With K.D. Singh’s demise, The Bookshop has lost the man who made it a haven for book lovers in Delhi.
If you enter The Bookshop now, it will still feel like home. It’ll still hold those books, carefully picked out, gently held and lovingly read. If it has been one of your favourite haunts in the city, it’ll remain so. In fact, some of you will only discover it in the future, wandering around Jorbagh’s market, seeking refuge from the heat and dust, and then wondering why you didn’t seek it out before.
You won’t, though, find the man who made it the place it is now. And if you remember him there, behind his desk or between the aisles, you’ll know that something crucial is missing.
Kanwarjit Singh Dhingra, or K.D. Singh, passed away after a year-long battle with cancer, and has left behind a legacy that is quite inseparable from his personality. Born out of a vision and passion he had from a very young age, Singh carried The Bookshop through difficult times, sky-rocketing rents, and the wave of digital revolution that threatened to engulf all independent book-stores. In a city with innumerable impersonal bookshop chains, the haven Singh offered to book-lovers survived everything, and it has, now, survived him.
His daughter, Rachna Singh-Davidar, remembers a father who had passionately wanted to own a book-store which would only stock exceptional books. “Having such an uncompromising vision of excellence is the only way to deal with the inevitable upheavals in any marketplace,” she says. For years, despite the threat that knocked on every independent bookseller’s door, Singh’s Bookshop dealt with the ups and downs, and his daughter credits this to the unchanging quality of the shop. “The Bookshop carried on. It became a cultural hub to the community and an oasis for all those who wanted to find a selection of great books. And a bookseller who could be a knowledgeable guide in helping them find just the book they were looking for.”
It was this unerring and uncanny instinct of Singh’s that drew browsing customers to his side. He nurtured a deep love for books, and Rachna remembers how he could hardly wait to communicate his enthusiasm for a great book that he had just read. “He read an enormous amount, and if you add that to the fact that he had a phenomenal memory for what his customers liked as well as a genuine interest in their reading tastes, you can see why it wasn’t difficult for him to match readers and books.”
Both Singh and The Bookshop gathered around them a sort of family of readers, authors, booklovers; one which his wife Nini Sigh refers to as their “bookshop family”. Countless strangers, among them some recognisable faces, passed through The Bookshop, some finding a second home between its aisles. Of course, for Singh and his family, The Bookshop was an extension of their home too, and Singh and his wife were what Rachna calls “an indivisible unit”. “Many years ago, a magazine profiled my mother and I remember she said this — I have raised four kids and The Bookshop is one. My mother will carry his legacy forward as will Sonal Narain who was made a partner in the store some years ago.”
What Singh had created was a home not just to his customers but himself as well, contributing more to his well-being during his battle with cancer than the drugs did. “He cherished every single second of every day in all the years that he spent in it. When my mum and I were with him in the hospital and he was undergoing chemotherapy, his phone rang and I heard him recommending books to a customer. I couldn’t believe my ears — he didn’t once let on that he was in hospital and he showed the same kind of enthusiasm towards his caller as he would if he were in the store.”
Established in 1970 in Jorbagh, the passing years spun stories and memories around a place that dealt in stories, dotting its history with incidents that are told and retold today. Once, a customer who looked “vaguely familiar”, walked into the shop, and then proceeded to spend an entire afternoon browsing and chatting with Singh. “The next morning he read an interview in a Delhi newspaper with Gabriel Garcia Marquez who had visited the city for a conference; when an appointment fell through, he said he was wandering through a neighbourhood close to his hotel when he happened upon a bookstore in which he had a wonderful time,” remembers Rachna. Another time, Jackie O visited the store with Naveen Patnaik, a long time bookshop customer. “My father thought to himself — that looks like Jackie Onassis but thought again that there could be only one Jackie O. And then he was introduced to her.”
There were many other memorable firsts for The Bookshop, and long before book launches had become the norm, it also saw the Delhi launch of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Though a meeting point and go-to place for many famous faces, The Bookshop also offered a level playing field, and driven by his love for books, Singh did not distinguish between any of his customers — concentrating solely on creating a place where readers could gather and immerse themselves in the books they loved.
Singh touched many lives, and today, as she reads countless tributes, Rachna remembers him as the “kindest, gentlest, most humble man” she has known. “He gave more of himself to those who came into his orbit than almost anyone I know. He was uncompromising in the values he held dear and his unremitting focus on keeping up the standards of The Bookshop was never diluted.”
There is a lot to Singh that his customers didn’t know. How he was a champion billiards player who won many tournaments and represented Delhi at the national level, how he played the piano, and had played sax and drums in his school band, how he loved jazz, loved movies and loved watching tennis and cricket. And then, there was the Singh who everyone knew, and loved; the man who sat smiling behind the desk in that beautiful book store, his home away from home, and the place where they will always find him.