Aanchal Malhotra, author and oral historian, remembers growing up in the Bahrisons Bookshop in Khan Market, reading Noddy or Archie’s Comics, under the watchful eye of her grandfather, Mr Balraj Bahri, who would sternly insist that they cannot loosen the binding of the book. She recalls the love for books his job instilled in her and, more than that, the love for storytelling.
Today, her desire to tell the complete story of the Bahrisons Bookstores has materialised into a revisited version of Chronicles of a Bookshop: the story of how the 70-year-old bookstore became what it is today. Previously published in 2003, this book narrates the journey of Bahrisons, from conception to expansion, in the words of Anuj Bahri, Aanchal’s father and the current owner of the bookshop.
Shifting between the perspectives of Mr Balraj Bahri and his wife, Mrs Bhag Bahri Malhotra (addressed as Bhag Guliani in the book), this version of the book ultimately culminates into a conflated view of the family’s personal and entrepreneurial history. Delving deeper into the father-daughter duo’s creative process, we’re in conversation with them to learn more about memories, storytelling, and their bookstore.
Chronicles of a Bookshop breaks down the history of Bahrisons. What inspired you to tell this story about your family’s lineage?
Anuj Bahri: It all started in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the store. Coincidentally, this was the same year my dad had turned 75. For as momentous an occasion as this was, I was clueless about what to gift him. That was when we decided to document the history of the store. And because the history of the store, in many ways, was his life’s journey as well, both merged into one and shaped the first edition of this book.
What made you want to conceptualise the book the way you did? How does the use of both Mr Balraj’s and Mrs Bhag’s voices make the storytelling experience more nuanced for the reader?
Aanchal Malhotra: I have been reading this book since it was published. Simultaneously, over the past decade, I have also been interviewing my grandparents about their experiences of partition and rehabilitation in the city of Delhi. The one thing that has stood out time and time again is the fact that my grandmother played an instrumental role in the story of the bookstore. Whether it was making financial decisions or managing the shop alongside her job — she was a part of everything. I realised that while his was a great story, it was one that was known. Contrastingly, hers was not. That is why her story needed to be written alongside his, as equals in this business. The shifts in perspectives in the book create a compulsive juxtaposition of their stories and show how the pair ended up in the same place at the same time, even though their journeys were quite distinct.
How does this book play a larger role in preserving the history of independent bookstores and the importance of physical spaces for book lovers?
AB: The idea behind a bookstore is not just a place where you buy books. It’s a culmination of minds. Books are such a binding factor between relations that they can always be a subject of interest to everybody. And that is where, as a bookseller, one needs to learn the art of not just selling but understanding one’s books as well. That is what makes the store so fundamental to the love for books.
AM: I remember being at Ashoka once when a woman walked up to me to tell me how she met her husband at Bahrisons because they shared an intriguing conversation over a book. That is the importance of physical spaces. They allow you to connect, encounter, and have riveting conversations. I think the most precious aspect is that a bookshop is a centre of culture for a city and in a world that is becoming increasingly algorithm-driven, it is intimate, and it is unpredictably human.
What are some of the significant milestones or turning points of the bookshop that the book discusses?
AM: Firstly, the setting up of the shop was rudimentary to what it became. The way money was created, as a unanimous family effort, and the sheer number of people that came together to make it happen were all endeavours that culminated in the eventual success of the store. Secondly, the notebook is an object that was, and still is, extremely crucial to the functioning of the shop since 1953.
AB: My father [Mr Balraj] put the first one in place on recommendation by a family friend to employ as the designated space for the books any customer requests. Most distributors and salespeople are familiar with this notebook and have been providing us with the book titles noted in it since we opened the shop.
AM: My father becoming a part of the business was yet another milestone that changed the way this store functioned. Not only did he commence the expansion, but he also enriched the culture of bookselling in the way he fabricated a warm environment for every reader to find solace and companionship. Lastly, opening a separate, stand-alone bookshop for younger audiences was perhaps one of the most endearing turning points of the bookshop. Giving a child a book is quite like giving them the world. Hence, the establishment of the children's bookstore in Khan Market is quite remarkable.
Your other books, including Remnants of a Separation, In the Language of Remembering, and The Book of Everlasting Things, are all works that revolve around memories or the act of remembering a moment in time, just like this one. Where does this thematic semblance originate from?
AM: At the beginning, it was because I was unaware of my ancestors’ memories or experiences. This realisation led to a heightened sense of awareness about the fact that I did not know enough about what had happened before me. Therefore, to piece together the past, I needed to rely on other people’s memories. I wanted to archive collective histories so that others would have access to them; in a way, to write for the future.
Additionally, I care very much about the stories left unheard. Ordinary histories need to be validated because we will always pay attention to what is written in an archive but not to stories that our neighbour, grandmother, or uncle tell us. We pass those off as memory or oral testimony. However, these are also valuable archives that deserve to be heard, which is why my preoccupation has always been to record the ordinary, mundane things because often there is beauty in the mundane.
Words: Muskan Kaur