Friday, April 30, 2010

Mission Delhi - Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

The Delhi walla's pretension in writing makes me want to lodge a bullet in his balls - Blogger Nimpipi, the woodchuck chucks
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Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sitting beside his second-hand books, Karim Khan, 52, lights up a Goldflake cigarette. In the evening’s gathering darkness, the surrounding office skyscrapers of Nehru Place are looking like sleepy giants. I’m meeting Mr Khan after two years. I would come to this commercial complex, famous for its computer hardware workshops, to buy books from his stall. “I’m no longer only a bookseller,” says Mr Khan.

The bookseller, who would draw charcoal sketches of people on the pages of his worm-ridden books, has become an established painter. The man who once found it difficult to pay his chaiwalla now sells his paintings priced between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh. Mr Khan has moved up in life. “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.”

But where is the Mr Khan I knew? That man who was not so polite. Talking to the painter, I miss the bookseller. Every evening I came to Nehru Place to check out what’s new at his stall. One evening I found a book on the origins of Jazz music. Another day I got a catalogue of the Prado museum. Every day, we’d quarrel like fishwives over an amount as little as Rs 5. Mr Khan called me names. I abused him back. Once, he accused me of not paying the full amount of a rare set of Time-Life cookbooks. He would set goons on me, he promised.

Two years have passed since that incident. This evening, we are talking like civilised people. Mr Khan says I wear better clothes. I note that Mr Khan has started trimming his beard. His shirt has no crease. “You have to be compatible with the changing circumstances. Now I’m invited to parties. I have to look clean.”

A native of Silchar, Assam, Mr Khan was a college dropout who came to Delhi in 1989 “to find out what art is all about.” He ended up selling second-hand books in Nehru Place. During the day, he would halfheartedly hard-sell best-selling novelists such as Dan Brown and Chetan Bhagat to the area’s software professionals. Bless the man who came asking for directions. Mr Khan would destroy his self-esteem by throwing one acidic glare. Often, he was seen drawing portraits of shoppers. Sometimes sad, beautiful women would spend hours in his company. In evenings, Mr Khan had his durbar of painters and book lovers who would talk on life, sex and Tolstoy. I was never admitted to the coterie. “Because you were so silent.”

In 2008, Mahesh Bansal, a businessman who has a sanitary showroom in suburban Noida, came to Nehru Place, spotted Mr Khan, liked his way of talking and started visiting him daily. “I would find him making these wonderful sketches but he would throw them away and stray dogs would pee on them. I had this empty commercial space in Noida and I decided to turn it into a gallery to showcase his work,” Mr Bansal told me on phone.

In 2010, introducing his first solo exhibition, Beyond the Obvious, critic Alka Rahguvanshi 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.”

As offices starts shutting off their lights, Mr Khan invites me to his friend’s place in Gautam Nagar in south Delhi. Our auto breaks down in Uday Park. We walk to a Punjabi eatery. Over dal makhani and butter naan, I recall my past evenings with Mr Khan. He talked on Manet’s impressionism, Chekov’s stories and Shakespeare’s sonnets. “Will you move to Europe?” I ask. “No, I’m a hardcore Delhiite.”

Waiting for more naans, Mr Khan suddenly starts on a Russian novelist. “If you read Dostoyevsky, you feel you are looking at modern art. His novels are not very straight. Freud went into psychoanalysis after reading Dostoyevsky.”

After our meal, Mr Khan will return to his studio and paint. In the morning, he will take the auto to Nehru Place and sell books. “People come to me when they need novels with strange-sounding titles. They have all sorts of faces. And since I’m into figurative art, I draw their portraits on the back of my books with my charcoal pen.” True, things have changed; yet nothing has changed.

[This is the 20th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

It was a long journey (Mr Khan with one of his works)

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Not just a bookseller

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Look, I've struggled

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Such is life

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Artist spotting

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

His sweat story

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Mr Khan's admirer

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

New painting in mind?

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Thinking of the lost time?

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

Present perfect

Mission Delhi – Kareem Khan, Nehru Place

16 comments:

DoctorGenius said...

WOW..That's ALL i can say sirjee
I remember this man..I too sat besides him once..yrs ago
N as far as i remem..He was drawin the portrait of a hollywood actress from an old magazine
N i remem n attest his Not-So Polite nature..I experienced it myself wen i asked somethin bout his drawing n saw it wen he scolded a guy who came for a book(probably he had been dere before fr the same one i guess)
Anywayz..Inspite of this..I felt he was a Gr8 Gr8 guy
Unfortunately..Dint get the chance to go back to N.Place fr quite sometime aftr that n wen i DID go..he wasn't dere n i was quite Skeptical
Anywayz..guess i was quite Overjoyed to hear bout him(wrote a mini-blog myself in ur comments:D) n bout his Well-Being n also the Gr8 changes in his life
Wish him all the luck n happiness
May god bless him

N ofcourse..hw can i miss sayin.."Gr8 Gr8 Work Sirjee" :)

LumousP said...

Am really happy to notice one detail; he's from my own hometown, Silchar!
try saying 'Kemon Aso' next time you meet him.
and yes, his story is quite inspiring. good work, Austen.

zeevie said...

wow wow wowwwww.frm reags to richess like UUUu.bst of luck to both of U.inspired me toooo.thnxxxxxxx

mystic darvesh said...

I am so in awe of the Delhi walla.You been to every place that I always wanted to.I clearly remember Mr.Khan and his bookstall and have seen him making sketches sitting near his Book stall.This guy always looked special.However,I did notice in the last two years,he was not always there and now I know why.
Mayank,I always wanted to know this guy,I also wanted to talk to transgenders, you always see in the Nizammudin dargah. I wanted to go to that park near AIIMS flyover.

I am no more a Delhi walla but man,you always make me miss that city.
Thanks Mate for lovely pieces on such a beautiful city.We should meet someday.

Naveen Nambiar said...

Hi Mayank. I am Naveen from Neb Sarai near Saket. I read your articles on HT City and Delhiwalla and I really like your Photography and Writing which is so authentic and so real resembling a common man's life and the rich culture of Delhi. Really man, so wonderful and interesting are your articles and photos. Keep up the good work...

shilpi said...

God! Mayank..the more i read ur work..i more i wish that i could meet you once!I just hope that i bump into you someday..may b d day wen u feel dat even saket , Select citywalk and d likes too need a mention in your writings...So i have my fingers crossed that smday i will come across 'The Delhi walla' :)

tango said...

woww...just when I thought I was the best delhiwaalee...I chanced upon ur blog...u r good mayank..wever u write is so rich...nice :)

Olive said...

beautiful read...but d author got his facts incomplete...for starters mr khan is NOT from silchar...he is from DIBRUGARH in assam...also he comes from a very very well to do and influential family that has roots in eastern UP with members scattered all over the world...he might not want to share all this or his original name because like all great artists he is very very eccentric...his 85 year old mother is also someone worthy of a writeup given her poise and dignity even in times of great crisis...my salute to both mother and son...god bless

Olive said...

must add that he has kept himself away from his family and their affluence since he left home, leading a spartan life away from the lap of luxury he was born into...he treats even his own family members with the same attitude (read rude) as he does others and it's not easy to get him to even give you time if you go visiting him at his bookshop/kiosk...his sketches even as a student were beautiful and his charcoal sketches are truly stunning...well done sir...u r an inspiration

Delhi Goon said...

A percent of your work revs up a million brain cells and my imagination. Really appreciate your insights into the lives of the seemingly ordinary.

Lea Dam Jensen said...

Fun....just Googled Kareem Khan today to see what was written about him. I also met him years back at Nehru place. Have chatted a few times, bought a few of his books. He always talked nice or maybe normal to me.
Today I looked for him and saw he had mooved to another location. I went over and said hi. We chatted about life, religion and art. And he told me the story about his suddenly appreciated art, when I praised the painting he was doing. He asked me if I would make him a sketch with cole. And I made 2. One horse and one lady. Both on his request. I felt happy sitting there and consider to sit next to him for the rest of my life and draw and paint.
By the way: I think his new hair style looked great. You can still see and hear that hes an extremely intelligent man with ton of interesting stories.
Lea/ Fashion Designer( Denmark

dansal said...

mr mayank...thank you for your honest write up on kareem khan...keep up the good work!!looking forward to reading some more such stuff

Thierry said...

Oh my… Just thought about googling Kareem’s name, and I found your nice article! Brings me back in 1993, when I was a young trainer in Nehru Place, looking for some Mad Magazines (less prestigious than Dosto├»evski, I must admit!). I met him by chance. He didn’t have any Mad Mags, but adviced me to come back a couple of days later, he would get me some. Two days after, I was there, he hadn’t my magazines, adviced again to come back, and we began chatting, as he was curious about the pardesi I was. The day after, I came again, no magazines (obviously!), but I took the delightful habit to come every day after work, to what I called soon "Kareem’s ashram". I spent so many evenings, from 5-6 to 9 pm, smoking cigarettes (he’s the chain type), sipping chais, talking about really everything, with that not-so-wise man... ;-)
Sometimes, he would become silent, concentrated on something else than the discussion. But, suddenly, in a flash, he’d shout "Achha, Thierry, give me a cigarette!!!", making me jump!
After two months, just before my departure to France, he told me nonchalantly he had found some Mad Magazines, as the man of his word he is.
Then, each time I came back to Delhi, I went to see him (to find that he had quit smoking, in 1996, can you believe it???).
I owe him to have met my Indian family, to have chewed my first meetha paan, to have entered a police station, to have wildly crossed Old Delhi Station’s rail track to reach Karim’s Restaurant more quickly, and to have read nice books.
I keep preciously a sketch he did of me, on the cover of James Joyce’s "The Dubliners".
So, Mister Mayank Austen Soofi, thank you very much for your article and pictures, which enabled me to go through a very nice moment of nostalgy. From now, I’ll read you again, with great pleasure.
When you meet Kareem again, please be kind to greet him from "Mad Magazine Thierry" from France.
Merci.

dansal said...

mr mayank..all i would like to say at this point of time , in regards to whatever ppl write abt kareem khan,is that please get your facts correct, reach out to people who know him, before u judge or put him in a particular slot!!..for i feel he has very wrongly,been accused [by a certain OLIVE ]...of being rude to his family and also talking about his family ...which was in very bad taste....yes,kareem khan is from DIBRUGARH,,,and has no skeletons in his cupboard..so STOP PRYING!! write something substantial!!...what you would like to be remembered by... i hope OLIVE'...THAT YOU LEARN FROM THIS ,NEVER DO CHARACTER ASSASSINATION TO ANY ONE FOR THAT MATTER....SIMPLY BECAUSE IT HURTS!!!

Kemi said...

Kareem is a good friend...am not going to go into what we did and talked about...the bit about he changing into something else than a bitch and a nice guy depending on his whims is simply untrue...the articles has emasculated the man who would kill or starve to death for dignity...author tried to turn his life into a hollywood script ..Kareem doesn't fit the bill..pick someone else..the photographer did a pathetic job..he couldn't put his subject at ease...the photographs have captured a poor camera-unfriendly Kareem completely out of his 'western cowboy' elements..the man himself is going to dismiss the articles as 'contrived'..his stock word for anything remotely pretentious....however,it is nice to see him written about...

jay said...

Kareem khan likes tea and cegrat.