City Landmark – Fact & Fiction, Basant Lok
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Inside Delhi’s wildly eclectic bookstore.
[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This place has attitude. While other bookshops sex up their appeal by setting in-house cafés, customers here can’t even carry a softy. And no mobile phones, please. In Fact & Fiction, rules are rules. Thank you very much.
Delhi’s most eclectic bookstore faces the Capital’s most popular hangout — Priya cinema in Basant Lok Market. On entering, try not to bother Mr Ajit Vikram Singh, the owner. He is perhaps browsing on his Compaq laptop or reading The New York Review of Books. Else, he is listening to John Mayall on his iPod.
Walk straight, reach the end and turn left. Tonnes of travel books — conventional (Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands), crazy (Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle), and weird (Kate Marsden’s On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers).
If you are into contemporary fiction, turn back towards the glass door. Rotate the moving shelf and pick the latest Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates. You like whodunnits? That too is here. No, you’re into sci-fis? Just turn right.
The crème de la crème is on the lower right side of Mr Singh’s desk. Here you’ll spot the who’s who of food writing, from MFK Fisher to James Beard to Michael Pollan.
But it’s not books alone that matters. The store would be nothing without Mr Singh. As a child, he would regularly go to Jor Bagh’s The Book Shop, another charming joint in the city. There he would look around in awe.
After growing up and having his fill of the high life — studying at Mayo College, graduating from St Stephen’s and running a sugar factory in western Uttar Pradesh, Mr Singh opened Fact & Fiction in 1983. Since then his shop has built a solid reputation while he himself is considered, by a few, as… how to put it, eccentric.
One guy told me how on asking for a title, Mr Singh “not only frowned but also said that I should make sure the name is correct.” Another blames Mr Singh’s “lack of warm heartedness to him being a real prince of Mayo.” However, I’m told that by the third visit, Mr Singh does start smiling. That is if he likes you.
“Most of my differences happen with customers due to their ill treatment of books,” Mr Singh tells me. “A bookshop requires a certain amount of sanctity and sometimes I have people rushing in with dripping ice cream cones.”
That he is not a chatty type adds to the ‘reputation’. It ruffles the ego of those who expect fawning-grovelling treatment just because they have been so kind as to enter his shop. But here Mr Singh is king. And he is kind. If a book catches your fancy and you are not carrying money, he reserves it for you.
Now, back to books. Step back and turn right. Poetry section. Basho. Allen Ginsberg. Anna Akhmatova. A translation of… modern German poetry! Who in Delhi would buy it? “The collection must have a good mix,” Mr Singh says. “Only then readers could discover new writing.”
Over the years, I, too, discovered many authors in this 300 sqft space. Once I discovered a secret attic when Mr Singh walked to the wall behind me and… disappeared! There was actually a false door and inside — I managed a peek — were lots of books.
That was a glimpse worth living for but this place, why oh why, offers no discounts. Naturally, after making your payment, you may not wish to return. Mr Singh needn’t worry, though. If you love books, you’ll be back soon.
Where 39 Basant Lok (Opposite Priya Cinema) Ph26146843
Shhh, they’re browsing