The Outer Circle of Connaught Place is so rightly named the Connaught Circus; anyone in doubt can simply take a walk down that lane on any afternoon. The cacophony inside the unending rows of shops, the customary busyness of the commuters, the relentless passing of cars that makes the traffic sit in gridlock most of the times, and just the general buzz of the place is enough to bewilder anyone who is unaware of the city. It was during one such pointless walks an evening that I had chanced upon Mirza Salim Baig’s little bookshop, at the doorstep of the infamous Janpath market, called New Book Land.
There was nothing remarkable about the shop, but what immediately distinguished it from every other bookstore in the city was its circular structure. That way the entire outer wall of the shop became an automatic display case for books, stacked neatly, according to subjects and across various genres. What a clever yet artistic way of marketing, I thought.
My first interaction with Mirza Salim Baig, or Salim bhai as everyone fondly calls him, was nothing out of the ordinary either. I was searching for a book by Milan Kundera, and he helped me find it. Then he said something about The Unbearable Lightness of Being and when he heard that I had read it, he seemed pleased. But to be fairly honest I forgot all about him after that day. It was only when I was traveling to Kolkata a few days later, and decided to drop in at an outlet of one of the giant bookstore chains in the country, that it struck me again.
On enquiring about a book by a not so-popular Chilean author on this part of the world, one of the men in smartly-dressed uniforms asked for a minute. Then he went over to another lady sitting on a computer to check for the availability of the copy. It immediately reminded me of Salim bhai, who not only could instantly tell whether he had the book one was looking for but also knew exactly where it was kept. It was not a virtue of any kind, after all in this age of technology and innovations it is only natural to take their assistance. But this one incident separated Salim bhai’s little shop from all other bookstores I had ever visited.
Mirza Salim Baig is a small, polite man who greets you with a smile and an elementary aadaab, as soon as you stop by at his shop. The first thing one notices about the shop is the handwritten board that hangs right at the front, “NO BARGAINING, NO DISCOUNTS, NO RETURNS”. But there’s no need to form an early opinion on that basis, since he offers a generous 20 per cent discount on all books any way. That board may have just been placed to ward off uninterested dawdlers.
Guarded by a giant Peepal tree, the shop stands tall at the entry point of Janpath’s flea market which is both a boon and a bane for Mirza. Boon because he doesn’t really have to worry about visibility or other factors — like being overlooked. Because if you are passing by that sidewalk, there is no way you could miss the disc-like, white structure; almost like a UFO but carrying only good news. Bane because being located there, he has to put up with all sorts of queries that have nothing to do with books by a long shot.
“Where can I get ladies sandals on discount here?” “Is PVR cinema this way?”
But he is usually unfazed and patient with one and all. If he knows the answer, he’ll quietly nod or point his finger to show the right way. If he doesn’t he’ll say ‘No’ and go back to doing what he was, which is mostly tallying daily accounts or reading.
He told me about his early days once. Born in a village near Hyderabad, he admitted to being naughty as a boy; “bohot shararti tha main” he had said. Stories of how he stormed the paddy fields all day, climbed trees to steal fruits from gardens, made peace with the summer heat by lying down under a running tap. He was a free spirit but admitted to being directionless. One day his father, whom he looks up to even in his thoughts, held his young hands and took him to the mosque. He left him there in the guard of one Haji sahib, whom Mirza speaks very dearly of, despite the strict legislature that Haji sahib went on to impend upon him.
Haji sahib, I believe, was the Imam of the mosque where he spent about four years since the day he was left there. Inside, life was completely different for young Salim. There were firm schedules for everything. After lunch, he remembers waiting for hours in the courtyard for Haji sahib’s prayers and lunch to get over. Then Haji sahib would come out wearing his freshly cleaned kurta, pyjama and taqiyah (cap) to talk about religion, God, and simple things that can make one cherish the gift of life more ornately.
It was during these long hours of indefinite wait that Mirza Salim Baig first entered the mosque library, which he recalls had a huge collection of Urdu texts, and picked up a book that he wasn’t forced to read by his teachers or parents. It was here that for the first time he discovered the world that lay beyond the daily struggles of our existence, hidden unwarily inside the pages of books. Here he could time-travel and come back at the blink of an eye, swim in a river at his will and fall selflessly in love with characters who were after all just the figment of someone’s imagination.
From lessons of the Holy Quran to Ishmat Chugtai and Sadat Hassan Manto, his real education began there, within the confines of those great walls. Mirza Salim Baig is no superman, and he looks even less like one. But he decided to not limit his ideas of reading and his undaunted belief in the magic of books, to just his home and family. He will humor you, if you decide to stop by his store sometimes, by saying that it was duty and nothing else that made him inherit this book shop; to carry forward a legacy of three generations. (His grandfather was the one who started it). But once you have chatted with him for even a few minutes, you’ll know that he was meant to be nowhere else.
Delhi is like many rivers flowing together, through various ideologies and streams of consciousness, and they almost never meet. Amid all this, Mirza Baig talks about unity and the perils of a divided society. He knows more than three languages and communicates with his customers according to their convenience. When you are rummaging through his unique collection, especially the new releases and significant publications which he keeps in the beautiful coffee-colored bookrack placed just outside the counter, he will never interfere. You will notice a young lad of about 20 keeping a close watch though, his own foolproof substitute for CCTVs and hidden cameras.
I don’t know if Mirza Salim Baig has any remarkable story to tell. But I see him touch several lives every day with his temperament, a few carefully chosen words of wisdom and an unruffled personality. Recently I was reading about how historic monuments and extraordinary works of art always suffer the worst damages during a war. From Hitler’s destruction of artistic masterpieces during World War II, to the recent horrific conflicts that are taking place in Syria or Palestine. Either they are looted and smuggled or destroyed in combat. And with every such piece, a significant part of our history gets erased from this earth forever.
Books, like museums or art, hold such captivating facets of our own past which is often also a reflection of the future.
With an ever-faltering number in readership, thanks to more prodigious alternatives of entertainment that is available today, the day may not be far when memorable works by eminent novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists, and so many others become extinct; pulped for their value as scrap solely.
And that is where people like Mirza Salim Baig step in, as exceptions to the rule who don’t challenge trends or norms, but silently go on doing the work that they believe in.
During one of our many conversations, he had expressed his anguish about how he misses meeting ‘real’ people nowadays. With notable sadness he spoke of a time when writers, publishers and booksellers were looked up to with respect. But before I could respond, he had already gotten busy with attending a pre-Independence-literature enthusiast, telling him about a volume that has recently been released, and which comprises of stories from a pre-partition Pakistan which were banned in the 1920s. Every man has his secret sorrows and his own part to play; and perhaps this was his.