Unlike last year there is little chill this time around. Last year the chill lasted for over a month. Bombay usually sees little or no winter so it was a surprise last year to experience a drop in the mercury. Even then it rarely drops enough to force you back home early or think twice before setting off to the market for groceries. It is only in the early mornings and evenings that there’s a nip in the air.
Usually Bombay sees its winter last a little over a week when it gets cold enough to huddle under the blankets a wee bit longer in the mornings. So it was a surprise to find temperatures cooling considerably last year and it was a pleasure to step out and shiver a little when a stiff breeze blew your way.
I had hoped that this year too the winter would last like it did last year but there is little sign it will last beyond a week and even then the temperature hasn’t dropped by all that much. Actually it is pleasant in the evenings.
Monsoons and winters are two seasons made for reading if you’re stuck at home or wish to stay back the evening.
I haven’t lived in Bombay long enough to know if reading habits have changed over the last two decades. I believe they’ll have. I do see people read in the trains, mostly the local newspapers, and occasionally books. Unless you manage to get a seat in the train in the morning rush hour it is well neigh impossible to read anything at all but office goers have adopted novel methods to scan newspaper inches. Reading a book in the crowded local trains is no less difficult even though they’re handy to carry and read.
Entering the mobile book store I had the space to myself except for an elderly gentleman scanning the shelves for Marathi language books. Granthayan runs out of a modified TATA mini-truck. On the street outside sodium-vapour lamps lit up the roads.
At a computer terminal in a corner by the entrance Avinash Rane sits on a small stool, barcode scanner in hand. Behind him traffic zooms past, disappearing into the Christmas night. Occasionally a horn sounds, slicing the steady hum of fans whirring in the parked book store. There're hundreds of titles in the shelves awaiting discovery, titles new and old, some familiar, some not. Avinash rarely steps away from the computer terminal. Every once in a while his assistant, a silent youth in a blue t-shirt with Granthayan emblazoned in bold orange letters hands him books that customers selected for purchase. He quickly scans the books and prints out receipts before collecting payment. There's hardly a word uttered in all the time. It is as if they're answering to a purpose beyond selling books. It may well be so.
In Sanskrit, among the oldest and the most formidable of ancient Indian languages, Grantha is variously a book, a treatise, and a composition. Granthayan can be loosely understood to be a book movement of sorts, or may be a book journey.
Avinash tells me that they have ten such mobile book stores operational in Maharashtra State. “One is in Kudal at the moment, another is in Raigad. There is one in Vidharba as well. They drive to where they feel they’ve takers for the books.”
Kudal is in the Konkan to the West of Maharashtra, along the coast. Granthayan apparently aims to take the reading habit to far flung areas in the State of Maharashtra where book stores are not easily accessible, like villages and small towns for instance. For a moment I picture this initiative on wheels trundle along quiet country roads, drawing curious attention along the way as it stops from place to place. And dusty villages where village centres are typically a smattering of shops selling basic provisions while village folk gather under trees or on platforms around a Banyan or a Neem tree must present an interesting challenge in spreading the reading habit, more so if reading has been largely restricted to school textbooks.
Even as I think of rural scenes I smile to myself, warming to the idea. A bookstore on wheels is just what the doctor ordered.
Looking around I’m surprised at the number and variety of book titles stacked in neat rows on book shelves that line the three walls of the truck. A book rack in the middle partitions the space into two sections. The shelves are a mix of popular and business titles. The titles are most likely selected keeping in mind the localities they drive to, for I cannot imagine these titles finding many takers in say, Kudal.
“The Marathi books are costlier than the English ones,” the elderly browser I first saw on entering the back of the truck tells me, shaking his head at the thought.
“Maybe it is difficult for Marathi language book publishers to keep the costs down. There isn’t as much sales volume to Marathi books as there is for English books,” I offer as an explanation, unsure if that indeed is the reason. However in reality Marathi books are cheaper than the English titles. It is likely he was referring to certain Marathi titles.
“Of the remaining seven Granthayan mobile book stores, four are in Mumbai, of which one is doing rounds at Tilaknagar in Chembur. Outside of Mumbai there is one operational in Airoli, and one in Palgar,” Avinash remarks as I hand him a Gerald Durell title I’ve chosen to take home, Rosy Is My Relative. The blurb reads thus: What does a young man bequeathed Pounds Sterling 500 and an elephant with a taste for liquor do? Adrian Rookwhistle thought he had the answer - he'd give her to a circus. But it wasn't so easy. As Avinash makes a receipt for my purchase I notice a family of three passing by the truck pause by the open door on seeing book shelves reflected in bright tubelight.
There’s a ‘What on Earth is a book store doing in a truck on the side of a road this late at night’ look on their faces. A mobile book store is not a common sight on city roads. Curiosity gets the better of them and they take the short flight of retractable stairs up before venturing to the back of the truck, scanning book titles as they move along the shelves.
I ask Avinash if the venture is drawing enthusiastic response from the public.
“Yes, yes. It is,” he replies. “I’ve had many people asking me if I can bring the vehicle to where they stay. I told them that if their Housing Society permits me to bring the vehicle into their complex I will readily drive it over.”
Over five hundred books were sold the day I chanced upon the 'Books on Wheels' truck. I’m not sure if Avinash Rane sold the five hundred off his stock of books in the truck or if it was aggregated across all ten trucks. Whatever the case may be I thought five hundred is an encouraging number for a mobile book store aiming to bring books to your door.
Note: Granthayan operates a toll free number (1800-209-8074) that you can use to order books to be delivered free to your home anywhere in Maharashtra with payment to be made in cash on delivery. Only orders above Rs. 250/- are accepted for home delivery, the delivery taking between 1-10 days.
Series On Books People Read While Commuting
1. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part I
2. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part II
3. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part III