I will always remember Mirza Yaseen Baig as a silent presence in his chair parked outside the Midland bookshop on Aurobindo Marg, Delhi, reading or napping mostly. And invariably ready with a generous and gentle smile on his face if you greeted him with a salaam. Over the last nine-and-odd years that I have seen him, this sight hasn’t altered even for a day when I was visiting the shop.
I have had numerous conversations with his son Afser Baig over endless cups of coffee, talking about old and new books, writers who have recently visited the store, and what people were reading that week. The next generation of Baigs who have now taken over many of the responsibilities are no different.
Two of them, Zuber and Touseef, whom I can call friends, are always eager to have a quick chat about the reading and writing life. But even on days when I have found that any of them were absent at the bookshop, senior-most Baig saab was still found at his spot, like a monument that has been permanently placed in a garden.
Yaseen Baig’s legacy
The story goes that he moved with his family to Delhi sometime in the early ’70s and first opened a bookstore near the Indian Coffee House, which is Palika Bazar now. Currently there are four shops under the Midland umbrella. The one at Aurobindo Place was started in the year 1987, and is now part of New Delhi’s folklore.
There’s another Midland in South Extension, a New Midland – the newest entrant that opened doors in 2019 – in Gurgaon, and of course the ever-charming New Book Land on Janpath, the annular book haven that can be mistaken for a UFO manned by a bibliolater. All of these establishments are part of Yaseen Baig’s proud legacy.
He turned up unfailingly every day, at least until the pandemic struck, sitting with his chai and talking to strangers about books, suggesting their next read. And when I saw him taking a nap, out in the open, behind him a large shelf filled with books, in front of him a small desk, I often wondered if most people are able to sleep with such ease even on their own beds.
The last time I had a proper chat with him, copies of a new book by the business tycoon Indra Nooyi were being packed in bulk just outside the bookshop. I learnt they had received a corporate Diwali order for the book and some 300 copies were being urgently shipped out. I stood with him for a while and other members of the staff, giving them a hand when needed.
At some point, I said it’s good to see so many copies of the same book getting sold on a single afternoon, and that I too must commission a book along the same lines soon. To which he languidly smiled and said, “Continue doing what you do, you are also doing well.”
It reminded me of that oft-quoted Jack Kerouac line, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Perhaps Baig saab was a man who had found them.
Over this one decade of being in this mad, wondrous city, every time I have felt lost I have returned to Midland in Aurobindo Place and instantly felt at home there, especially since I moved to their neighborhood about eight years ago. The atmosphere of the bookstore often gets chaotic, readers swarming the nooks and crannies inside frantically searching for their new favourite author, kids pleading to their mothers for another Ruskin Bond or Manga comic, the young owners running up and down the narrow stairway to fetch a particular title from upstairs.
Right outside, near his chair, it was always the calming presence of Baig saab. Like the prayer room in a house with a tumultuous joint family. I know the next time I am at Midland, he won’t be at his spot. But every time I cross that tiny square of land on which he sat like a pillar for all these decades, I’ll stop for a second and say a little prayer. A prayer that anyone who ever passes that little corner always finds their way to the next book that changes their lives.