Our friend bulleyah is fighting the good fight in Delhi. He emailed earlier in the week that Delhi’s Sunday Book Bazaar faces closure by those municipal goons. Surrounded as I am by city-block sized Border’s and B&N’s, I forget the pleasures, the sights and the sounds of a book bazaar. Imagine, if you will, a sunday farmer’s market [make them organic farmers for further frisson]. Now substitute all the vegetables and fruits, piled on canvases, stacked on the ground, with books and magazines. And the barter and weighing of literature [that emily brontÎ is so yellowed, you gotta bring the price down].
My favorite bazaar, of course, is in Old Anarkali, Lahore. But, I did spend some time in Hyderabad and Peshawar’s book bazaars. The Peshawar one, especially. Qissa Khawani Bazaar or the Storytellers Market is one of those places that look terribly ordinary unless you peek behind the layers of paper and dust to the history. The standard version of its history is that it was founded by Paolo Avitable, the Italian governor of Peshawar under Raja Ranjit Singh, sometime around 1840. It quickly got the reputation for a place where travelers and traders sat, sipped green tea, ate chapli kababs and told stories. The romance of the bazaar grew as various European narratives begin to circulate [Kipling’s Mahbub Ali sat in the Qissa Khawani bazaar].
I visited it for the first time in ’88. By then, there were no storytellers left in the bazaar. Qissa Khawani was a big, wide sreet with merchants and traffic galore. You could still find the stories, though, if you knew. Right off the main thoroughfare, were quiet alleys and backways that took to shops and merchants who peddled stories. In cassettes by Pashto folk singers, accompanied usually with a rebab, were the stories called badalas. The titles were usually accessible to those who knew Persian or Urdu epics – Shirin wa Farhad or Yusuf wa Zulaikha – or who were well-versed in the Pashto epics of resistance [to the British and the Soviets]. One could also buy little pulp books with the stories. The original storytellers may have disappeared but these cassettes [and the texts] are an amazing primary source for this oral tradition. I think the Lok Virsa people have collected these stories.
On my most recent visit, two years ago, the place had changed considerably. Textile and other merchandise dominates the market. At first, I was disheartened, thinking that the old book stalls had disappeared. But, right when I got my first pinch on the ass, I saw that the stalls had morphed yet survived. The stories are still available in the storytellers market. They have even graduated from cassettes to VCDs and, strangely, skirts. And that just made me happy. Mahbub Ali would be at home.
Go fight the good fight with bulleyah, O ahl-delhi.