At a quaint stall outside Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre sits 49-year-old Sanjana Tiwari, guarding her precious trove of Hindi literary gems while scouting potential customers. It’s been 25 years since she opened her little shop in Mandi House—the Mecca of Delhi’s theatre scene—but there has never been a dearth of business. Popularly known as ‘SRC aunty,’ Tiwari and her bookstall are a hit among budding thespians seeking inspiration in Hindi literature. Her book collection includes the works of Bashir Badr, Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, plays such as Tughlaq and Ashadh Ka Ek Din, and even biographies and essays on pressing global issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war.
“I sat at this bookstall because I wanted to read good books. Now, I want to motivate the new generation to love Hindi literature. Even if there were financial reasons for me to open the bookstall, it doesn’t matter to me now,” says Tiwari.
Tiwari’s love for books and her urge to maintain an identity outside of marriage has kept her going. Married at 16, she and her husband moved from Bihar to Delhi in 1998. And it hasn’t been an easy journey.
“I opened this stall inside SRC initially, but in 2008, I was driven out. Theatre students, journalists, and artists supported me in opening the stall outside SRC in 2013,” says Tiwari, who completed her bachelor’s degree in Hindi with the help of her customers.
Despite the heartening support, Tiwari’s struggles continued.
“Sometimes, SRC gardeners spill water on my books. Earlier, NDMC [New Delhi Municipal Corporation] would take away my books, and even the police would ask me to dismantle my stall at times,” she adds.
Small shop, rare treasures
The bookstall has handpicked titles from different publications and sellers across Delhi. Tiwari reads all of the books herself before putting them for sale.
“I have all the premium books at my stall. The ones you would find nowhere, you can find at my stall. For example, if you go to a regular stall to find Raag Darbari, Triveni, or Tughlaq, you wouldn’t. All of these are hot-selling books. And if I don’t have a book my buyer wants, I arrange it myself,” she says.
Sometimes, she recommends titles to new readers who find it difficult to pick a good book to start with.
A growing legacy
Tiwari’s shop is not just frequented by theatre students; she also recalls meeting big authors who came to see their books at her stall.
“Books by Manav Kaul are best sellers. He is an actor and a good person. Whenever he comes to Delhi, he meets me. I have met almost all the authors, such as Nagarjun, Madan Kashyap, Geetanjali Shree,” she says.
Tiwari is now expanding her legacy beyond the stall. Hindi books are hardly found in Delhi’s libraries, cafés and bookshops, and she has taken it upon herself to change this. Tiwari has started her own publication, under the name of Sanjana Books, to give young, struggling Hindi writers a platform to get their works published. Sanjana Books has rolled out more than 100 titles so far.
After two decades at SRC, Tiwari considers the theatre folks her family and Mandi House her home. It is no surprise then that she has acquired many trusted customers and great friendships. Her regular shoppers have abandoned their online book-buying habits in favour of her stall.
When asked about her favourite poem, Tiwari goes into deep thought. After much deliberation, she recites the last stanza from Sakhi Ve Mujhse Keh Kar Jaate by Maithili Sharan Gupt:
I know he’s gone, but I know he will return
With wisdom and experience
And my aching heart will welcome him
But will I be happy?
I wish he’d told me.
Before he left me.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)