Mission Delhi – Deepak Dialani, Paharganj
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
From early morning till late in the night, the lane would be teeming with crowds. The cafes would fill up with guests ordering lemon ginger tea and the Israeli dish of Shakshouka. The restaurants would play Buddhist tantra music. The pavement mehendi wallas would be drawing elaborate hennas on arms and ankles. And inevitably, there would be touts to whisper into your ears, “Do you want ganja?”
This was Paharganj, Delhi’s bustling hotel district, particularly popular among foreign backpackers.
But they are no longer to be seen. And neither is the rest of the crowd.
“Bilkula sannata (total silence),” says Deepak Dialani, Paharganj’s longest surviving bookseller whose little shop in Main Bazar has been in business since 27 April, 1996.
Chatting on WhatsApp from the isolation of his home in Paharganj’s Wazir Singh Gali, Mr Dialani mutters that “never ever did I see apna (my) Paharganj so eerily quiet.” In the past, the notoriously chaotic district had refused to quiet down even in the most terrible moments of Delhi’s contemporary history, the bookseller says. “Even when there was a curfew due to the killings of Sikhs, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, you would still find kids playing cricket on the traffic-free streets.”
Nobody’s playing cricket (nor badminton) on the streets now. The lanes that never slept are as dead as the graveyard.
Mr Dialani, however, does go out once or twice a week to get rations from groceries in nearby Nehru Bazar. “You can only see a few people out for necessary shopping.”
On his way to the grocers, he passes by the Main Bazar’s hotels and cafes that were full of foreign tourists, waiters and cooks in the BC (before corona) era. The foreigners left the hotels soon after the lockdown began. They were evacuated in the “badi-badi gariyan (big vehicles)” sent by their embassies, says Mr Dialani. He isn’t sure of what has become of the people who worked in the cafes. “They have simply disappeared… all is closed.”
His shop hasn’t opened for more than a month either. This too is a tragedy. Jackson’s bookstore has the city’s best collection of used books in Hebrew, French, Japanese, German and Italian. It would stay open all along the year without interruption. He would keep the shop open even during the Holi festival.
The bookseller isn’t looking forward to the end of lockdown. “My main customers are foreign tourists… Paharganj’s main business comes from them… they won’t be coming back very soon… perhaps for many, many months.”
Until some years ago, Paharganj had at least half a dozen used bookstores. Over the years all of them shut down one by one. Only Jackson’s survive. “I won’t let coronavirus kill my shop,” says the bookseller in calm confidence.
He now poses for a photograph with his wife, Neena, and daughter, Irshita, and Kala Nag, Black Snake—a paperback thriller he is reading these days.
When the pandemic recedes, Mr Dialani will again open his shop daily from 10 am to 10 pm, seven days a week.
[This is the 301st portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The bookseller of Paharganj