City Hangout – Day-End at Sunday Book Bazar, Mahila Haat
Time passing, and final hours.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Endings mark closure to stories, give clarity. Endings tend to be poignant. Such is also the case with the fabled Sunday Book Bazar.
The story of Delhi’s weekly market for used books goes back to the 1960s, when it first opened on the outskirts of the Walled City, along the mile-long pave of Daryaganj, extending from Delite Cinema to Dilli Gate to the non-existent Lohe wala Pul foot-over bridge.
Some years ago, the bazar permanently ended—in Daryaganj—and was made to move to the sprawling plaza of Mahila Haat nearby, across the road from Delite Cinema, where conditions turned out to be more convenient for both book buyers and booksellers.
That aspect has already been chronicled in these pages. But one of the most memorable features of the Sunday Book Bazar is not about those moments when you fish out a rare edition of a beloved classic, but when the bazar starts to wind down by the day’s end. The last book buyers are leaving the place. The thousands of unsold books are piled up in the many stalls, to be dispatched back to their warehouses. The sight is like a Beating Retreat ceremony for bibliophiles, making for a distinctive Delhi experience.
Some years ago, this was the day-end scene as witnessed on a Sunday evening, when the bazar existed on the Daryaganj pave: It’s 5.30 pm and the crowd has thinned. The exhausted sellers and their assistants are wordlessly piling up their unsold books. The indifferent traffic is flowing down the busy road. Near the Golcha cinema building, a boy hauls huge stacks of John Le Carré novels into a rickshaw, his bare arms wet with sweat despite the chill. On the pavement in front of Hotel Broadway (now closed forever), a chap is flipping through a guidebook on Czechoslovakia—a country that no longer exists.
Cut to 2024. This is the evening scene in Mahila Haat, as seen last Sunday: It’s 5.30 pm. The crowd has thinned. Rickshaws and autos are parked across the plaza, stacked with unsold books. The booksellers are taking down their yellow and blue canvas sheets—it was rainy today, and the sellers used them to protect the books from getting wet. As if an entire city were being dismantled. The plaza’s huge bougainvillea creepers are without much of their pink flowers—they shall probably bloom in the coming summer. The Mahila Haat is exited by a steep slope, and the many rickshaw pullers hauling the books back to the warehouses are pulling their weighty rickshaws with great caution along the slope, so as not to upset the balance. Outside the gate, a handful of ram laddu sellers are stationed, with their remains of the day.
Dear readers, this Sunday, go in the evening, instead of the morning, to witness the bazar’s poignancy.
5.30 pm, then and now