Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra
Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra

The death of a book bazaar

Delhi’s beautification drive comes at the cost of a historic Sunday book market. 

Those in the know rarely came to the Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar (also known by its Hindi title of 'Patri Kitab Bazaar') with the hope of finding a specific book. This is because of the unlimited variety of used books, and the disorderliness in the way they were displayed. Essentially, books happened to you here, as you walked, and, as I came to understand, walking could be an underrated form of creative resistance. While on the streets, readers and booksellers navigated their way through the book bazaar, bypassing the strict contours of a map of Daryaganj,creating a private, singular narrative of their experience of the city, amidst myriad others. Through individual movement, a walker (book buyer as well as book seller) subtly defied the strategic grids of the city, as he or she 'found' books. There were numerous ways to enter the book bazaar, and likewise, to exit. You could, in fact, simultaneously be inside the street market, and not. Nevertheless, you would always be in proximity of it.

Old map of Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra
Old map of Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra

There are several origin stories about the Daryaganj book bazaar, located in Old Delhi (or Shahjanabad, as it was known when the city was founded). The now relocated market is said to have been in operation since the Mughal Empire. Historian Sohail Hashmi says that Akbarabadi Begum, one of Shahjahan's wives, built this market in its earliest form. Several historical maps of Delhi show the existence of 'Faiz Bazaar' in this area. The name, Daryaganj, itself means 'a market across a river', where 'Darya' refers to a river (here, the river Yamuna) and 'Ganj' refers to a site where trade is conducted. It was not always the same product that was traded here; Daryaganj only became synonymous with the sale of used, rare, pirated books in the 1960s. According to locals, Daryaganj started as a consumer goods market, set up adjacent to the walls between Subhash Park and Kasturba Gandhi Hospital. There were vinyl records and hand-mounted record players, radios, transistors, mechanical goods, medical goods and used clothes; books too found their place. After a few minor relocations not significantly far away from the lanes of Daryaganj, a few booksellers moved to the now absent 'Lohe ka Pul' (Iron Bridge), near Golcha Cinema, from where the street market began to expand. Before its recent relocation to a nearby site by the name of Mahila Haat, the bazaar extended till Delite Cinema Hall. The structure of the market appeared like a long 'L', with books stacked on the sidewalks of Netaji Subhash Marg and Asaf Ali Road, and more than 250 vendors.

Circumventing censorship by accident

A number of vendors in Daryaganj book bazaar became booksellers inadvertently. Your regular Sunday book vendor at Daryaganj might have been a freelance photographer, an Urdu lecturer, a New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) official, a rickshaw puller, a newspaper hawker, a vegetable hawker, an embroiderer, a copyeditor or a stenographer, and so on. Most of them found their way to books 'by chance'– they say. And once they did, most of them remained in the business for decades.

The Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar was officially registered as a "natural market" by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NrDMC), the administrative body that controls the regulated and irregulated spaces in North Delhi. As per The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, a "natural market" means a market where sellers and buyers have traditionally congregated for the sale and purchase of products or services, and has been determined as such by the local authority on the recommendations of the Town Vending Committee. It can be understood as a space which develops over the course of time, where interactions between buyers and sellers happen without significant institutional intervention. So it's safe to say – perhaps even officially sanctioned – that the book bazaar exemplified serendipity.

Mahila Haat, Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra
Mahila Haat, Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra

Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar was a phenomenon occurring in the city at regular intervals. What at a cursory glance looked like a temporary, fluid, arbitrary space came to represent endurance in more ways than one. The market symbolised shifts and change, and yet, given the passage of time and the ways in which the market had been operating and sustained itself, it came across as not impermanent, but as a space which had a certain rhythm to it.

Throughout the course of several relocations, there were wonderful, creative ways in which the Sunday book bazaar escaped institutional control and censorship: in the manner in which the books were procured and published, the sparingly regulated location of the bookstalls, and the erratic yet inventive movement of the buyers. All of which made the market what it was, where randomness happened despite institutional control and regulation.What the buyer finally decided to purchase is what I like to call their 'find' (n) of the day. The value of a 'find' here was far beyond its marked price. Any book that was found for or in Daryaganj carried a 'sacred' value, which was determined by how and where it was located by the bookseller or buyer.

However, the market mostly derived its serendipity from its location on the street. The minimal yet visually and culturally vibrant aesthetic of this street market comprised of book sellers setting up their stalls and pedestrians or book buyers (an indeliberate yet frequent crossover) walking and buying the books arranged either in neat stacks or piled together in heaps. As A L Verma, one of the oldest book sellers at the market, often exclaimed, "There is a machinery working behind this market".

Regular visitors to this book market held a firm belief that every book that had ever been desired enough made its way to Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar to find its true reader. I will not completely dismiss their conviction, but I've since found that there is a process to acquiring the books which has been duly followed for several years. The books found in the book bazaar have been procured by the sellers after a tedious process of travelling across the city and often around the country. The booksellers acquired books which they thought had resale value from varied sources, such as paper markets, kabadiwalas, railway auctions, containers from the US and the UK, school libraries and in-house libraries of the deceased of the city, and also remaining stock from publishers. As they tell stories about themselves, and about their relationship with the market and its people, they declare their association with the city. "You can ask me anything about this city. I have grown up on the streets of Delhi, as Delhi's streets were growing," said Shareef Ahmed. He is proud of being one of those who participated in the genesis of Daryaganj Sunday book market in Old Delhi.

Unfortunately, the Patri Kitab Bazaar is now gone.

What happened to the street bazaar?

Based on a Delhi High Court order dated July 3, 2019 North Delhi Municipal Corporation mandated that the street market be removed, quoting "traffic concerns". Netaji Subhash Marg, which housed a part of Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar, was declared as a non-vending zone. In a display of solidarity, vendors also did not set up stalls on Asaf Ali Road, which did not come under the purview of the High Court order, since not all of the vendors could have been accommodated on one side. Until two months after the displacement, the vendors were left waiting for a decision on either to the reinstatement of their stalls at the street market, or being offered an alternative space – each week causing loss of livelihood, and making the vendors more desperate than ever. The market had been shut down earlier on several occasions, mostly around national festivals, or during any event in the city which required extra security. During all these instances,, the booksellers and the general public were rarely given any explanation as to why it was happening. However, the market would be revived through public intervention, with people raising the absolute need for both books and a book market such as Daryaganj Sunday Book bazaar in the city.

Following the most recent closure the booksellers held protests. In one of them the vendors formed a human chain on Asaf Ali Road. In another, they collected hundreds of testimonies from the visitors, who were dismayed at discovering the market absent from the streets, yet again.

The current protests that are being held in front of Exit 3 of the Delhi Gate Metro Station are striving to have the book bazaar's historical importance recognised, which would legitimise its existence on the streets, as against the closed, controlled space of Mahila Haat. The vendors state that the eviction of the market has effectively violated the Street Vendors' Act and the recently formulated Street Vendors' Scheme, 2019. Their claim is that the eviction of vendors without the recently formed Town Vending Committees first conducting a survey to map the vending conducted in that area (as mandated by the Street Vendor's Scheme) is a violation of the principle premise of the legislation and the older Street Vendor's Act.

More than six months have passed since the booksellers' forceful evacuation in July, and some vendors are still fighting to gain the streets back. Some of them put up temporary stalls at Asaf Ali Road as they would have earlier. With only a few books lying on the ground and selling at the cheapest price possible, these vendors are consciously diverting the readers and book buyers from the new location at Mahila Haat. At present, their books are frequently confiscated by municipal officials, mostly without even providing them with the mandatory paperwork needed before and after confiscation. If you spend a Sunday at Daryaganj, as I have done for the past several months, the whole situation begins to look like a Sisyphean task. The protesting booksellers are used to it, and not in a promising way. Some vendors at Mahila Haat, who say they had to opt for the alternative after having waited for so long, still hope that the Daryaganj market will reappear, since business at Mahila Haat doesn't seem to be going well. "We bring fewer books here. It is inconvenient, and the space is relatively more expensive than the streets were," they say. On the streets, the ability to spread books across the footpath worked in the vendor's favour, allowing for titles to be visible to passers-by. This is no longer possible within the 6 by 4-foot space allocated per stall.To make matters worse, the booksellers who set up their stalls towards the rear end of the complex do not get equal attention from customers. "It [Mahila Haat] does have a certain 'glamour' to it, but that doesn't necessarily help business. The timings are limited as well." The booksellers are aware of the constraints and are wary of the cost of setting up the market at Mahila Haat every week. A few have stopped coming to the market altogether, and pursue their business via phones and the internet.Even the bookshop owners and other vendors situated in the vicinity of the street market's previous location have mentioned that the hustle-bustle on Sundays brought about by the book market was conducive to producing more sales for them. As for local residents in the area, they are aware – now more than ever – of the significance that the book market played in their everyday routine. Apparently, it's all very dull now.

The cost of beautification

As Delhi-based architect, writer, and community artist Swati Janu, whose work engages with housing rights and urban informality in Indian cities puts it: "In many ways, this exchange brings to light the schism between the idea of redevelopment that the civic authorities seem to have and the concerns of citizens. Pedestrianisation in the city is being translated to the removal of street vendors instead of cars. If they are not along the pavements and streets, the vendors lose out on the footfall of their incidental customers."

Daryaganj Sunday book bazaar is not the first or only local market to have been erased by the city authorities in the interests of development. Pedestrianisation of Ajmal Khan Road in the Karol Bagh Zone is currently underway, flaunted by the official website of North Delhi Municipal Corporation. The roadside market in Kamla Nagar, which falls within the Keshavpuram Zone, is another market space which will be affected by this recent drive for beautification. Meena Bazaar in the Old City is yet another example – vendors in the bazaar were also evicted by authorities raising similar concerns related to traffic and the illegal encroachment.

While complete removal of the market space is a threat affecting the street vendors' livelihoods, informal markets have been dealing with rather subtle fears as a part of their everyday business routine. For instance, it is usual for the vendors at Sarojini Nagar market to 'clean up' the sections of their stalls which encroach on public space, knowing that the police could arrive at specific hours of the day. As long as the encroachment is not seen by the authorities, the shopkeepers are excused of the fine that they would otherwise have to pay for setting up their shops outside the officially designated area. The vendors at Daryaganj book market always found themselves on the safer side as far as everyday evacuation was concerned; their stalls were set up under tehbazaari, a system where the sellers paid a small amount for the occupation of the area. It was only after July 2019 that the fear of a permanent removal took shape, and they were eventually relocated from the streets.

Mahila Haat, Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra
Mahila Haat, Delhi. Photo: Kanu Priya Dhingra

The sense of discovery achieved by walking the streets of Daryaganj will be missing from Mahila Haat, which will be a much more controlled space. At the haat, the crowd is definite: all those who are present there are the 'chosen ones' – those who have made a decision to step inside the book market and buy books for their home libraries, their children, to prepare for their examinations, or to resell books for a profit at their bookstores. In the closed space of Mahila Haat, no one can accidentally become a book buyer as was typically the case with Daryaganj Patri Kitab Bazaar.

Broadly speaking, the gated architectural feature of the haat has a different cultural appeal: it has several places to sit at, to mull over your purchase or meet your friends. The same chaiwallah visits periodically to serve tea to all the vendors and a few buyers. (He dreams of having a tea stall inside the premises of the new book market one day, he tells me). Children are seen playing on the mowed grass inside the green spaces at Mahila Haat, and groups of students gather at various shaded shelters as they discuss what they could not find and what they bought, and also what they could have, had the bookseller agreed for a lesser price. At the bazaar, instead, people used to huddle at each bookstall as other readers joined, cutting across the queue of booksellers, until they were tired and left for where they came from. While the street is an active and dynamic space, the structure of the haat make it appear rather lazy, passive and relaxed.

What does this relocation represent? From the point of view of the officials at NrDMC – that the city of Delhi allows for change for growth and development, and that the residents of Delhi, current and prospective, may look forward to a more regulated and 'beautified' city in the near future. A smart city, as they say. "How can any city that talks of being civilised, discourage the sale of second hand books?" argues Hashmi in conversation with me, "It should be institutionalised," (in this specific case, institutionalisation refers to finding an alternative approach that would lead to a better, judicious "re-use" of the original site on the street itself).

Delhi's hybrid architectural landscape hides several monuments among other markers of its historicity. You may discover them as you try to simply be in this city – much like finding books in the Sunday book market. Daryaganj Patri Kitab Bazaar happened to be a rather serendipitous institution (historical as it was) that the city would hide and unhide on Sundays. Those who knew of it would compulsively never skip a visit. Those who didn't know of it would have, had they happened upon the streets of Daryaganj. However, with the sterile repurposing of the streets allocated to the book market, that is not the case anymore. You may not accidentally become a book buyer, as you once might have. It is all part of a larger plan now. We have lost the Patri Kitab Bazaar to this plan, and we mourn its loss.

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