An encounter with a man who sold and told stories

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An encounter with a man who sold and told stories

Being in the trade of rare books had turned K.D Aryan into a storyteller

An encounter with a man who sold and told stories

More than a decade ago, I met a man who sold old books and maps. Maybe because I have always been a lover of books or was it because of his personality or profession, I don’t know, but this meeting left a deep imprint on me.

K.D Aryan had a small shop in Delhi’s Hauz Khas market, from where he sold old books and maps. When I entered the shop, I remember noticing that his small body frame seemed almost buried in the piles of old books. He looked pensive. His reading glasses dangled on his chest tied with a string around his neck. To break the ice and in part to convey my love for books, which I concluded would get me his instant approval, I made some small talk about books. It seemed to work and K.D Aryan started talking.

Being in the trade of rare books had turned K.D Aryan into a storyteller. His mind, like his small book stacked shop in Hauz Khas Village, was stacked with stories about rare books and their owners. Carrying on his father’s legacy and almost three decades in the trade, Aryan was completely at home with books. He loved it that way.

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I quickly found out that for more than two decades, he operated from his GK I N block home before he decided to shift to Hauz Khas. His eyes lit up the moment you stoke him with queries about his passion and stories about old desperate Nawabs, their begums, foreign ambassadors, Gulliver’s travels, famous writers, and ignorant Kabadiwalas, started tumbling out.
Aryan’s sources for his books, maps, and old stories, were a number of dealers in Delhi and people who just walk up to him. The erstwhile famous Kabari Bazar behind Red Fort was his favourite haunt as was the Sunday book Bazar in Daryaganj. “You can strike gold there if you are lucky and watchful. I stuck it a number of times and I also learned my most significant lesson there.” And out came a story.

In 1984, he found a dusty book with a Daryaganj book dealer. It was 'The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith'. “It was a first edition printed in 1776. I offered him Rs 300 but he refused. Not knowing much about the book, I left it with the dealer. Later on, I found from an expert that the book would be a prized possession in the UK. However, when I went back next week to the dealer, he was gone,” said he. Alarmed he reached the dealer’s home in Rani Bagh, North-West Delhi and was told that he had sold the book to another dealer for rupees 500. “I rushed there and was relieved to see the book still in his possession. He gave it to me for Rs 800.” Aryan, later on, sold the book to the auction house Christie’s in London for 2000 Pounds. “That day, I decided that I will immediately buy any book that is old enough.”  Then a slight smile played on his face. He showed me something similar in his possession, which he also got by chance. An 1840, first edition of an illustrated book on Gulliver’s Travel.

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He said success in his profession was a mix of luck and skill. To substantiate, he told a story about a crumbling down estate and fortune of a Nawab in Meerut. In 1978, he had gone to Meerut on a tip-off to see a book collection in a Nawab’s possession. “Showing an attitude of a true Nawab, he was irritated at my unannounced arrival and refused to show me the books. I persuaded him a bit. He relented a little. He did not show me the books but promised to send a list of books to me. True to his word, he was in Delhi a week later and summoned me to a restaurant in Connaught Place, Delhi, and gave me a list of his books. I was impressed by the collection and instantly offered him Rs 3 lakhs. The Nawab was unimpressed, turned down the offer, and went back to Meerut. A few days later, the Nawab died of heart failure. His Begum gave Nawab’s entire lot of books including antique wooden almirah, which housed the books, to one of her admirers. I got the wind that this person was quite possessive about the almirah but wanted to get rid of the books. So, I approached him and offered him rupees fifty thousand for the entire collection, to which he readily agreed,” he recalled.

Nawabs can sure be eccentrics and in the course of his search for old books, Aryan had met a few of them. He also narrates an incident when he had to travel back and forth twice within a couple of days between Lucknow and Delhi, to arrange for cash. He wanted to buy a collection in possession of a Nawab before the Nawab changed his mind. He was able to buy that collection in time enough for a visiting royalty from Spain to India to buy it from him. He also told me about how he traced books signed by famous writer Nirad C Choudhuri, who lived in London. In the 1950’s, Choudhuri lived in a house on Nicholson Road near Kashmiri Gate. “I noticed a couple of books, written and signed by Choudhari, in Delhi’s old book market. I wondered from where these books were coming out. I traced them back and reached Chaudhari’s old house, in Kashmiri Gate which had been bought by someone. The new owner had sold a few books but some were still there, which I bought,” he said.

Another of Aryans smart moves was to procure a very valuable collection of around 220 mid-nineteenth-century Indian hunting books, two of which had colored lithographs. Later on, he traced their ownership to one Shamsher Singh, a resident of Chanakyapuri, who had sold these books to a kabadiwala. Then there was a time when the High commissioner of the US came to his home looking for rare books, unaccompanied and unannounced. “Of course I could not recognize him and got to know only when he was leaving after taking what he wanted.” After this 1985 incident, his relationship with the US embassy people grew and he started putting up a regular stall at the US embassy’s annual Christmas fair.

He traces one of his historical misses to a morning in Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel where he had gone to meet an acquaintance. There, sitting next to him, according to Aryan, was a white man, very impressive looking and tall, with big whiskers. “I was surprised to find out the picture of the same man in the next morning’s newspaper. He was Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the first person to work on Indus Valley Civilisation. He was my hero and I just could not recognise him.” He narrated the story and placed the first edition of Sir Wheeler’s book on the table, another of his prized possessions.

Inspired by these stories, I also decided to try my luck at next Sunday’s famous book market in Daryaganj. After some spirited search, I landed, from a pile of old-looking books, a 1927 first edition of a book on the History of the British isles. I promptly took it back to Aryan the next day. He looked at it, smiled, and said, “It’s good. But not worth much. You will find something valuable, but you need luck too.” I guess in these matters, one needs more than just good luck. One needs the rich experience and passion for books, which K.D Aryan had in abundance.