Migrants make a city even as they acquire its peculiar traits. One such is 85-year-old Mirza Yaseen Beg who changed the face of Delhi’s reading culture

Cities are known by their structures and monuments but it is the residents that give them their unique identity, majority of whom are almost invariably migrants. Only villages have original inhabitants. Cities that continue to harp on the theme of original inhabitants have yet to grow out of the village mentality.

The new arrivals while gradually acquiring the peculiar traits of the city of their adoption also bring with them new ideas and their actions leave their impact on the city and its psyche. Slowly but gradually the new arrivals shape the city in their own image, even as they adapt themselves to the rhythm of the city.

It is difficult to conceive of a situation where the actions of one individual change a city in any way, no matter how small. A city like Delhi is too large to be impacted by one individual but such things do happen. There is a quiet, unassuming man, a man not given to animated conversation but in his quiet silent way he has made a difference to this city and this piece takes a small step in the direction of recognising his contribution.

Mirza Yaseen Beg is about 85 today; he has been in Delhi for the last 41 years, arriving in Delhi in 1970 or 1971 a little before the birth of Bangladesh. Born in 1927 he was then about 43 years of age married and with children and he came to Delhi to start a business or shall we say to restart a business that he had been involved in for 28 years in Hyderabad, the city of his birth. He started working from the age of 15 or 16 in a booksellers shop in the Sultan Bazaar, gave up the job a few years later and started his own bookselling business.

Initially he began selling Urdu text books, but later shifted to English books and it is at this time that he made an acquaintance with Tulsi Shah, an importer of books in Bombay. Tulsi Shah imported books that were known as remainder books, these were books that remained unsold and were returned to the publisher. Those who bought from Mr. Shah sold them at full price. Mirza Saheb decided to sell his books cheap at unheard prices and unbelievably low margins. His plan was to have a huge turnover and a large customer base that will keep returning to him because his rates were the lowest. He made good progress and knew that he had a winner in his hand and so when he shifted to Delhi he knew what he was going to do. All he needed was a place.

Mirza Yaseen Beg arrived at the India Coffee House (ICH) opposite Regal Cinema (the present location of the Palika Bazar). ICH was the cultural and political hub of New Delhi till the mid 1970s.The Coffee House was started in 1957 when communist leader A.K.Gopalan helped the sacked employees of the Coffee Board to organise themselves into a co-operative. From day one the ICH became the hang out of politicians, journalists, artists, actors, musicians and others. The NDMC had built small stalls for shoeshine boys for a rent of Rs 10 a month and Mirza Yaseen deposited the first lot of his books on one of these stalls, he was paying the monthly rent and sharing the stall with the allottee. His books went faster than hot cakes. His price - Rupee one per book! Everyone picked one or more and wanted to know how he did it? Mirza Yaseen would only say “we manage”.

Soon his business, now known as Books Selection Centre, expanded to two and then to three stalls. The Illustrated weekly under the editorship of Khushwant Singh carried a piece on this quiet man who spoke little and sold books at unbelievably low prices. We are now into 1975 - the emergency and the rise of Sanjay Gandhi. The ICH had turned into a clearing house of information and news about resistance to the emergency. True to the style of all dictators this outpost of resistance had to go. It was demolished one night and Mirza Yaseen was set-back by many years.

A restaurant called Rambles had recently opened across the road (the present site of Palika Parking and within a few months Mirza Saheb was in business there. His stall was now called The Rambles’ Bookshop. The Rambles restaurant was demolished sometime later and it was back to square one. Well, not exactly. Mirza Saheb had saved some money and successfully bid for a small circular flower stall built by NDMC in front of the Indian Oil building at Janpath. He wanted to open his book shop there but Mr Chhabra, the President of the NDMC would have none of this. Mirza Saheb said to Mr Chhabra you have become such a senior officer by reading the kind of books I sell, I want to sell books cheaply so that more and more people can afford them and you want me to sell flowers? The trade classification permitted on the site was changed and New Book Land came into being in 1978.

In the mid 1980s the Delhi Development Authority built the Aurobindo Place Market. Most people thought that this market will not work because of the presence of three well established markets, Yusuf Sarai, Green Park and Hauz Khas in close proximity. Initially, there were no buyers for the shops. The first two to move in were Jain Book Depot and Mirza Yaseen Beg’s new venture Midland Book Shop.

Midland Bookshop opened its doors in 1985 initially in shop number 40, shifting later to its present location. Now there are three Midland Bookshops, at Aurobindo Place, South Extension and DLF Gurgaon, and there is the New Book Land at Janpath. Mirza Saheb has four sons -- Mirza Asad Beg looks after Midland South Extension; Mirza Afsar Beg is responsible for Midland Aurobindo Place; Mirza Saleem Beg manages Midland DLF Gurgaon; and Mirza Saleem Beg manages the New Book Land at Janpath.

You ask him the secret of his success and he says we made books affordable, “I sold books at margins of 50 paise or a rupee. We started giving concessions on purchases, no one used to give concessions on books in Delhi, now everyone does. Our customers kept coming back and they recommended us.” And then with a twinkle in his eyes, he says, “we spoke politely like all Hyderabadis do, and we respected our customers and got their respect and support in return”.

Go to Midland Aurobindo Place after 11 am and meet Mirza Yaseen Beg. He comes there every day, “because I start feeling unwell if I stay at home”. His elder sons Asad and Afsar, who began helping their father after school now travel the world in search of books, and are known in publishing circles both because of Midland and as book lovers. Grandson Mirza Usman Beg, an MBA, can be found behind the counter at Aurobindo Place. “He is a very good salesman”, his grandfather asserts and he should know. Go meet this old Hyderabadi of Delhi who has actively contributed to its reading culture.

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