How Delhi’s Reading Habits Are Changing
Bookstores help memory flow throughout the city like a steady, timeless heartbeat
Delhi is home to many book stores – including some of the oldest in the country – which, even in an era of movie-going and e-books, nurture a thriving reading culture here.
Delhi also boasts of various kinds of booksellers, ranging from independent stores such as the Amrit Book Company in Connaught Place, which has been around for over eighty years, to chains found inside the city’s many malls, as well as streetside stalls of second-hand books, among which the Sunday book market at Daryaganj is unforgettable.
It is unsurprising, then, that some of these places have become important sites of cultural and personal memory for the city. Abhinav Bahmi, who represents the fourth generation of his family selling books at Faqir Chand and Sons in Khan Market, says that great importance is afforded in generational memory to longrunning bookstores such as his.
“Our oldest customers have brought their children here to show them a landmark where a lot of their own youth was spent, and these children now bring their own children, too,” he tells The Citizen.
“And some people, who no longer live in the country, come back to revive their old memories.”
History and a Society of Minorities
According to Rajni Malhotra, who runs the Khan Market store of the iconic Bahrisons Booksellers, there has been great development in the reading culture of the city since 1953, when her father-in-law came to Delhi as a refugee from undivided India.
“Over the decades, the reading habits of customers have evolved. There is a greater curiosity and desire to read today: people are more net-savvy, and social media is a strong influence in developing trends and curiosity about what's new. People are constantly online and seeing new titles, which creates awareness about new books. Online reviews and blogs also allow book news to be conveyed rapidly and this increases book sales,” she says.
For Mirza Usman Baig of the Midland Book Shop in Aurobindo Market, the rise in readership in the last decade owes to a greater thirst for self-discovery and self-awareness among people.
“As history progresses, more people are reading books to understand the world better. You see, history is being written and rewritten as we speak, so people want to read more books to understand their identity and the facts of the world. The sale of books on history is rising for this reason,” he says.
“In recent years, readers have started engaging more with books on social issues and diverse identities,” says Abhinav Bahmi, gesturing towards a stack of copies of Rakshanda Jalil’s But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim prominently on display inside his store.
“There has been a huge rise in demand for books on Muslim identity, gender and social issues, and on Dalit issues. Books by Navayana, Zubaan Books, and Women Unlimited have become very popular. All this has urged us to create a new section in the bookstore for titles related to such social issues,” says Bahmi.
Other booksellers, too, note a rise in the sale of titles relevant to Indian society, a major example being Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out As a Dalit. Touched-up reeditions of older titles such as B.R.Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste are also in great demand. Bahmi also notes a rise in the demand for Urdu literature over the past year.
Fact Over Fiction
According to Sanjeev Arora of the Famous Book Shop in Janpath, a thirst for knowledge is outpacing fiction sales. “People used to read a lot of romance and fiction earlier, but there has been an overwhelming shift towards non-fiction. All kinds of non-fiction titles are selling more than ever,” he says.
Arora also remarks a significant increase in the demand for books by Indian authors who have garnered international acclaim. While these made up only 20% of the books sold previously, and the majority of sales were of books by foreign authors, now Indian authors form almost 85% of the stock sold.
Sellers of secondhand books from various streetside stalls, and within Daryaganj’s famous Sunday Book Market on Nai Sarak, have also largely shifted to popular non-fiction titles. Most of them now also carry books by Indian authors outside of the Chetan Bhagat variety.
Not Just Reading Alone in Silence
Delhi’s bookstores have been instrumental in catalysing new cultural movements in the city. According to Puneet Sharma of the Amrit Book Company in Connaught Place, books on poetry have become the rage among young people over the last five years. His store’s younger patrons are now more interested in both reading and writing poetry, he says.
This coincides with the rise of the performance and slam poetry culture in Delhi and elsewhere. Performance poetry has amassed massive popularity among Delhi’s school and college-going crowd. Rising interest in the art form has led to the creation of numerous slam poetry collectives, and competitive poetry events are now a staple at college fests across the country and beyond.
Performative poetry has now become a form of entertainment nearly as popular as live music in local cafes and bars, and actively being reclaimed by the youth as a means of protest against authorities and injustices public and private.
According to staff members at The Book Shop, Jor Bagh, part of the phenomenal growth in this culture can be attributed to the increased availability of poetry books.
“While it was very difficult to get good poetry into India till about 5-6 years ago, it has become much easier now. People are now exposed to more quality poetry and the work of indie poets from all over the world. The coming together of the internet and bookshops has contributed significantly to this. When people see something online and find it on our shelves, the excitement is nearly unmatchable,” they tell The Citizen.
Nor is the indie culture limited to poetry. With independent stores such as LeftWord’s MayDay Bookstore in Shadipur stocking zines – or small-circulation, self-published work which often brings together art and poetry with socially relevant issues – one is getting to see a growth in the Indie publishing culture, and at least an English democratisation of such themes.
The Reader is Political
Delhi’s bookstores seem also to be important to the public’s electoral habits. According to Puneet Sharma the pre-election period saw a massive boost in sales of non-fiction titles, especially those related to politics and economics. According to him non-fiction sales at Amrit Book Co. were almost double the usual amount during the months leading up to the 2019 general election.
“With regard to politics, while books about the Left have always had a constant, if niche, level of demand, in the last six months people have been actively asking for and purchasing books about the RSS and the Right Wing,” he says.
At Bahrisons, books on the RSS such as those by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, A.G.Noorani, and recently the sympathetic study by Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle, have become very popular of late. They sell alongside titles such as Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India by Chatterji, Hansen and Jaffrelot, and Ascetic Games by Dhirendra Jha.
A few doors down, at Faqir Chand and Sons, books about elections such as those by Ruchir Sharma and Naveen Chawla have been in hot demand. The Famous Book Shop reports a sharp increase in sales of political biographies. Readers of all shades of political affiliation seem to be purchasing these books to educate themselves about the Hindu Right.
At these bookshops, copies of books attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi – Mann ki Baat and Exam Warriors – have seen only average sales. They are reportedly selling slightly better at the streetside stalls, in a powerful illustration of Modi’s popular appeal.
According to readers such as Ria, a 20-year-old student of political science at Delhi University who purchased a copy of Swapan Dasgupta’s Awakening Bharat Mata from a prominent book store, her choice of purchase often depends on what her favourite stores decide to put on display.
The influence that booksellers exercise in the consumption of ideas is vast, and very easily manipulated.
Store vs Screen
The rising popularity of e-books and e-retailers such as Amazon and Flipkart has had varied consequences for the city’s bookshops.
According to staff at The Book Shop, the advent of e-retailers has created certain issues in sales for independent booksellers. “For instance, online bookselling hurts us when people can get what they want with a click. Because online bookstores are not restricted by copyright issues when bringing in titles, people often decide to buy from them because they can provide almost all international editions as soon as they are released, even if they have to bear the courier costs.”
The staff say they consciously stay away from the Indian frontlist, which is a the deep discount area for these e-retailers, in order to avoid competition.
But avoiding the growing shadow of the online market is not so easy for smaller book stores such as the 63-year-old Laxmi Book Shop in Janpath Bhawan. Here, in addition to opening their own online store in 2010, they had to narrow down the kinds of books they sell in order to save the business.
“Earlier, we used to stock all kinds of books, but there was too much competition, especially with the coming of online stores. Now we specialise only in books on astrology, as there is still ample room for purchase here, and our business is safe,” says Asham Sagar, who runs the store.
Yet, there is a belief among the better-off independents that they are here to stay, and will be able to coexist with the e-retailers, whose ability to reach small towns, conveniently for readers, renders them indispensable in turn.
“To a large extent we are seeing a huge amount of loyalty to independent bookstores now – people say that they can get these books online, but would rather get them from us. The experience of browsing and finding books in stores is not replaceable, it is never going to go away,” staff at The Book Shop told The Citizen.
Bestselling titles at Amrit Book Co. in CP
Show window at Faqir Chand and Sons, Khan Market
Renowned US slam poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay with Delhi’s young slam poets