Books are more precious than jewels — Anuj Bahri, owner of Bahrisons bookstore in New Delhi’s prestigious Khan Market couldn’t agree more. Having joined the family business 36 years ago, he says: “The poetry and elegance of the written word fascinated me even as a kid.”
Sitting amidst a massive variety of books including international bestsellers, Bahri reminiscences: “I began visiting and helping out at the store for a few hours when I was in school and on a full-time basis after graduating from Delhi University.”
Much like his father, Balraj Bahri Malhotra, he has a sharp memory for titles and enjoys interacting with customers, many of whom are regulars including second- and third-generation politicians, diplomats, journalists, writers and filmstars.
Bahrisons has a history and the life story of Bahri’s father reads no less than a novel. In 1947, as a result of India’s partition, a 19-year-old college student, Malhotra was forced to leave a comfortable life in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The partition of the country compelled millions of Hindu refugees to flee across the border to India. Malhotra’s family, led by his father, a bank manager, mother, two brothers and a sister, also set off for India. However, upon reaching the railway station, they were separated from the patriarch of the family.
“My grandfather was actually requested by some people to stay back and train them in basic banking,” Bahri says. “Even though he could not communicate with his family, he had been assured a safe passage to India to be reunited with the family after some time.”
Meanwhile, the family boarded a cramped train and, after crossing over to India, reached Delhi. Allotted a small space in Kingsway Camp, they stayed as refugees, like numerous others. With the security of a home gone and wihtout the comforts, life had taken a sudden turn. Malhotra and his brothers were left with no choice but to look for any kind of employment that came their way. They struggled and survived.
Eventually, when the patriarch was reunited with the family, they bagged the contract to print and distribute government publications. The business was allotted to Malhotra’s eldest brother, who preferred to register it after their clan — Bahri, rather than naming it after their surname, Malhotra. Set up at Lajpat Rai Market across from the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the Bahri Brothers had made their foray into the book trade.
However, not restricting himself to the family business, Malhotra began working at a store selling pens in Chandni Chowk, and hoped to someday own a store of his own. As luck would have it, in 1953 the government announced an allotment of shops to refugees from the North West Frontier Province (a region of Pakistan). The newly constructed area was named Khan Market after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, the brother of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — a pioneer in the Indian independence movement.
Malhotra took a loan from his employer and also sold his mother’s gold bangles to raise money. Soon, he became the proud owner of Bahrisons, a small stationery store in the ‘refugee market’. “I am sure, my father would not have then thought it would someday become a famous landmark,” Bahri beams.
When it was inaugurated, Khan Market had one or two of each categories of shops selling grocery, crockery, apparel, toys and stationery. Built to serve politicians and bureaucrats who then lived in the vicinity, it is now listed among the most expensive markets in the world. Best described as a U-shaped market with another two parallel U’s, there is as much activity inside these parallels as there is in the front of the market. Bahrisons is right at the entrance. A modest businessman, Bahri shrugs off the “expensive” tag given to the destination. “The value of the real estate means nothing when you are not selling,” he reasons.
Bahri may not have struggled in life but has remained grounded just as his father. When Malhotra, a hard-working boy barely in his 20s, was not content with selling pens at his stationery store, he sought advice from a bookstore owner in Connaught Place, the heart of the city, on how to make good use of the empty space in the store. The owner of Lakshmi Bookstore recommended he stock books to fill up the space.
“But it was important to know the readers’ choice, which my father was not at all aware of. He would sit with a paper and a pen at the store and note down the customers’ requests for books. In the afternoon, he would shut shop for a couple of hours and cycle down from Khan Market to Connaught Place and source books from his mentor. Open for business again in the evening, he would be ready with his stock of books. Browsing through the modest collection, the customers would come looking for more. In this way, more and more new titles began getting lined up on the shelves,” Bahri recalls.
Over time, Malhotra established a name for his bookstore and Anuj too began assisting his father. With the creation of an additional floor, the father-son duo not only added more space, but also expanded the business.
Bahrisons is at present a combination of three different shops that include the bookstore, a publishing house named Tara-India Research Press, and a literary agency called Red Ink.
Malhotra died in 2016 at the age of 87. Out of the numerous incidents Bahri recalls includes having chanced upon people stealing books but he would never say anything. “I did not want to come between a person’s desire for knowledge, even if they could not afford a book. Who knows, that might have got them addicted to reading and educating themselves.”
Asked what precious lessons he learnt from his father, Bahri says: “Always listen to what the customer is telling you. Almost all Indians make suggestions, but the readers’ and authors’ feedback is taken more seriously.”
No doubt, the bond that was established in 1953 continues to be cemented.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.