Mission Delhi – Vijay Kumar, Paharganj
One of the one per cent in 13 million.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
For the last 10 minutes, his grey eyes haven’t blinked; his posture on the green plastic chair hasn’t changed. Vijay Kumar, 56, is selling second-hand books in Paharganj, central Delhi, for 30 years. “Nothing has changed since 1980, when I started this stall,” he says. The Delhi Walla meets him one winter morning at his pavement stall on Rajguru Road, near Imperial cinema. “The only difference is that, cell phone hoardings have come up and more hotels have mushroomed. Paharganj is less residential now.”
Jostled between Blessing Hotel and Rajasthani Music Emporium, Mr Kumar’s establishment has novels and guidebooks in English, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian and Japanese. In the English section, the authors range from Maya Angelou to Elizabeth Gilbert. Most customers are foreign tourists, staying in the area’s inexpensive hotels. Across the road is a row of havelis. Some of these ancestral mansions continue as private houses; others have been rebuilt into hotels.
The surrounding scenes are stereotypically Indian. Two small cars are parked just in front of the stall. A bullock cart is trotting past on the road. An ear-cleaner is busy with a customer at the pillared corridor outside Imperial’s box office. A fruit vendor is picking his nose.
Every morning at five, Mr Kumar reaches the stall and unpacks the books from cardboard boxes, brought on a rickshaw. It takes him two hours to arrange the stacks. “Guidebooks have to be put up here, Dutch novels over there. Indian books here. Newspapers are laid on the ground.” At 9 pm, he re-packs the unsold books and takes them home to be brought again the next day.
“From 1968 to 1980, I rode an auto,” Mr Kumar says, referring to the three-wheelers. “But then Biharis came and ruined the reputation of auto drivers.” Many Delhiwallas unjustifiably consider the migrants from the eastern state of Bihar as lazy, moody and dishonest. “People started thinking that all autowallas fleece their customers. I got fed up and left the line.”
Born in Paharganj’s Nalwa street, Mr Kumar has seven sisters and three brothers. His father was a tailor, who stitched uniforms for the blue-collar employees of the union government. Mr Kumar has only one daughter, Priyanka. She, along with her husband and two sons, stays with him and his wife, Prem, at their one-room house in Paharganj.
“A friend, who had a bookstore in Daryaganj, advised me to try out his trade. But I didn’t know the ABC of books.” Mr Kumar’s reading is limited to Hindi dailies. The friend helped him in setting the stall. Since then, Mr Kumar has been sitting at this spot in Rajguru Road. “Business has gone down after the arrival of internet, but I manage to make enough for daal-roti.” For acquiring new books, he depends on nearby hotels, where tourists forget their novels/guides while checking out. He also gets books during auctions at the foreign embassies in the diplomatic enclave of Chankayapuri.
“Selling second-hand books is hard work and now my missus says I’m too old for it.” Every day, Mr Kumar’s wife comes to deliver a hot homemade meal. “She has just left. You missed her and the lunch.”
[This is the 34th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]
Where are you, Mr Kumar?
The world is a stage
Can you look into Mr Kumar’s soul?
The bookseller’s collection
Settling the dealer’s account
No customer yet
Another day is ending