Possessing a sharp eye for spotting a bookshop, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealing in: All Kinds of Old & Rare Books in Urdu & Persian, came briefly into view from the mini-bus window. As far as I’m concerned no holiday is quite complete without discovering at least one bookshop. New Delhi it seemed would be no different. Although requesting a stop in the middle of a congested New Delhi road just to satisfy my bibliophilic idiosyncrasies did seem foolhardy, particularly as I am unable to read either Urdu or Persian. So whether – apart from their signage – Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealt in any kind of English books would, for the meantime, remain a mystery[i].
I was not discouraged. On the contrary, this first sighting of genus bookshop was an auspicious start considering I’d resolved to go cold turkey for this family trip to India. Travelling with youngsters meant concessions must be made. There just wouldn’t be time for circuitous journeys in search of bookshops. Consequently I had not compiled my usually extensive list of book locales at our intended destination.
Our holiday was necessarily organised and of manageable duration. We’d taken our cue from that little known 17th century travel advisor, Francis Bacon who remarked, “Travel, in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” Further salutary advice issued in Of Travel served as a blueprint for our journey. Just as Bacon championed the holiday diary, so too had Ali, presenting both children with a small diary in which to record their experiences along the way. As Bacon recommended, the ‘book’ “describing the country where he travelleth” – ours was the Eyewitness India Travel Guide – was packed and even while struggling to grasp the brevity of our 21st century travel itinerary, he would nonetheless be satisfied his requirement that one should, “not stay long in one city or town; more or less as the place deserveth, but not long”, would indeed be met. And of his suggestions for “the things to be seen and observed”, our seven day Golden Triangle Tour: New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra encompassed a fair proportion: “the walls and fortifications of cities and towns”, “antiquities and ruins”, “treasuries of jewels and robes; cabinets and rarities”. As well as all this seeing and observing we would also be doing: an elephant ride to the Amber Palace and a cycle rickshaw ride through the snaking streets of Old Delhi.
But as Sanjeev, our driver – although automotive contortionist is perhaps a more apt description of the driver’s art in India – manoeuvred the mini-bus through the interstices of an incessant traffic flow, both Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu and my pre-departure resolve evaporated. Hadn’t Bacon said something about seeing bookshops? Of course encased in our tour cocoon the opportunities for breakout were limited, but on New Year’s Day our last day in New Delhi – the tour officially over – suitably armed with city map and directions to New Ashok Nagar, the nearest station, we took ourselves to town. Eight stops later the Delhi Metro disgorged us and a steady stream of other New Year’s Day travellers at Barakhamba Road. Trusting our map and Ali’s innate sense of direction, the numerous offers of ‘help’ by persistent navigational salesmen were politely rebuffed as we headed towards Connaught Place. Our walk, however, proved further than anticipated and in retrospect we probably should have got off the metro one stop later at Rajiv Chowk, the Inner Circle of Connaught Place. Wishing us a “Happy New Year”, a passing New Delhiite stopped and asked where we were headed. Mindful of our limited time his offer to hail us a tuk tuk was now gratefully accepted. An hour later with various purchases made – some obligatory, others not – and gaining precious extra minutes on three wheels rather than two feet, I asked the driver to take me to a bookshop. Looking utterly bemused and perhaps fearing he had somehow misheard me, he queried “you want to go to a bookshop Madam?” A firm but friendly, “absolutely, yes please” left him in no doubt about my intentions. Once again, like The Taxi that Hurried he whisked us away, propelling his tidy little yellow and green tuk tuk through the crowded streets. We were jiggled and jerked on its only seat until suddenly he stopped and we tumbled out. From across the road I spied the Jain Book Agency and after a seven day abstinence, hurried headlong towards it.
Climbing single file, the narrow staircase led us to a small room in bloom with books. Tending this literary garden were two gentlemen who greeted us warmly, “Namaste, Happy New Year” and somehow managed to make room for four more among this profusion of paper. I spent a happy half-hour surveying the shelves, eventually realising this tiny space was an annexe of the much larger shop two doors down. This was filled with all manner of books from Indian law, politics, and education to Indian railways. Finally, with only one book in hand – the 2014 New Delhi edition of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin with Indrajit Hazra – my family ushered me to the door.
Ali had set her sights on the Janpath Market. Unbeknown to me this perambulation would also lead to New Bookland. Perhaps just because it was New Year’s Day, this quirky circular bookshop, on the edge of the Janpath Market, wasn’t open when we arrived and its booksellers only just setting up as we were leaving, no matter a photograph would suffice. As we made our way back to the station I felt quietly content, recalling that Bacon had also encouraged travellers to see and observe “whatsoever is memorable in the places where they go”. And even though I’d glimpsed but a fraction of New Delhi’s bookshops and book markets those that I did see and observe were indeed memorable.
[i] Since returning home I can confirm, thanks to Mayank Austen Soofi’s 2013 article, The Old Delhi Dictionary, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, founded in 1939, does indeed stock English language books. Another lovely find was a December post from Glory to Ruins titled, The Urdu Charisma of Calligraphy, a conversation between the author and Khatib Mohammed Ghalib, owner of Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, about the dying art of Urdu calligraphy.