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The bookseller with a heart

By Aseem Chhabra
May 22, 2014 11:33 IST
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Mr K D Singh at his bookshop. Photograph kind courtesy: Mayank Austen Soofi.Aseem Chhabra mourns the passing of the gentle and knowledgeable Mr K D Singh, who owned a quaint bookshop in New Delhi.

It was always quiet and warm in there. The narrow aisles made it difficult for more than two people to stand side-by-side while they browsed. The mooda stools gave one the feeling of a Delhi Punjabi household.

This was The Book Shop -- the cozy little bookstore in Delhi's posh Jorbagh neighbourhood. And it was run by a sweet warm Sikh gentleman, K D Singh, who always sat at the back, making invoices, ordering books on the phone, and definitely talking to every customer with a smile and in his gentle voice.

On Wednesday, newscaster Barkha Dutt tweeted that Singh had died. Her tweet read: 'Tragic passing of K.D Singh from my very favorite book store. Lovely man, lovely shop. Prayers for his family.' I later read in a news article that Singh had passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.

When I read Dutt's tweet on Wednesday morning in New York, my heart suddenly felt a touch of pain. I sensed that with Singh's death a little piece of me had died as well. And I did not even know the man, other than the brief casual conversations I had with him during my visits to his bookstore.

The Book Shop was like home to me. It defined Delhi for me just as some of my favourite eateries, visits to friends' homes and, of course, my mother's home. When I think of my visits to Delhi and the memories I would bring back, the trips to The Book Shop -- first in Khan Market and in recent years in Jorbagh -- were a definite part of everything I missed about India.

In the days after my return to new York, I would sit alone in my apartment, under the fog of jetlag and I would open my suitcase to see the new books I had bought during the trip. And I would remember from which shelves of the little bookstore I had picked each book or any small comment Singh would have made while I was paying him. I would be holding in my hand the little bit of India I had brought back, along with a kilo of mithai I picked from my favorite Bangla Sweets shop in South Extension.

I remember when The Book Shop closed down in Khan Market and I mourned the loss, while I stood in the cluttered aisles of Baharisons and Fakir Chand & Sons (both good bookstores, but lacking in warmth). There was Fact and Fiction, but it felt too out of the way for me. Teksons in South Extension, a store I had known since my teenage years, always seemed to be run by random employees who did not appear to have any passion for books.

Around that time Bookworm with its spiral staircase had closed in Connaught Place and Crossword lasted only a few years in South Extension. It was really sad to these good places, temples of literature and learning, dying due to the state of the marketplace.

And then someone told me that The Book Shop was still in its original location in Jorbagh. So I visited the store in Jorbagh and I was thrilled to find Singh there, with his usual smiling presence.

When I asked him why he had shut down his store in Khan Market, he told me about his celebrity landlady -- Maneka Gandhi and how she had hiked up the rent. The spot where The Book Shop sat in Khan Market is now occupied by the Austrian luxury chain Swarovski. Every time I walk by I find the store practically empty. Hopefully they are still paying Gandhi the handsome rent that she demands for that space.

Singh did not come across like a businessman just set to make money on every book he sold. I always felt that he cared for his books and the relationship he had with his regular clients, recommending them new arrivals or his favourites. He seemed to enjoy that relationship -- connecting good books with readers.

In watching him communicate with his regular clients I would feel a sense of envy. I wished I lived in Delhi and I could drop by The Book Shop a couple of times each month. I wanted to get to know Singh. He was a bookseller with a heart. He could have been an important person in my life.

Early last year I spent a month in Delhi following my father's death. Once my brother and I were freed of the rituals and responsibilities, I decided to visit the Delhi that was familiar to me. Naturally one of the first stops was The Book Shop.

I picked up a couple of books and then when I went to pay, Singh gently suggested the English translation of the Bengali novel Dozakhnama -- a fictionalized conversations between Mirza Ghalib and Saadat Hasan Manto. I remember him telling me that book was creating a lot of conversations in Delhi literary circles.

Dozakhnama is still sitting on my bookshelf here in New York. In Singh's memory I plan to pick it up in the next couple of days and finally read it.

Image: Mr K D Singh, left, who owned one of India's finest bookshops. Photograph kind courtesy: Mayank Austen Soofi

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