City Landmark – Bahrisons Booksellers, Khan Market
Icon at 70.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is 48. He joined the bookshop when he was 21. Today, Bahrisons Booksellers turns 70. And Mithilesh Singh (see photo) is its longest serving and most senior staffer.
Founded by partition refugee Balraj Bahri Malhotra (d. 2016, see photo), the store has a branch in Gurugram, as well as in a few other places. This one in Khan Market is the flagship entity. It is also among the very few original landmarks still standing in the country’s premium shopping destination.
As with the rest of the market, the shop is often chock-a-block with the capital’s lawdeedaw movers and shakers. The awe and intimidation they emit is counterpoised by the ghar-jaisi homey cordiality of the owners: Anuj, the founder’s son, and Rajni, his wife. Then there is Mithilesh. Like a friendly djinn lurking inconspicuously beside the browser’s shoulder, he is ever ready to steer them towards their favoured writers. “Mithilesh is a genius,” author William Dalrymple once told this reporter, explaining “he knows about any book I ask for and find it in seconds even if it involves shinning up some rickety stepladder.“
Arriving from Bhagalpur in Bihar, Mithilesh started in Delhi in 1993 as a publishing firm’s “delivery boy.” Three years later, on his first day as a “helper” at Bahrisons, he was given a pencil to mark the back of each book that would arrive into the shop. From then onwards, “I plunged into work, poring over publishers’ catalogues, listening to customers talking among themselves to understand what they wanted.” At night he would practice his English pronunciation.
Mithilesh’s colleagues are as endearing in their distinct individualities. The calm Rajesh Kumar Dhamija manages the magazine counter. Babita Kumari (see photo) manages the classics shelves and cookery section on the mezzanine floor. The geeky-seeming Shafiq Ahmed has an unusually sharp memory for which-book-is-where. The super-serene Manjur Alam promptly sorts out customers’ queries. Deepak Soni is quiet and helpful. Sheetal sits by the poetry shelf, processing new stocks. Dilbar Singh is the go-to gentleman for dispatches and gift-wrapping. Abu Yusuf, aka Mamun, is your guide for coffee table glossies. Pankaj Kumar Mayur and Pan Singh Bisht are equally amiable. Doorman Reet Bahadur Simkhada is of course the first face you encounter on entering. (The mild mannered Devender Bisht is missed— trained to become “another Mithilesh,” he administers the Gurugram outlet in Galleria Market.)
Now, a lady asks “Mithilesh ji” for a Siddhartha Mukherjee title. He politely escorts her to the other side of the shelf, handing her the paperback (she finds the print too tiny, he looks crestfallen!). Next moment, “Mr M Singh” is seen shepherding another customer towards Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.