My Back Pages: Buying Books in Delhi

Here is a long story that will not be of interest to you. You are welcome.

I recently came upon a book I had purchased in the mid-2000s from the Bookworm, a bookstore in Connaught Place in Delhi. The Bookworm was an important part of my life in my college years and after in Delhi. There were a few other popular bookstores in the city but as far as I was concerned there were two major places to buy books: the Sunday secondhand book bazaar in Daryaganj and the Bookworm. The Sunday bazaar is now much altered and the Bookworm is gone.

I never bought as many books at the Bookworm when I lived in Delhi as I did at the Sunday bazaar—from where you could return with an unholy number of books for Rs. 100—but it had its own, very different charm. Like many others I lived between and inside both worlds. In Daryaganj it was the excitement of randomly finding, in unsorted piles on the footpaths, books by writers I’d heard of but never read, and of being able to take chances at very low prices on interesting-looking books by writers I’d never heard of. You were out in the heart of the city accumulating harder and harder to carry piles of books, many of which you knew you’d probably not ever read. The Bookworm, on the other hand, offered cosmopolitan romance of a more European nature. It was a small shop, split over two small levels, both crowded with books; there was always either jazz or classical music playing; and when you entered its very lightly air-conditioned space the bustle of Connaught Place fell away.

Books here cost real money but it was perhaps the only store of any kind I’ve ever been in in Delhi where there was never any pressure to buy anything. And it was also a bookstore for book lovers. There were other upscale bookstores, yes. But at Galgotia’s it felt like books were just stock; at Teksons they were a front for greeting cards; and the Book Shop was for people who lived in Jor Bagh or at least did not travel to it by DTC bus. The presiding spirit at Bookworm was the owner, Mr. Arora. He was almost always present at the tiny desk at the end of the store, in control of the music, answering questions and offering guidance to those wise or confident enough to seek it. In my college days I was not. In later years he found books for me that no other store would—if they didn’t have a book by a new Indian writer he’d call the publisher and have a copy brought over—and gently prevented me from wasting my money on others (I still remember the look he gave me once when I asked him if a new collection of poems by Gulzar was worth purchasing).

The store closed sometime in 2008. Mr. Arora was older and I think the next generation had little interest in carrying on. Trying to remember when I’d purchased the book I recently came across I went back to the literature forum of Another Subcontinent—a once vibrant but now long moribund community devoted to South Asian culture that I was one of the founders of. I knew I’d posted there about my Bookworm purchases made on trips home from the US. I confirmed that the purchase had been made in 2005 and then I came across a long post I’d written that summer about the experience of trying to ship it and other books back from Delhi to Colorado (where we lived then)—a lengthy saga that had found a happy ending at the Bookworm. I’d completely forgotten about this experience and now that I am a self-indulgent blogger I am going to inflict it on you as well.

Yes, you’re only now getting to the threatened long story. Here it is now (lightly edited and with names of other Another Subcontinent members removed).

September 7, 2005

As on every trip home I purchased vast quantities of books in the last two months. In the past I’ve always carried books back to the US in my suitcases, leading in some cases to major muscle-pain and in others to major muscle-pain and even greater sweet-talking of airline staff demanding money for excess baggage. On this trip I decided to look into an alternative and remembered this thread [on book shipment costs and means]. Having perused it I went off to the Central Post Office on Parliament Street in Delhi, there to seek information on rates and means. Herewith my saga.

Outside the Central Post Office there hangs a huge banner that reads “fully computerized”. Remembering my less than happy experiences here about 13 years ago when I was speed-posting various application documents to the US, I hoped that this might mean a very different experience this time around. Unfortunately, this hope was dispelled the minute I entered the post-office. It is still the same inefficient, chaotic place that it was 13 years ago. Trying to drive from my head my brother-in-law’s statement that all improvements in Indian services in the last 10 years have been despite and against the government’s efforts, I attempted to search for an information counter. This was not easy since most of the staff who were sitting with their feet up behind their counters, drinking tea were not interested in such conversation. Eventually I located a desk with a sea of humanity around it. Given the aura of confusion clinging to this area like the foul fog that surrounds Noida in December I concluded that this must be the information counter. And so it was.

I waited patiently for the sea to part and when it finally did there remained another gent with a question, me and a curious gnome-like man behind the desk. This latter gent seemed very disinterested in the other hapless customer’s question. As far as I could tell this was a simple yes/no answer question about bill payment or something. But our man, the designated information provider, was a study in detached disinterest. All of this suddenly changed when he made eye-contact with me. I can only surmise that he realized quickly that I was an English-speaking westernized type because not only did he immediately launch into extremely, unnecessarily detailed responses about post-office policy to the aforementioned hapless customer, he did this in chaste babu English (further compounding the questioner’s haplessness), and directed it all to me–punctuating his utterances with elaborate smiles and winks and nods in my direction. I was utterly hypnotized by this performance, but then decided that if I did not play along there would be little hope for my own query being answered (if I ever got a chance to pose it). So I added my own nods and “haan-ji, yeh toh sahi baat hai”s and “very good” etc. to this local performance of the theatre of the absurd.

Eventually the first petitioner gave up and left. At this point I was invited to sit down. I said, speaking in Hindi, that I was happy to stand since I only had a very quick question. He insisted in English (he refused to speak any other language to me) that I sit and then launched into an enumeration of the importance of the postal service and his own not inconsiderable, albeit self-effacing and voluntarily anonymous, contributions to its functioning. Eventually he got around to asking me how he could ease my own passage through it. Well sir, said I, I need to send these here books to the US and I need to know how much it will cost. Quoth he: For you sir only speed post or registered post will be suitable. And how much will these cost me, I asked with the air of one expecting to hear a reasonable sum in response. At this point i was told triumphantly that the cheapest I could expect it to be would be about Rs. 7000 for every 10 kilos of books. This is the cheapest, I asked timorously, and he verified that for me this would be the cheapest and best. I leapt up from my seat in a confusion, mentally recalled lines from Shakespeare about cream-faced loons and staggered out of the post-office, completely impervious to the anguished looks and cries emanating from behind the information counter.

My spirit thus crushed, and resolved to curse X and Y for having given me hope in this thread, I returned to the day’s peregrinations. In the course of these I happened to pass, some five hours later, the post office in Connaught Place’s inner circle (near Wenger’s). It was empty and so I went in.

Most of the staff seemed to be involved in a violent conversation that could have been friendly or a precursor to terrible physical confrontation or both, and so I made my way to the one calm person in the place: a man sitting serenely amidst the storm, looking indulgently at a stack of forms. I went up to him but, being aware that I had committed the gross crime of entering a government office an hour before closing time, waited for him to acknowledge my presence. This happened a few minutes later and he, without drawing his gaze from the stack of forms, asked me what I wanted. Information on rates for sending books to the US, said I, and before I could finish he dispatched me with a sweeping wave to a woman who was at the center of the riot that the rest of the staff were engaged in.

I waited for a brief pause in the shelling to insert my query and when it presented itself I plunged in. To the untutored eye it might have seemed as though there was no way of knowing if it had registered because she continued her part in the passion play undisturbed. However, the seasoned observer of the working habits of the Indian bureaucrat is able to detect subtle changes in their subject’s demeanour and so I waited patiently. Over the next 10 minutes she shuffled papers, went to the kitchen, got yelled at by the branch manager, shuffled some more papers, went back into the manager’s office to explain herself, discussed a co-worker’s views on modern medicine with a third party and then eventually sent me back to the first gentleman. This worthy gave me a look that suggested I had been an idiot to leave his presence in the first place and asked me what I wanted, as though I had not already informed him of this at the very beginning. I said again, with no hint of impatience, that I was interested in the rates for sending books to the US.

He told me I had two options, but lo and behold these options were not the options that my torturer at the Central Post Office had pronounced suitable for me. Now I was told that the options were sea mail or airmail. And the rates?, I asked. Rs. 171 per 5 kilos by sea (2-3 months) and Rs. 1171 per 5 kilos by air (2-3 weeks), said he. I asked him if he had an opinion on why the clearly insane man at the central post office had only told me about exponentially more expensive services. He looked at me the way I imagine Yajnavalkaya would have looked upon a village idiot asking him questions about the nature of being and stayed silent. No matter, said I, and asked how complicated it would be to package the books. This too I was told was not a problem, there being a private operator cunningly installed outside the post-office door who would be happy to help me in exchange for some trivial amount of cash-money. Thus illuminated I returned home.

At home I began weighing my books and decided I needed to mail about 20 kilos. My parents, always suspicious of anything government-related, convinced me that it would be extreme folly to trust to sea mail and so I began the process of convincing myself that I would be able to afford about Rs. 6000 for air mail. Being a cheapskate I decided I could not, but by then I was also infected by my parents’ paranoia about sea mail and so fell into a deep funk.

A few days later I lunched with Y and mentioned my situation. I think he thought he was being helpful but the only thing that registered on my consciousness was some airy statement about “one never knowing if one’s books will in fact reach one”. And so I told him I would probably trust to my skills in talking my way out of excess baggage fines. So resolved I arrived an hour later at the Bookworm, still in the company of Y. Here I discovered that the Hindi books that I’d ordered were all extremely heavy. With a heavier heart I said to Y that I needed to reconsider my shipping options.

At this point Mr. Arora broke into the conversation telling me to just bring all the damned books to the shop and he would have them packaged and shipped to me via sea-mail. In all his years of sending packages around the world on a daily basis, said he, they’d only had a handful of instances of books not reaching and some of these too were dubious cases. In any case, said he, if any packages disappeared they would be responsible and would replace the books. And so it came to pass that on the following day I arrived at the Bookworm with about 22 kilos of books. Over the next 24 hours these were weighed, listed and sorted into 5 packages. I was given a copy of the list and I received a phone call from them as soon as the packages were dispatched to the post-office.

Now to see if they all arrive by the end of November. Stay tuned.

16 years later I confirm again that they did indeed arrive, packaged as in the picture at the top of this post. That picture, however, is not of the 2005 consignment but of what must have been my last shipment from the Bookworm, of books I purchased in December of 2007 and had sent to me in Minnesota (where we’d moved just a few months prior). The store may have already closed when those books finally arrived a few months after they were shipped. (All the unpacked books from the 2005 consignment can be seen in the picture below and in the crops that accompany the post above.)

Mr. Arora, I am very sad to say, passed away in 2016, too young at 74. I have no idea where the rest of the excellent staff are now but I hope they are well and send them and the shade of Mr. Arora warm thoughts across time and space.


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