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Remembering Baig sahib: The man at Midland Books who understood what it means to be a book lover

In the age of Amazon and Kindle, bookshops that function on an innate understanding of what books can mean to a reader and on nurturing a lifelong relationship with their clientele are a dwindling society of kindred spirits. That is why Baig sahib’s loss is a deeply personal one

Mirza Yaseen Baig passed away on Thursday, November 24. He was 94. (PTI)

My mother began dropping into Midland Books regularly when its doors opened in Aurobindo Market for the first time in 1985. The market was tiny in those days, with only a handful of shops, and Midland was about as tiny, with its aisles crammed with books. My mother remembers Mirza Yaseen Baig as a warm, kindly man, who adored books and knew, instinctively, the joy of browsing. Baig sahib didn’t mind if you walked out without buying a book. For him, the pleasure of a book was in getting to know the feel of its spine, the smell of its newly-cut pages and the story it could tell. A voracious reader herself, Ma appreciated the simple joy of being left to peruse the shelves. She always went back — sometimes just for that.

When I was born, Ma tells me, she began taking me to Midland almost as soon as I could walk. She would take me for a walk in the little park that still stands on the periphery of the market, and then into Midland to explore the shelves. The market was growing in size now. In the late 1980s, there was (and still is!) a small shop that sold dairy products – Quality Dairy – which sold excellent badaam milk, loaves of bread and fresh paneer; a sweet shop at the far corner by the rather lovely name of Chhappan Bhog; a couple of trusty opticians; a stationery shop run by a gentle couple (one of whom is still there, though her husband passed away during the lockdown in 2020). In the middle of this growing bustle stood Midland Books, a gentle oasis of calm. Ma would drop in with me – to peruse or to buy the titles that Baig sahib would recommend. Once I was a little older, she would ask if she could leave me there while she finished shopping or chatting with the neighbours. “Sure, madam,” he would say, “Of course, you can leave her here. Take your time.”

And so, my first memory of Baig sahib and Midland Books is a large, bespectacled man with a gentle, gravelly voice, who sat me down in the corner of the store and gave me all kinds of fascinating books, with pictures of birds and animals to look at. Once he realised that I liked sitting with books, he bought me a little toddler-sized stool and allowed me to sit there for hours, among the vividly coloured stacks. But Baig sahib was a story-teller at heart. “Inkeliye books ka collection abhi se shuru kar lo. Inko shauq hojayega padhne ka,” he told my mother, once he saw how riveted to the spot I was.

Ma took his advice and brought home an entire series of picture books from Midland. They were the first books that I could read before I could read, if you know what I mean — and to be honest, reading was a lovely way in which a working mother could divert the attention of her only child!

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It was Baig sahib who helped Ma understand the gradients of books that a growing child should read. From the Tom and Kate books by Ladybird to Noddy, from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s (and every whimsy story she ever wrote from The Faraway Tree to Mister Meddle), from The Jungle Book to What Katy Did, from the classics to Daphne du Maurier and Georgette Heyer, Baig sahib introduced me to a wonderfully eclectic imaginary world. He suggested to Ma – who had never heard of L.M. Montgomery – that I might enjoy the Anne of Green Gables series. To date, Anne remains one of my favourites, a world I often return to. If I did well in my school examinations, I would be taken to Midland to buy the books – The Black Stallion and The Silver Brumby series were a favourite at some point – that Baig sahib had kept aside for me as a treat.

That – among so many other things – was what made Baig sahib special. He understood the value of stories – not in the commercial sense of the word, but in their deep appeal to a dreaming mind or a longing heart. When he suggested a book or a title, it was based on his knowledge of you or on his understanding of what kind of stories you were searching for in Midland or in life. This was not something he learned or was taught. It was an instinct.

Today, it’s a rarity. In the age of Amazon and Kindle, bookshops that function on an innate understanding of what books can mean to a reader and on nurturing a lifelong relationship with their clientele are a dwindling society of kindred spirits. That is why Baig sahib’s loss is a deeply personal one. For me, there is comfort in knowing that he taught his family well. Even after his passing, Midland Books will always be a haven for the true book lover, a place where you can nearly always count on your mobile network to die as soon as you enter — all the better, he would have chuckled, to browse with.

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As he grew older and made way for the younger Baig generations to run Midland, Baig sahib sat outside the store, never far from his books and from the dream of story-selling that he had nurtured with such love and pride. When I decided to write my first book, Ma and I went together to tell him. It felt only right to do so, for here was a man who had stayed with me on my journey from reading to doing what he loved best: telling stories. “Dekho!” was all he said, but it was said with a smile of such pride that I will always remember it.

I’m glad that Baig sahib got to see my book out in print. I would not be a storyteller of any kind, without him.

The writer is the author of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India

First published on: 26-11-2022 at 18:00 IST
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