Delhi’s forgotten book bazaar that Ghalib used to frequent

Delhi’s forgotten book bazaar that Ghalib used to frequent

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 7 May, 2016
The poets used to meet at this bazaar and sit on the benches which were kept outside the shops.
The Urdu Bazaar in Chandni Chowk was once quite popular among poets and readers of Delhi, but today it’s dying a slow death, with only a handful of bookstores left.
Yahaan toh mushairoyon ke dor chalte the/ Sher-o-shayari ki baatein hoti thi [Here sessions of poetry reciting used to run. There were endless chats about poems and poetry].” When Nizammudin, who uttered these words, tells me about the golden past of the Urdu Bazaar in Chandni Chowk, his face lights up.

He is the owner of an old book shop at the bazaar, called Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, which was once known for its great collection of Urdu literature and poetry. There was a time when this shop, like the rest of the market, was thronged by readers, publishers and writers alike, all of whom were contributing in their own way towards keeping the Urdu language afloat. It still remains a one-stop solution for different kinds of Urdu books, though.

The market, Nizammudin tells us, was a particular favourite with the Delhi poets. “Just after independence,” he says, “the Urdu bazaar became very popular among poets. The poets used to meet at this bazaar and sit on the benches which were kept outside the shops. The poetry reading sessions were held right here, and the poets used to receive mutual admiration and criticism from each other. It was a different time altogether.”

But all good things come to an end, and the golden past gives way to the derelict present. There are no more poetry recitals at this bazaar now. The number of bookshops has dwindled over the years, with most sellers having moved base owing to declining sales and only a handful remaining. So it seems that the once-grand Urdu Bazaar, situated near Gate Number One of Jama Masjid, has today lost its grandeur and charm. 

Many factors lie behind the vanishing appeal of this market. One of them has obviously to do with the fading glory of Urdu itself. Hardly anyone bothers to pick up a volume of Ghalib or Mir these days and Urdu publishers are few and far between. So the only demographics taking interest in the language includes young students of Urdu, who themselves depend more on digital technology than on the printed word.

“Technology has overtaken books,” complains Nizammudin. “People hardly take the time to read books as they used to in the past. This is the era of mobile phones. You will see most youngsters glued to their phones all the time, which, according to me, is not right. Students come here and click photographs of particular pages of some book they need to read in school or college. They do not buy books anymore. This gets irritating after a point and affects business as well.”

Now that circumstances and a lingering downturn in the market have pushed most booksellers to the wall, many have turned to other, more lucrative, modes of making a living. Years ago, several bookshops were refashioned into popular eating joints or departmental stores.

“The sole desire of people to become very rich quickly has resulted in a decline here in the number of book shops. The business of books is not profitable enough. Different kinds of shops are popping up here. The booksellers have mostly sold their shops and have moved elsewhere. There is a presence of fiction and poetry titles in the remaining shops, but not much. In most of the shops you will find religious books. There are just two three shops that sell fiction and poetry,” says Ali Khusro from the Maktaba Jamia Limited Books, another of the last remaining bookstores at the Urdu Bazaar. 

“People hardly take the time to read books as they used to in the past. This is the era of mobile phones. You will see most youngsters glued to their phones all the time, which, according to me, is not right. Students come here and click photographs of particular pages of some book they need to read in school or college. They do not buy books anymore.”

Abdul Aziz, Associate Professor of Urdu at Delhi’s Zakir Hussain College enumerates for us some the reasons for the slow decline of this market. “This is an era of commercialization,” he tells Guardian 20. “The profitable product will sell first. The bookshops in this market, as we can see, have been replaced by shops selling clothes, jewellery and food. The experiencing of visiting Urdu Bazaar once was really special. We used to see poets there and we would chat with them. That Urdu Bazaar is now no more. That is present only in the books on Delhi’s past, and in the minds of people who are above the age of 60.”

And, the professor adds, the decline of Urdu Bazaar is only one aspect of a larger economic and cultural downturn, whose impact has been felt across the old city. “Commercialisation has consumed the real Delhi the charms of which used to lie in conversations and hospitality. There is no place to sit in the Urdu Bazaar today. The areas of Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar are now crunched spaces. The havelis are turned into markets, warehouses and small houses. The history has been finished by commercialisation. Everyone is blinded in the race of earning money,” says Aziz. 

Now, though this bazaar is heading towards a slow and certain death, the Urdu readership in general seems to be increasing. Paradoxically, the language continues to draw new readers towards it, as some mainstream Urdu publishers are willing to testify. 

Gulam Ahmed Rabbani, who is the person in charge at the Markazi Maktaba Islami Publishers, says that more and more people are reading the language today. “People are interested in Urdu because of the softness of its tone. The language is full of tehzeeb [manners]. Our profits are increasing day by day, as more people are paying attention to this language.” Rabbani says.

But once you lose your cultural bastions, you end up losing your culture. After the destruction of Delhi in the wake of the 1857 rebellion, Ghalib asked, “My dear man, when Urdu Bazaar is no more, where is Urdu?” The bazaar was of course rebuilt in those days, and rejuvenated to no end by the presence of poets like Ghalib. Now, pretty soon we’ll once again reach a point in the city’s history when the Urdu Bazaar will be no more. And there will be no Ghalib to save it. 

 

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