City Obituary – Bhag Bahri Malhotra, 1932-2023
A bookstore icon.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
As a 15-year-old girl, she survived the partition in which two millions perished. Like many others lucky enough to live through that cataclysm, she went on to survive a migration, a new beginning, and decades of struggles. She also endured with fortitude the passing of her husband with whom she had shared 61 years. During her late 80s, she even survived the Covid-19 infection, twice. This Saturday afternoon, she died at her home in Safdarjung Enclave, surrounded by people she loved. Bhag Bahri Malhotra was 91. Her principal legacy being the flagship store of Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market, one of the very few original landmarks left standing in India’s most premium shopping address.
Those with insights into the country’s independent bookshops might remember Balraj Bahri who started his in 1953. Lesser known is his wife whose career helped finance its early years. Bhag first met him soon after the India-Pakistan batwara in Kingsway Camp, Delhi’s biggest camp for partition refugees. As volunteers there, both were refugees. She was born in a landlord’s family in Dera Ismail Khan in 1932. He was born to a bank manager in Malakwal in 1928. In their years together, he would call her ‘Madam-ji’, she would call him ‘Balraj-ji.”
Following their wedding, Bhag’s salaried status as a junior clerk in the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation not only landed her a government-allocated flat in Netaji Nagar, but also took care of the household expenses. It gave her husband the independence to routinely invest the bookstore’s entire earnings back into it. While Bhag worked through three jobs daily– at the office, at her home, and at the bookstore. Each afternoon, as her husband would head to Connaught Place to understand the book curating in the more established shops there, she would walk to Khan Market from her office in nearby Jaisalmer House, and administer the shop until his return.
After losing Balraj seven years ago, Bhag would only occasionally visit the bookstore managed by son, Anuj, and daughter-in-law, Rajni. The couple have enlarged the inheritance by opening outlets not only at other places in Delhi,, but also in Gurugram, Chandigarh and Kolkata. During those sightings, Bhag would sit silently on a chair, close to the poetry section, with a cup of chai, barely noticed by the browsers.
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Bhag severely curtailed her outdoor excursions. Though as soon as it became possible, she resumed the morning walks in her beloved Nehru Park, a habit she had picked up with her husband. Accompanied by longtime attendant, Ravi Prakash, the stroll would be invigorating, but she would feel the absence of the park’s “purane log (old timers).”
Bhag leaves behind three children, and eight grandchildren including author Aanchal Malhotra, whose first book—Remnants of a Separation—had Bhag on the cover.