The Kashmir Book Shop
In the heyday of tourism in Kashmir, books were the last thing that visitors thought of buying. The 1970s and ‘80s were when silk carpets and woollen shawls constituted the main shopping of the tens of thousands of tourists that holidayed in the Valley. So, the two bookshops that stood opposite each other in Regal Chowk, not far from Modern Sweets, were something of an anomaly. Both used to be owned by Sardar gentlemen, but the one called Kashmir Book Shop was by far the busier of the two in the 1980s.
The unending stream of tourists passing by Lal Chowk would look in for a book, on their way from Polo View to Lambert Lane – then both flourishing centres with very fine handicraft stores with European sensibilities. The Kashmir Book Shop was the more visible of the two, and hence the more popular. It had the slightly damp, musty smell of old books, dust and the faint hookah smoke that lingered on in many establishments in Kashmir during those years. Now hookahs have more or less been banished into the attics and the far more noxious cigarettes waft their fumes into the atmosphere. Most old shops have not lasted the mid-90s. And new owners have been hard at work putting their own touches on old properties. Usually, these include faux khatamband ceilings, garishly coloured fans, air-conditioners which were unheard of a decade ago, glazed tiles on the floors and plyboard shelves.
Needless to say, The Kashmir Book Shop had none of these. The floor was uneven, but that was a comforting detail in the 1980s. The book cases were old and their glass windows were dusty and scratched, but none of the customers would have had it any other way. The tall, strapping owner had an unending fount of homespun philosophy. One evening, there was no electricity: then, as now, a common enough occurrence. There was just one young male customer in the shop besides me. As I was standing behind the customer, I could not see his face. All I noticed was that both Sardar Inderjit Singh (whose name I found out a few days ago) and Ab. Rashid, the old retainer were both deep in conversation with the customer. I had just stepped out of my room in Ahdoos Hotel to pick up some reading material for the night and it was perilously close to closing time: I didn’t want to return empty-handed. Once the customer made his way out of the shop, I noticed that he was sight-impaired because of his cane and the presence of a helper.
Not by word or action did S Inderjit Singh patronize the customer: while he was in the shop, talking book, he was simply a customer of the Kashmir Book Shop. That was my first brush with the greatness of the gentleman, who, I soon found out, used to dispense philosophy and books in equal measure. One day, he and I were idly conversing about the 1984 riots and I told him that a few of my Sikh friends had cut their hair in an effort to merge with the crowd. He was appalled. He drew himself up to his full height and declaimed “Such a person would disown their children if times were bad”. It is probably 30 years ago, but the image of S Inderjit Singh in his trademark tussar churidar kurta and jootis looking pained at a co-religionist’s craven capitulation for ‘mere’ personal safety has stayed with me all these years.
The bookstore changed abruptly during the onset of the 1990s and militancy. I seldom saw S Inderjit Singh there, although my own book on Kashmir was always proudly displayed in the window and Ab Rashid, by then, getting on in years, never failed to introduce me to other customers as the author – a rather endearing gesture. By then, I used to visit Kashmir, not as a journalist but as a wife and my fluency with the language grew steadily.
The shop, I was sorry to see, became gradually more and more dilapidated. It was obvious that Ab Rashid, gentle and helpful to the very end, was suffering in health. On one of my trips to be with our family in the Old City, I saw that The Kashmir Book Shop had closed. It was probably in the late-90s. Hind Book Store, across the road, had already morphed into a cosmetics shop, complete with mirrors and overly decorated plywood shelves. I have heard that S Inderjit Singh is no more – he died of a broken heart as his son perished in an accident. The passing away of Ab Rashid was the last straw.
That period saw the closing of several Sikh-owned businesses in the neighbourhood. Dimple, Simple and Wimple all abruptly changed hands and the legendary mango milk-shake and cold coffee ground to a halt: none of the new places that have inevitably mushroomed have quite managed the effortless combination of customer recognition, small talk and great cold coffee, all accompanied by winning smiles. Even the other famous book shop that has sprung up in the vicinity is owned by a businessman as opposed to a book lover.
You could probably say that it was the end of an era.