flower, each tree. At one point, Ms Singh waves towards the purple flowers of the Kachnar tree. Ms Malhotra looks up with wonder. She tells Ms Singh about her habit of collecting the red flowers of the Semal tree for her grandmother.
After taking a round of the park, Ms Singh returns to her bookshop and Ms Malhotra crosses the Lodhi Gardens and walks towards Khan Market.
Later in the night, Ms Malhotra e-mails me a note:
“Each time I enter a bookshop that isn’t my family’s, I feel this sense of nervousness, my fingertips begin to tingle as though I’m in the most uncharted of territories. Inevitably, my eyes seek out any alcove of familiarity- some corner where the books are stacked in a way that they’d be at Bahrisons, a title that I have seen recently at our store, anything familiar; and then I locate myself around that glimpse of familiarity.
“In The Bookshop’s case, it was Nini. When I walked it, I refused to linger as I would have in our bookstore, instead I headed straight to her- she reminded me of Bahrisons, of its essence, of my grandparents when they first began the shop. My grandfather’s life-work was Bahrisons Booksellers. Her husband’s life-work was The Book Shop. And around her, I felt a comfort. My aunts used to tell me that in the scorching summers of their youth, they would visit their cousins in Matia Mahal [in Old Delhi] and the old Biji sitting in the aangan [courtyard] of the haveli would call out to the girls to come put henna on their feet as it would cool them down. This coolness, this ephemeral freshness, was what I experienced when I met Nini. The loss she felt was the same loss my grandmother, and by extension, I felt. Nini was removed from it yet she understood it completely, and that eased my heart.
“I don’t know if I’m explaining this in the right way, but last week, as we sat on the bench in the park outside The Book Shop, I knew that there was nothing I was feeling that needed to be described to Nini; she just understood it. And so our conversation that day was of a few words strung together by long silences, yet everything that needed to be shared was shared.”
The Book Shop (right) and Bahrisons Booksellers go for a walk