Mission Delhi – Vishal Nagraj, Daryaganj
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Here’s his hand-drawn painting of poet Emily Dickinson. Here’s his portrait of poet Hart Crane. The next few loose sheets have his recreations of poets Elizabeth Bishop, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Robert Frost, as well as of novelists Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, James Baldwin, Joan Didion and various other literary icons. Vishal Nagraj clarifies his author portraits aren’t for sale. He paints these select writers solely because he wants to say thank you to them. “It is just an expression of gratitude from a reader.”
A native of “many places,” the multi-skilled Mr Nagraj, 28, also makes pop-out kirigami cards. He also collects hard-to-get editions of classic novels, as well as rare paperbacks. He does sell some of these collectibles—his loyal patrons are spread along the Delhi region, particularly in Gurugram, and also beyond the Delhi region. A day back he sent a carton of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels to a book distributor in Jammu and Kashmir.
This afternoon Mr Nagraj is hanging out in a used bookstore in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj, where he often drops by to engage with casual browsers “because I love being with people who love books.” With his gaunt figure, wispy beard, and long hair, he looks like one of those imagined romantics who play guitar in full moon nights. In his Mayur Vihar apartment, “I keep my note pads by window sills, and whenever the mood strikes, I sit by a window and write a poem.”
Chats with the soft-spoken Mr Nagraj are demanding. His talk is full of philosophical abstractions, and consists of long winding sentences in Hindi and English, as if he were reading from a densely written book. He is neither on Instagram, nor on Facebook, “because I want to be available to the things that surround me like paper, pencil, books… and also people.” His shoulder bag anyway is as absorbing as any social media feed. Like a magician’s hat, it produces the most amazing things. Today it contains some of his aforementioned sketches, some vintage paperbacks of western cowboy novels, an old hardbound of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (in a slipcase!), and a super-thick Sylvia Plath biography that he is currently reading. Mr Nagraj is shy of sharing his mobile number but you may spot him in Daryaganj’s used bookstores. Come after 4pm when chances of sightings are higher, particularly in Mukta Bookstore, across the road from Daryaganj Police Station.
[This is the 432nd portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A special kind of book lover