(Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2014)
The Book Shop in Delhi was a lot like the magical places of fantasy described in the books it carried: larger on the inside than it seemed from the outside. The space it occupied in the lives of city readers was far broader than the compact premises in Jorbagh would indicate.
You could leave some of Delhi’s large chain bookstores with a sense of dissatisfaction, a hunger unassuaged by any of the shiny titles that crowded their shelves, but the indie bookstores did better, from Midland to Motilal Banarsidass or Fact & Fiction and, always, K D Singh’s Book Shop.
K D Singh died last week, of cancer. He was one of the city’s finest booksellers for a reason: it wasn’t just his love of books that shaped The Book Shop’s stock, but the rare combination of talent, experience and an unteachable instinct.
He often anticipated the curve, so that it was at The Book Shop that his readers found George R R Martin years before the HBO TV series made Game of Thrones a household name, or discovered Junot Diaz or Chimamanda Adichie back when they were promising unknowns. But he also had a great selection of translations. The Book Shop had Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and Vaikom Basheer’s stories, for example, long after those books had gone out of stock elsewhere.
His customers included most of the city’s writers as well as out-of-towners like Ramachandra Guha and Rudrangshu Mukherjee. In turn, Delhi’s writers told visiting friends from other countries that they must stop by The Book Shop because its two walls and middle aisle of books contained more surprises than they might imagine. Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a dozen others visited, among many others.
The Book Shop opened in 1970 in Jorbagh; by the time its sister shop in Khan Market had shut down in 2006, Delhi had grown from a small town coming up in the shadow of the Walled City to a massive, tentacular metropolis. And yet, for such a large and ambitious city, Delhi has very few good bookshops. This generation of teenagers is exposed chiefly to badly stocked mall bookstores, places where indifferent staff sell kitsch merchandise and bestsellers, like prophylactic inoculations against the love of books.
For authors and readers, the understanding of how crucial bookstores can be in your life runs deep, and the urge to pass on that love of reading is strong. When Larry McMurtry, the author who is also a veteran bookseller, turned 61, he went back to his hometown in Archer County in order to create “a newly born book town”. Ann Patchett had a smaller-sized dream: when she opened Parnassus Books in 2011 in her hometown, Nashville, it was because she missed the bookstores of her youth. “Mills could not have been more than 700 square feet small, and the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were ten.”
When I read that sentence again last week, it brought back exactly what made K D Singh’s bookshop so special. He was often ensconced in a corner, listening to jazz, and when I met him at the age of 10, he ferretted out my love for Gerald Durrell in seconds. “Try this,” he said, handing me James Herriot. It was a perfect recommendation, the first of many through the next 30-odd years. His wife, Nini Singh, his daughter, equally book-loving staff and Sohan at the door handled business when he was away, but it was a pleasure to see KD in his element, handling readers he knew as competently as total strangers.
I was at the store once when a lady came in, asking for book suggestions. She liked Rumi; KD paused for a second, and suggested Agha Shahid Ali. The next week, I was back browsing (buying books is a ruinous habit) when another person asked for suggestions. “I love Rumi’s poetry,” he said. KD directed the man to Jiddu Krishnamurti: the two customers had browsed books differently, and to him, their minor shifts in taste were as clear as footprints.
Over the years in Delhi, I sometimes missed living in a city with great public libraries, and often wondered what it might be like to live in Tokyo, with its 1,675 bookstores, or Paris, with 1,025 bookshops. But the truth is that all a reader needs over their lifetime is one good bookstore, preferably run by a great bookseller.
When K D Singh’s cancer set in, we missed him and the book talk terribly. In all these years, he had seldom gossiped about the publishing industry; he preferred to chat about the books themselves. It was easy with him to start discussing authors in one decade and to finish three centuries further back in time. The day after he died, The Book Shop was open for business as usual, a reflection of the values he and his family had brought to the book-selling business.
It will be a while before it sinks in that I can’t drop by The Book Shop to ask KD what he thinks of Mai Jia’s Decoded, or of the new translations of the season. But on my bookshelves are the years of spoils brought home from The Book Shop: about three decades worth of reminders of an extraordinary bookseller, and of a friendship built on the shared love of books and reading.