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Delhi’s hidden treasure: Memoirs of India, a sanctuary for rare book lovers

  |   Books

It took a chance encounter with Ron Dolin (husband of fellow Board Member of Arion Press, Stephanie Kimbro) for me to discover a hidden gem in my own backyard in South Delhi. Ron mentioned how he got a signed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the antiquarian bookstore Memoirs of India.

I was surprised that I had not heard of it; even my publisher just a few kilometres away was not aware of India’s most significant Antiquarian & Rare bookstore. Without doubt one of the finest rare book shops in the Indian subcontinent, Memoirs is unique in that it is run by a passionate women bibliophile, a rarity in the trade.

My friend Pradeep Sebastian aptly calls Rashi Jain “bookwoman of India” in his latest collection of bibliophilic essays An Inky Parade. Memoirs, tucked away on a first floor in South Extension-2, is hard to find. I spent a couple of hours having a passionate conversation with Rashi and her very supportive husband Ashish Dugar.

When I finally left, though reluctantly – fully aware that the longer I stayed the more I would spend on buying books – I had already bought the first edition copies of Gandhiji: His Life and Work (75th birthday commemorative book), Nehru: Abhinandan Granth (60th birthday commemorative book) and Waiting for the Mahatma by RK Narayan. What I could not afford were two extremely rare items of cricket memorabilia – an illustrated book of humour, Laws of Cricket, by Charles Crombie and a signed photograph of the entire Indian cricket team of 1932!

It all started in 1967 with a set of rare books acquired from a Parsi doctor! The curator of such vast collection, Rajiv Jain, is an extremely low-key individual and mostly relies on word-of-mouth clientele. His son Rishabh Jain, founder of Memoirs of India along with Rashi, has taken up the mantle to assert their presence in the digital world.

The current collection of over 5,000 rare books acquired over five decades focuses specifically on books from the Indian subcontinent that are in pristine condition. The third generation has cautiously explored the online space to fulfill the needs of younger collectors.

Fully aware that the books printed in India are often damaged because of mishandling and poor paper quality, Rashi has a reliable team that restores some of the rare books. They also provide services like valuation, restoration, expert binding and fine framing. I was pleasantly surprised to see a spruced-up first edition of Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. The books are kept carefully behind locked cabinets in glass casing with constant air-conditioning.

The collections include colour plate books, rare prints and maps, fine bindings, first and signed editions and early printed books from India. When I referred to a rare copy of the Constitution of India, Rashi described how her dad had received 100 copies of it for Rs 100 in 1984 and sold them later at a throwaway price of Rs 3000 each, the market rate now a stunning Rs 30 lakh for one in good condition!

Ashish narrated how his father-in-law Rajiv Jain once took him to the Imperial Hotel in Janpath and informed him that every photo on the hotel walls was bought from him. He almost whispered the news, not with any sense of pride but in a matter-of-fact way. Such was his desire to remain hidden and anonymous, just like his books.

Rashi mentioned that one of her regrets was losing a signed copy of Lolita during relocation but it did not dampen her spirit and the joy of handling some of the rarest treasures that have passed through her hands. Rashi and Ashish came across as a very amicable and hospitable couple, hosting me like an old friend, engaging me with stories, and enthusiastically showing me books across two floors – all for a walk-in customer. And as a parting gift they gave me a postcard from 1880!

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