City Library – Aanchal Malhotra’s Books, Safdarjung Enclave
A vanishing world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Love books? Then envy Aanchal Malhotra. Her parents run Bahrisons Booksellers, India’s most successful independently owned bookstore.
One morning The Delhi Walla enters Ms Malhotra’s book-lined home in Safdarjang Enclave. It is so different from her bookstore–so crowded with writers and yet so serene. The drawing room has hundreds of books, so does her bedroom. A paperback Keats is on the bedside table. Ms Malhotra is a tad too close to this poet. One of his most famous lines–A thing of beauty is a joy forever–is tattooed on her arm.
This sensitive woman also has a thing for a tragic Russian poet whose collection of poems contains within its pages a handwritten note by a penfriend from Paris:
I discovered Anna Akhmatova a few years ago- right before my grandfather’s demise. Thought it won’t fill the void, it might- under certain circumstances, under a certain moon- ease the pain. As it did for me.
The most treasured possession in Ms Malhortra’s library, however, is not a book, but a shawl—her grandfather’s shawl, which she keeps near her writing table in the drawing room (see photo 10 below).
Balraj Bahri Malhotra was the bookstore’s founder. He passed away in March 2016. By then Ms Malhotra had already established herself as a partition archivist and would travel across India, and sometimes beyond it, in search of material possessions that partition refugees carried along with them on either side of the border during India’s great divide in 1947.
As she tells me: “I’m attempting to celebrate the serendipitous survival of many of these seemingly mundane objects, like books, matriculation certificates, utensils, old photographs, etc, and hoping to help subsequent generations like mine to understand their importance and keep alive their stored memories.”
As expected, a number of books in Ms Malhotra’s drawing room are on the partition. One of them is an extremely handsome black volume of Saadat Hasan Manto’s celebrated short stories. A special centenary edition, it was gifted to her by Sang-e-Meel publishers in Lahore, Pakistan.
Now, the thing that I always suspected.
It is confirmed. Ms Malhotra never buys books in Delhi. Most of her bibliophilic needs are taken care of by her family-owned bookshop. The only time she had to resort to other bookstores was when she was studying traditional printmaking and art history in Canada. (Her beautiful copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary contains a bookmark of The Word, a secondhand bookstore on 469, Rue Milton, Montreal.)
In the autumn, Ms Malhotra’s library will receive a new inhabitant–Remnants of a Separation: A history of the Partition of India through material memory (working title). To be published by HarperCollins India, this shall be her first book as a writer.
The bookseller’s haven