NEW DELHI: It is a torrid summer that has arrived in the Indian capital much earlier than expected. In the blazing heat of the sun, the glass-clad exteriors of the shops in the Janpath market flash sharply. It is way past noon, but the heat is still relentless. People have taken refuge inside the air-conditioned shops, other than a few heat-immune shoppers who are haggling with street vendors selling their merchandise of culottes and kaftans. Under a large shady tree in a wide alley, on the left, a fruit vendor sells packets of green grapes and papaya slices. Turn right and you will enter a wide and covered lane where shops sell silver jewellery, large jute bags and summer-friendly dresses. On the opposite, sun-tanned and elderly shoeshine men sit on the ground, waiting for customers.
Deep inside the covered lane is shop 25, emblazoned with the Famous Book Store sign. Arjun Dev Arora, who opened this store with a loan of just INR100, is no more. His son Sanjeev Arora now runs it and is a repository of his father’s memories fixated around Jampur tehsil in Dera Ghazi Khan district. That was before Partition upended his entire clan’s life, leaving them with little choice but to abandon everything and migrate to India.
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“Everyone thought that they would return,” says Sanjeev, a portly middle-aged man in a yellow T-shirt and dark trousers. He is seated on a black leatherette office chair, behind a counter littered with stationery and empty water bottles. The store is similarly haphazard. Stacks upon stacks of books cover large portions of the floor; shelves heave with illustrated general knowledge books, Nancy Drew collections and classic fiction works, among many others. “My forefathers were farmers in Jampur, who turned to bookselling in the 1920s when a relative named Narendar interacted with British officials ruling the country at the time and observed their keen interest in reading. He went to England, learned the bookselling trade and opened bookstalls in every cantonment and railway station, beginning in Quetta. Every boy in the family upon passing his matric exams would apprentice at Narendarji’s bookshop and was then handed a franchise to operate independently. My father, Arjun, also took a similar route.
“He often shared anecdotes about his life in Jampur, including taking a dip in the river and kushti [wrestling] matches. But then came Partition and my father and his relatives in the bookselling trade abandoned their shops and left for India with their families, thinking they would return soon.” Refugee camps set up in the Purana Qila or Old Fort in Delhi were their initial abode. The bogies carrying their personal belongings and bookshop articles were looted. “Everyone had to turn the page,” says Sanjeev.
The Aroras restarted their book trade beginning by hawking books from pavements. Then they shifted to Connaught Place and were eventually allotted shops in Janpath under the Displacement Rehabilitation Market Scheme. Settled in their new dwelling and flourishing professionally, Arjun and his relatives nevertheless ached to visit Jampur, even if just once. “My uncles applied for visas but never got it,” Sanjeev tells me, adding that he too intended to apply for a visa.
He dispatches Krishna, a gaunt old man, to fetch Lakshmi Book Store’s owner Mahinder Sagar. A smartly dressed senior citizen, Mahinder slowly makes his way into Famous Book Store with the help of a black walking stick. His father, Prem Sagar, ran a large bookshop, the Frontier Book Depot, in Nowshera. The shop sold imported books, newspapers and Parker and Sheaffer pens. “My father would often tell me that there were three lakh newly imported pens in the shop when they had to flee,” says Mahinder.
Like Arjun, Prem started over from scratch. Enterprising and ambitious, he opened a publishing house, Sagar Publishers, and a printing press, Sagar Printers, now managed by Mahinder’s two brothers. A visitor from Nowshera told Mahinder that his father’s bookstore was still there. Mahinder wanted to visit it and applied for a visa but the inexplicable and arbitrary visa rules left him dejected. “I have now abandoned the idea,” he says ruefully.
Eighty-four-year-old Prithvi Raj, who lives in a leafy, upscale neighbourhood, has never had such intentions, though he has fond memories of his hometown Jampur. Speaking in fluent Urdu, he recalls easily the idyllic days of his childhood. His family never intended to leave Jampur since riots had left their tehsil untouched. But on Aug 16, 1947, Baloch tribesmen descended on Jampur. “We were few in number but had firearms and fought them off,” he says. After a long and arduous journey on a truck and a bus with stopovers in Ambala and Patiala, they made Delhi their permanent residence. Prithvi was also allotted a shop in the Janpath market where, like his Jampuri relatives, he sold books.
Why isn’t he interested in applying for a Pakistan visa? “We have heard non-Muslims are not treated well there,” he says. But his wife interrupts us. “How will talking about life in Jampur help you?” she demands. “You never know, people might change.”