You pass the hospitals and cricket stadiums and tree-lined lanes until you reach Delhi Gate: the old stone arch that, fenced off and surrounded by traffic, marks the high-water point of the colonial government’s urban renewal. Hemmed in beyond this point are the alleys and shouts and cows and puddles of Old Delhi. And on any other day, you’d plunge headlong into the narrowest alley you could find, wondering what sights (monkey fight! dismembered goat legs! monk on a cell phone!) you’d see this time.
Except today is Sunday. Book market day.
The book market stretches westward from this point along Jawaharlal Nehru Marg (the southern border of Old Delhi) and northward on Bahadur Shah Jafar Road (which bisects Old Delhi from Darya Ganj, an open-air exhibition of Indian art deco architecture that we’ve only recently begun to explore). The booksellers line the sidewalk every Sunday, only on Sunday, spreading their wares before them — some in neat rows, some in crazy piles, some in towering stacks.
The selection ranges from the sublime (The Phantom Tollbooth!) to the bizarre (Bob Uecker wrote a book?); from the obsolete (Windows 3.1 guides) to the obscure (indigenous water management technique in Gujarat). Some are new, some are old, almost all are tread upon by barefoot salespeople shouting dasrupeesdasrupeesdasrupees as they stride from sale to sale.
The smell of old books overwhelms everything else. It’s wonderful.
You wouldn’t have expected the paperback novelization of The Empire Strikes Back to make it to India. Nor would you have thought there was such demand for torn-up romance novels on the subcontinent. And seriously, Bob Uecker???
Within the chaos, patterns emerge. One guy only has hardcover Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Harry Potter, all of them missing their dust jackets. Yet another has collected seventies spy novels featuring every James Bond wannabee you’ve never heard of (Johnny Fedora? Harry Palmer? Paul Christopher? Duff?). And good news for students of programming languages nobody uses any more: you’ll find more crumbling manuals than you can shake a SPARCstation keyboard at.
On this trip, one of the elderly booksellers on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg overheard my rudimentary Hindi. He was standing over a strewn pile of thin nonfiction paperbacks. “You know Hindi?” He asked me. “Main Hindi sihkraha hai,” I agreed, my accent and subject/verb agreement as bad as my spelling. “Then I have something for you,” he said. He walked across his pile and began rummaging, tossing volumes left and right as he burrowed deeper, carving a path this way and that, turning left and right to toss books he’d already tossed in case they’d landed on the one he wanted.
After a few minutes, during which I stood and waited and wondered what he’d come up with, he finally picked up a book of Urdu-English translations. He skimmed through it, muttered, scowled, and tossed it on the pile. “Sorry,” he said. “Can’t find it.”