ENDPAPER Pradeep Sebastian

A fascinating world

Keeping a low profile: (from left) Sanjiv, Rashi and Rajiv Jain.  

Just when I had concluded that we probably don’t have any full-fledged antiquarian bookshops in India now, I chance on Southex Books and Prints in Delhi. They’ve been trading since the mid-1980s, but are known only to a small circle of collectors in the country. Antiquarian bookshops in India seem to keep a really low profile for some reason, so low that even bibliophiles miss them. Up until the 1950s, there were apparently several hundred antiquarian bookshops. They’ve dwindled down to about six or so now! Perhaps the last great antiquarian bookshop in modern times was that of Nirmal Chandra Kumar’s in Kolkata, which closed with his death in the late 1970s. (I hope to write something more on the great unsung Kumar in a forthcoming column with the help of his son, Aloke Kumar).

Another well-known rare bookseller, Indranath Mujumdar (better known for his publishing firm Subarnarekha), who used to trade on College Street, died recently. It’s wonderful, then, to discover that a full-on, bricks-and-mortar, open bookshop (i.e, not open by appointment only) dealing in antiquarian, rare, first editions and fine books is still open for business today. Southex Books and Prints, which I visited in the company of a dear friend, is located in South Extension II and takes up part of the ground floor of the house that the booksellers live in. It’s a spacious, elegant gallery with wood panelled bookshelves running along the walls. There are several display tables and cabinets that highlight the bookshop’s high-end antiquarian material, which include colour plate books, rare prints, maps and signed holograph letters by Florence Nightingale and Somerset Maugham.

I was most keen to see if they had interesting modern editions and indeed there was a small section devoted to it. Rashi Jain, one of the owners (her father Rajiv and her uncle Sanjiv make up the rest of the family that runs the bookshop) told me she hopes to broaden this section so that a new generation of bibliophiles and collectors can find things to like and relate to in their stock. What I was drawn to more immediately on the shelf was the green two-volume Olympia Press edition of Lolita. A real find indeed! And a first edition of A Passage to India (Edward Arnold & Co, London, 1924). They have, among other things, some signed Harry Potter books, a signed Catch 22, and a signed copy of The Man with the Golden Gun.

I’ve already mentioned that Southex’s material is high-end, but so are its prices. The starting price itself for most material here is a few thousand rupees and it can go into a few lakhs.

“We recently sold a signed Rudyard Kipling, a limited edition of his verse to one of India’s leading surgeons and his bibliophile wife; they were gifting it to someone in the family.” I had just asked Rashi who their primary customers were. “We sell largely to institutions, embassies, industrialists, tourists and a circle of collectors. Once we had a walk-in customer, a French tourist dressed casually in what looked like nightwear and we assumed he was there just to browse. But he bought a lot! It turned out he was the director of a leading international law firm.”

Southex started with Rashi’s grandfather, G.C. Jain, who dealt first in antiques. One day a Parsi doctor in Mumbai, whom he bought antique furniture and decorative items from regularly, insisted that Jain buy his collection of antiquarian books as well.

At that point the Jain family wasn’t interested in books but since the Parsi collector wouldn’t part with his furniture unless the books went with the deal, they took it. Once they had the books they began looking at them more closely and found they were valuable and collected and had a market. The antique furniture business slowly turned into a trade in antiquarian books and prints and maps as his children Sanjiv and Rajiv (and later Rashi) began sourcing material from all over the world — auctions, dealers, and private sellers.

Some of the choice antiquarian material in the bookshop: a book from 1630 on India; Edwin Arnold’s 1908 classic on the Buddha, The Light of Asia; The Limited Editions Club’s Lysistrata signed by Pablo Picasso; the Edmund Dulac illustrated edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat; the 1883 Richard Burton Kama Shastra editions of The Kama Sutra.

A very special book in their stock is the finely illustrated Six Principal Ragas: With a Brief View of Hindu Music by Sourindro Mohun Tagore, Calcutta Central Press Company, 1877. Lithographs, colour plate and aquatint books by European artists in India from the 18th and 19th centuries: Solvyns, Daniell, Gould, D’Oyly, Forbes, Fraser, Zoffany, and Emily Eden.

It’s rare to find a South Asian woman in the antiquarian books business (the only other that I know of is Bibi Mohamed of Imperial Fine Books, New York) and I tell Rashi this but she makes little of it, saying Southex is really a family-owned-and-run business.

But, as the youngest in the Jain family of antiquarian booksellers, surely she must have some ideas for the bookshop in the future?

“First, I must educate myself more about antiquarian books and then persuade people about the value and importance of rare books, most importantly telling them the difference between an old book and a rare book, guiding them regarding the proper handling and care of rare books. And I’d like to take the business to a bigger platform by selling online. It’s great being in this trade; you get to interact with bibliophiles and collectors who always have some fascinating tales to tell.”

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