For approximately five decades now, the historic Daryaganj Patri Kitab Bazar, or the Sunday Footpath Book Market, has served readers from all parts of the city and all walks of life. Every Sunday, from early morning to late evening, the footpath between Netaji Subhash Marg and Asaf Ali Road was occupied by the sellers, and the two landmark cinema halls of the old city – Golcha and Delite­ – marked the endpoints of this L-shaped bazaar.

In July 2019, however, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation ordered its shutdown. Two months later, in mid-September, it was relocated to a nearby gated complex called Mahila Haat. Although booksellers had been protesting for the market to return to the original footpaths, most of them shifted to Mahila Haat. The protests had been continuing outside Delhi Gate Metro Station exit number 3 when Covid-19 erupted.

The books of Daryaganj

The sort of books that could be found in Daryaganj have changed over time. Used books have always found a home here. In its initial years, the bazaar was a place for magazines, coffee table books, and “useful literature”, or books on self-help and everyday skills. More recently, textbooks for schools and colleges and their supplements had taken over. You could also find the pirated novels ubiquitous through the city’s other markets and traffic lights.

The vendors collected their stock during weekdays and stored them in their houses, or in rented godowns inside or near Daryaganj. They bought their books at various places – recycling markets, private collections, institutional libraries, remainder stock of some publishers, etc – and they weren’t restricted to Delhi. While most had a random selection, some dealt in exclusive genres and types. There were a few who dealt in rare books too.

Sellers also used various creative methods to display their books. They used up every inch of their allotted space on the footpath with minimal infrastructure, using cardboard boxes and sheets, bamboo sticks, vertical shelves, chairs on rare occasions, and even an umbrella to display their wares. Books carrying the same price were often piled in heaps, while rare collectibles and books whose prices could be negotiated upon were spread across. The sellers had their own signboards to attract buyers: “Sale, 50/-”; “Fix Price Matlab No Tension (Fixed price means no tension)”;“Kripya Mol Bhav Na Karein (Kindly avoid negotiations)”; “Self Service”; and so on.

Fundamental to the bazaar’s character was its close connections between books, readers, sellers, and even the non-readers. Readers could be any of the pedestrians passing by on the packed streets of Daryaganj every Sunday. Since it was an inclusive space, anyone could walk down these streets in the proximity of books, and any of them could buy books.

The discomfort of being in a crowd was a significant part of the experience. Buyers jostled for space, and the booksellers, too, sat close to one another in close contact with their customers. This intimate and congested nature remained intact even in its new location. Readers often picked up and examined books that caught their attention, identifying their age and texture, inhaling that old book smell, admiring the marginalia, and sometimes finding photographs of old readers or author signatures.

These elements affected the value of the book, and the price was negotiated accordingly. To find a book of your liking amidst this crowd of people and things was a rather serendipitous affair.

The lockdown continues for vendors

Delhi has entered the second phase of partial reopening. However, the weekly markets are still awaiting official approval to restart their businesses. It would have been unsafe to open the weekly bazaars, but as the means of sustenance continue to shrink, vendors are growing desperate.

In their meeting with the assistant commissioner on 14 July 2020, a few vendors of the Patri Kitab Bazar, including the former president and vice-president of the now-dissolved Darya Ganj Patri Sunday Book Bazar Welfare Association, were sent back without any hopeful responses. They were told not to expect the markets to open before August 15 at the earliest.

It could take even longer, but no promises were made. Local civic authorities have not received any guidelines on social distancing and regular sanitisation from the Centre so far, which has delayed any plans for the street markets to be revived.

Lata from SEWA, a not-for-profit organisation working with the booksellers of Daryaganj and other weekly bazaars of Delhi, told me that vendors are worried by the local administrative body’s ignorance and hollow promises. They have demanded concrete directives and timely circulation of guidelines for the reopening of the markets, so that they can be better prepared, and remain hopeful about what currently looks like a bleak future.

Volunteers at SEWA are also being trained to assist the booksellers in availing of the PM Street Vendors’ Atma Nirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) scheme – a special micro-credit facility for urban street vendors. Announced on May 14, and launched on June 1, this central government scheme allows street vendors to take loans of up to Rs 10,000, repayable in monthly instalments within one year. The livelihood programme, the first of its kind to include street vendors, is valid until March 2022.

However, no bookseller from the Daryaganj Patri Kitab Bazar has so far applied for a loan under the scheme, since everyone has been struggling with the legalities. The loan application is an online process, and not all vendors are equipped or adept enough to access it. Some vendors do not have the documents required as proof, especially documentation related to registration or tehbazari.

Lata described how minor problems – such as the Aadhaar card not being updated or linked to their mobiles numbers, or incorrect spelling – are coming in the way. These minor yet mandatory intermediate processes are time-consuming and not easily accessible, especially during the pandemic. Moreover, vendors who have left for their native places prior to or during the lockdown period will be eligible for the loan only on their return.

More delays likely

Further, the Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital, located right behind Mahila Haat on Asaf Ali Road, has now acquired the underground space of Mahila Haat, just below the platform where books were sold prior to the lockdown. Owing to a shortage of space in the hospital, this section of the Haat is being used to install beds for Covid-affected patients.

Vendors are now afraid this will further delay the reopening of the bazar:“Dilli mein Patri khul bhi jayegi toh bhi wahaan bazar nahin laga payenge (even if the markets open in Delhi, it doesn’t look like we can set up shop there),” said Qamar Saeed, a book-vendor .

In any case, even when the book market is finally allowed to be reopened, readers may hesitate to visit. Vendors have now suggested that they be permitted to run the market once or twice a month, if not on every Sunday, at the old space in Daryaganj. They are ready to accommodate safety measures as long as this help them resume their business.

“But none of our suggestions has been entertained,” said Saeed. “It is not enough to give us rations; the government needs to look after our livelihoods too.” Saeed’s biggest complaint is about the lack of planning, as vendors have been left waiting without any information or updates.

Street vendors operate on a thin financial cushion to begin with. Most of them continue to pay rent for the godowns. Another book vendor, Asharfi Lal, informed me that the landlords have not excused rents in most instances, and in some cases, only a month’s rent has been discounted. Lal has been paying Rs 2,500 every month as rent. “The rents are usually between Rs 1,000 and Rs 5,000,” he said. “It looks increasingly difficult to survive.”

No demand for textbooks

In any other year, the start of a new academic session would be a peak time for sales. However, the pandemic has affected the new session, and teaching has also shifted online in many cases. Students now rely less on physical books. This has affected a sizeable portion of the vendors who sold academic texts; all of them will have to wait for the next season.

There are other fears too. While other street markets are visited only by residents of nearby localities, the Daryaganj book market used to entertain visitors from across the city, and sometimes even the country. But the Delhi Metro has not resumed services, and buses are only allowing 20 people per ride. With inter-state travel restricted as well, even after vendors set up their stalls, it is unlikely that footfall will remain the same as before the lockdowns. The vendors were already struggling after the relocation, and the threat of erasure has always prevailed. Rumours were being circulated that the market would be relocated once again to a neglected corner of the city.

The role of serendipity based on visual and social contact was essential for the book market. The incidental buyer was as significant for the vendors as the buyer who came with the intention to buy books. But the relocation changed the dynamics; vendors with their stalls towards the rear complained that they did not receive as many buyers as those near the gates. Customers were unequally distributed.

Rents were higher further inside Mahila Haat, but the vendors who opted for such spaces did not wish to stay on without business. It was already evident that the new market would not reach the old numbers of sales and profit any time soon.

The booksellers of Daryaganj, who were already discouraged by the loss of sales inside the Haat, have now begun to lose hope entirely after the extended lockdown. Most have returned to their native villages, and some have decided not to come back. So have the labourers who assisted them with transportation.

Even the fruit chaat seller, who added to the ambience of the bazaar in his own way, has not visited the vicinity since the lockdown began. Qamar Saeed and Asharfi Lal often receive calls and text messages from the vendors who have left the city, asking for updates. They have no answers.

Subdued dissent

The vendors who had been protesting outside the metro station were hoping to get the attention of the authorities about how the streets were important to the book market. Before the lockdown, they had been hopeful that their market would be given the status of a “historical bazaar”, since it had been running for 50 years at the same location. The status would have meant official validation. However, the protests have been shut down, and no hopes exist of regaining the momentum.

Sumit Verma, one of the vendors active during the protests, said that the Supreme Court was supposed to have heard their petition on the matter on March 30, but that the hearing has now been postponed. “For the time being, cases related to Covid-19 are being prioritised,” he said. “Most of us were already losing out on business since we had not set up our stalls at the new location. There is even less hope now.”

One of the evident consequences of Covid-19 is that shopping in a crowded place like the second-hand book bazaar may not be considered safe. Readers will seek alternatives, if they haven’t begun to pursue them already. What made this bazaar special – the serendipitous and intimate engagement with an indefinite number of books – could become is biggest drawback in the post-pandemic world.

It was around this time last year that the bazaar was lifted off the streets by citing traffic concerns. While the sellers were still adjusting to the new location, Covid-19 has only brought new fears of complete erasure. Vendors are now desperate. They are ready to comply with new restrictions, both official and social, but they are unsure about what the market will look like from now on – that is, if it comes back to life at all.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.