City Secret – Raja Bookstore, Paharganj

The Romance of a Book Cafe

Almost like Paris.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The setting of this café, or rather, a spot in the café, is very special. Perhaps you won’t find it anywhere else in Delhi. Fancy this — a table is placed against a bookshelf; you are having, say, jasmine tea; a qawwali or some Buddhist chants are playing on a music system behind you; and Indian street life — complete with cows, beggars and sadhus — is unravelling before you, a step away. All this comes true at Raja Book Center.

Situated in the Main Bazaar of Paharganj, the city’s backpacker district, this bookstore runs on the premises of Grand Sindhi Restaurant, a low budget eatery with multi-cuisine menu choices ranging from kimchi rice to muesli fruit curd to chicken goulash.

The table is right at the eatery’s entrance. To the sides are second-hand paperback stacks comprising books by the Dalai Lama, Jalaluddin Rumi, Dan Brown, Deepak Chopra and dozens of Lonely Planet guides. The restaurant menu is available in English and Korean; the books are in English, German, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Korean and Swedish.

Mohammad Tafuzzul opened the store in this 50-year-old eatery at the start of the millennium. He also sells music CDs, which explains why this corner is forever humming with ragas. The rack is mostly stacked with Hindustani classical CDs. “Foreigners like to buy Indian classical music,” says Mr Tafuzzul.

While there are two bookshelves at the restaurant’s entrance, there is a book ‘cell’ inside, too. If you have the time, you will find paperbacks by authors as varied as the poet Emily Dickinson, the novelist Premchand, the travel writer Geoffrey Moorhouse.

The food, books and music, however, are not the reason why the place is unique. Paharganj has many such addas. But no other place has a coffee table that close to the street (think Parisian cafés without the cattle and the nagging beggars) looking out to such a fascinating sight. Besides Paharganj residents, you have tourists from all over the world walking up and down the road. Opposite is a lane that is home to hotels favoured by Israeli visitors. They are easily distinguished by the kippah, the traditional cap worn by orthodox Jewish men.

The bad thing is that the corner is too tiny, with just enough space for a table and four cane chairs. Rarely is it empty. “This is a special place,” says Steven Samuel Thompson, a tourist from Manchester, England, sitting there with a glass of masala chai. “It’s like the crossroads, an ideal place to hang out in if you want to meet someone. Everyone passes in front of it.”

Do not hesitate to spend hours on just one cup of coffee. Mr Tafuzzul will not show any restlessness even if you buy no book. Instead, he may play your favourite Bollywood number.

“That is my favourite spot as well,” says Max, a Dutch photographer sitting inside the restaurant. “The view is vibrant, living and traditional. But people say that the road will be widened in preparation for the (2010) Commonwealth Games and all this will go.” Hurry, before it’s too late.

This is the place

City Secret - Raja Bookstore, Paharganj

This is the place

Ruined by Reading

This is the place

Around the World

This is the place

Eat Pray Love

Paharganj street scene

Holy Cow

Mr Tafuzzul in winter

City Secret - Raja Bookstore, Paharganj

Mr Tafuzzul in summer

The Bookseller of Paharganj

Mr Tafuzzul with customers

A Moment's Distraction

Inside view

City Secret - Raja Bookstore, Paharganj

More people browsing

Ruined by Reading

Another view

Ruined by Reading

Jew watching

Are they Jews?

Long view

City Secret - Raja Bookstore, Paharganj