Second-Hand Books, First-Hand Art

Deep into the jungle of hardware, where digital warfare is rampant, there lives a man in a paper fortress with a little army of print soldiers.

Most of us visit Nehru Place with broken batteries, failed chargers, stubborn screens and look for cheap ink for our expensive LaserJet, lamination for all things brittle and ways to extend the RAM beyond recognition. On a similar quest, laptop pressed securely against my chest, we stumbled upon mounds of jaundiced books lined precariously. As is the drill with a remorseless bibliophile, we walked over for closer inspection.

We lifted a copy of Dostoevsky’s War and Punishment and tossed it aside, then reached past Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to grab a book that read ‘Beethoven among the Cows’.

‘It seems like you are not much into classics’, an unexpected male voice came from behind, and I turned, to see a middle-aged man in thick brown-rimmed glasses with a sombre face on the cusp of sarcasm. ‘Not true, just that we happened to have read Dostoevsky’s and feel that life is too short to read Hemingway’, we replied obliquely. ‘Look over here, on the outside I keep some foolish best sellers, behind them I keep pretentious books for all JNU clones, here at the very end, I keep the books that I find worthwhile’, Kareem explained, making it sufficiently clear that not only was he the owner of the modest collection, but was in fact the de facto reader and critique of all the books that were sold from his rickety abode under the blue of tarpaulin.

 The rigidity of his ways, non-conformity of views and dismissal of all things prevalent and pious, appeared strange against the fragility of his livelihood. ‘There are more writers than readers these days. Almost anything gets published. I like reading writers who don’t know how to write’, Khan muttered to himself.

Intrigued, we typed awkward combination of words on google ‘Nehru place, second hand book seller’ and found Delhiwalla’s article on Mr. Kareem Khan, the artist. Confused, we began reading and soon learned that the man who stood a few inches from me was a celebrated artist.

‘They always go for the best ones’, Kareem exclaims, as we skim through a bug-eaten copy of a collection of short stories in French, ‘ look at these Shobha De books, still brand new’, he chuckles.

At nightfall, the printed soldiers return to their bunkers and Khan marches away to his studio with a Goldflake held between his pursed lips.  There, as a vent for his primal instincts, he begins painting.

What began as a proclivity to make charcoal sketches of buyers on the last page of their books turned into an exhibition at the behest of an Art enthusiast who fell prey to Kareem’s charm and unique voice as an artist.

In 2010, introducing his first solo exhibition, Beyond the Obvious, critic Alka Raghuvanshi wrote,“ A deep melancholy hangs over Khan’s works. Like fine mist it envelops them in an invisible net that draws the onlooker into its lair like a gossamer web, almost forcing them to linger. The metaphors are urban, the inspirational mainstay emerging from imagery that is almost European in style and content.”

His work is permanently exhibited at Stupa 18 Gallery in Noida and can also be found here.

“I think we all move… forward, sideways. I must not get boring. I must experience different things in life. I must show my age and experiences in my paintings. I must draw the journey that took me to become what I became”, Kareem writes about his work.

He goes to Daryaganj and hand picks the books. Some are publishing house residue, some are pirated best sellers, yet others are remnants of people’s collection. He has a penchant for Russian literature, which he loves to quote in the middle of conversations.

Since our first visit, we’ve accidentally stumbled upon many excellent books on arcane subjects that would have never made their way to glossy shelves at air-conditioned bookstores. Some books have faded pressed flowers, occasional letters and tickets. Some smell of tobacco and have interesting markings that tell the story of hands that held them before they journeyed through time to reach me.

If second-hand books and first-hand art do not interest you, visit Mr. Kareem Khan for chai and conversation and we promise, you will go home bedazzled.

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