February 01, 2009

Indian Copy

I thought it strange that the bookseller would prefer to sit by a drinking-water tap on the railway platform rather than be on his feet selling books now that the Nagercoil Express had come to a halt at the railway station. It was a few minutes past four in the afternoon when it pulled into Pune on its way to Tirupati and beyond, to Nagercoil in Tamilnadu.

The train leaves Mumbai at ten past twelve in the noon. With close to four hours already behind us in the journey and nineteen more to go before it touches Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh at 11.00 a.m. the next morning I stepped to the door to look for a railway bookstall for a book that might keep me company on the long journey ahead.

It was then that I saw Bhole Singh Chauhan sitting listlessly on a platform by a drinking water tap where passengers were quenching their thirst.

Under the khaki ‘working-shirt’ labeled Wheeler after the Wheeler bookshops that dot railway stations around India, Bhole Singh Chauhan wore a full-sleeved shirt. Pune is pleasant in January and it is not until March that the weather turns decidedly warmer.

In the din of vendors calling attention to their wares that ranged from fried savouries and fruits to accessories like combs and safety pins I walked to where Bhole Singh Chauhan sat watching the goings-on around him. The stack by his side held some books and a range of magazines. On the top of the pile lay The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, the novel that won the author the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Born into a Kannadiga Brahmin family from coastal Karnataka and writing about India’s underbelly, Aravind Adiga’s book drew mixed emotions in India for its treatment of the divide between the rich and the poor while charting the travails of Balram Halwai.

Pointing to the pirated copy of The White Tiger that nevertheless had legible print, he said, “This book has been selling well now.”

I pick up the copy and turn it. The price on the back of the book stares back at me. Everything about the pirated copy looks the same as the original with the publishers imprint et al except for the quality of the paper used, and the design that is ‘shaky’ in places.

“Do you sell it for Rs. 395?” I ask him, pointing to Rs. 395 printed on the back.

“No,” he says. “It goes for Rs. 100 or at most Rs. 125. This is an Indian Copy so it is cheap.” Indian Copy is a euphemism for a pirated copy.

Bhole Singh Chauhan and the others who sell books on the platform “deposit Rs. 1000 each day with the seth (boss) to have books issued against the security deposit.” By ‘seth’ I assume he’s referring to the owner of the Wheeler bookstore outlet at the railway station. At the end of the day the seth refunds the security deposit to the vendors after accounting for the sales and adjusting the commission on books sold during the day.

He tells me that they get a commission of 8% on the sales. I refuse to believe him. His colleague who had stopped by to listen to our conversation steps up to back the figure. “He’s right. We get only 8% on the sales.”

“If you were to sell original books and not ‘Indian Copies’ you would be making more money even at 8%,” I remark.

“That’s true. But who will buy books for that price (original) here (railway station and passing trains)? More so those traveling in this,” Bhole Singh Chauhan replies while pointing to the Second Class compartment I had just stepped out of. “Nobody would buy them at those prices. With Indian Copies we at least manage to sell some.”

I counter him with, “I’m sure there’ll be those who will buy the original copies.”

“Yes, the shauqeen (passionate about books) will not buy Indian Copies,” he replies. “They will prefer to pay Rs. 395 for the other copy (original).”

A commission of 8% on pirated books sporting original prices meant the platform booksellers will have agreed a base price for the books with the seth for, there’s no way the seth would know how much the platform booksellers actually sell the books for. A pirated copy of The White Tiger could go for as much as Rs. 200 with one customer and for Rs. 150 with another.

“Our seth tells us not to sell it below Rs. 100,” he said.

Rs. 100 is probably the base price the seth fixed for The White Tiger, calculating 8% sales commission on the base price. The vendor would get to keep anything above the base price if he had the skills to sell it for more.

“Do you manage to sell this book for Rs. 175 and over?” I ask him.

“Rarely,” he replies. “Most people who buy these books know that these are Indian Copies, so they bargain hard. Usually we manage to sell them between Rs. 100 to Rs. 125.”

I return my attention to the stack. Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari lies beneath The White Tiger.

Pointing to Robin Sharma’s book he says, “This one sells the most.” It is apparent that he has difficulty pronouncing the title.

I ask him if reading habits of railway passengers have changed now as compared to those a few years ago.

“Yes, they have. Now people have mobile phones. They keep doing things with their mobile phones. Books are meant for timepass on train journeys, so if they can timepass with mobile phones why would they buy these,” he replies, pointing to the stack by his side. “Before, there were no mobile phones, and people bought books.”

Behind me the 6351 / Nagercoil Express stands in silence. The train covers the 1,152 kilometres to Tirupati in 23 hours, and I’m looking forward to the time on the train. The route crosses several states, passing Daund, Solapur, Gulbarga, Yadgir, Raichur, Guntakal, Gooty, Cuddapah, and Renigunta Jn. among others before pulling into Tirupati for a quick stop at 11.00 a.m. tomorrow. Then it continues on to Nagercoil, a further 815 kilometres away, passing Tiruchchirapali, Madurai, and Tirunelveli on the way. We would be getting off at Tirupati.

The changing topography outside the window on a journey by the Indian Railways invariably holds many an interesting sight for an eager traveler, and it was no different on the Nagercoil Express. Looking around I see passengers relishing savouries while others are stretching their legs on the platform, alert to the sounding of the horn announcing the departure of the Nagercoil Express on its onward journey across India. Every once in a while I cast a quick glance behind me at the train for the slightest hint of movement, for in the din on the platform it is easy to miss the horn. Then I turn to the bookseller.

Bhole Singh Chauhan is from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh. I tell him that his surname is similar to ‘Chavan’, natives of Maharashtra. He corrects me.

“No. We are Chauhans. The Chauhan of Prithvi Raj Chauhan,” he said, invoking the name of the legendary Hindu Rajput King who repulsed the early Islamic invasions of India by Muhammad Shahab ud-Din Ghori on several occasions in the 1100s before being defeated and taken to Afganistan where he was blinded. Then Muhammad Ghori went about converting India to Islam by the sword, marking the beginning of a brutal chapter of Muslim conquest of Northern India.

Rajputs take great pride in their exploits on the battlefield over the centuries and it is not uncommon even today to sense their fierce pride in their community and their surnames, and it is a rare Rajput who will not mention he is one to anyone who might confuse the surname for another community.

It is nine years now that Bhole Singh Chauhan has been selling books on the railway platform. He tells me that he manages to sell 2-3 books each day. “Magazines sell more, so my stock of magazines gets sold, but not books,” he says. He left unsaid that selling books on railway platform is a hard life, with measly returns and nine years is a long time in the business.

He rarely smiled in the time we spoke. When he drew an association with the famous Rajput king, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, to distinguish between the Chavans of Maharashtra to the West of India, and the Chauhans, a clan of Rajputs originating in Northern India, I sensed a wistful tone to his remark made casually, “Rajputs used be warriors once.”

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Sarah Laurence said...

I’ve been curious about The White Tiger and would like to read it although the story sounds a bit grizzly. That’s a shame that people are pirating it. It’s so hard as it is for authors of literary fiction to make a living. It is good that you tried to show him the logic of selling genuine books for a greater profit, but it sound like the system is set up to sustain corruption.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this fascinating and lively account. Strangely enough, the station in Pune had a particular resonance for me, as I still dream of making it to the Iyengar yoga Institute in Pune one of these days.

Renee said...

Thank you for taking me along on your travels. None of this I know.

Love Renee

Rosaria Williams said...

This is extremely interesting and revelatory, helping people like me who have never been to India get a feel of the land.


Ugich Konitari said...

Anil P, Thanks so much for posting this. The Pune station was a frequent destination for me since I grew up in Pune, and thanks to the Volvo Buses and the expressway , i dont do this method any more.

But your post brought back so many memories, and yes, I have often bought, as Bhole Singh Chauhan says, magazines rather than books. Your depiction of the ambience on the station, the constant checking for the sudden movement of the train signifying a big rush to the doorway, the cacophony of the food hawkers, was simply wonderful.

I havent travelled by train in quite some time. Your post made me want to go that way all over again....Thank you !

kenju said...

I can sympathize with the salesman, but I buy magazines for airplane travel, since they weigh less and can more easily be left behind when I am done with them.

nomad said...

lovely post, captures some of the true essence of an IR journey. the booksellers and the 'indian copies' are some of the often overlooked aspects - thanks for sharing them.

Anil P said...

Sarah Laurence: Folks who've read The White Tiger have either liked it or disliked it, there's rarely been a middle ground in all the reviews that I've read. So it should make for an interesting read.

I agree that it's really hard for a fiction writer to make a living and there should be a far greater resolve in tackling book piracy. Back here, it's only when a book has made it big in terms of visibility and sales do we see it pirated, resulting in much loss to the author and the publisher.

Unless there's a realisation allround that sweat and blood has gone into a piece of literature will there be a value placed on a finished piece of work, and it is important for writers to actually speak of the difficulty they've been through to see the end of the line to force that realisation among the rest. Hopefully, in time the realisation will trickle down the chain.

As for the vendor whose education in terms of the ethics of selling is limited to the necessity of eking out a living, the book is just another commodity he's sourced from a supplier for an audience who will buy it so that he can put dinner on the floor that night.

The economics of profit often overlap with the economics of need.

Maria: I haven't been to the B K Iyengar Yoga Institute either.

Renee: Thank you, Renee. It's a pleasure to do so.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. I've always liked the feel of Pune railway station though I'm unable to pinpoint why. I wonder if it has to do with traversing through much greenery before pulling into Pune.

I would've bought a copy of the book from him if it was an original imprint.

Train trips are great fun if you're lucky to have pleasant co-passengers in the train compartment. And best if you get a window seat on the journey.

The next time maybe you might want to try a book from the vendors on the railway platform. :)

Kenju: Magazines ar so much more convenient. At times I believe the duration of the travel could be a factor in choosing magazines to read as opposed to books.

It's sure difficult to leave a book behind.

Nomad: Thank you. Indeed what would Indian train journeys be like without the din on the platform!

CoyoteFe said...

Greetings Anil!

A richly textured post as always. I have never been to India, but through your blog, I get to piece together bits of a very complicated land. Thank you for writing!

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It vividly brought back so many wonderful memories of long train journeys (my most-frequented train was the Grand Trunk Express, 36 hours of sheer train bliss!) and the always lively goings on on the platforms. Your portrayal of Mr. Chauhan was very moving.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

I'm visiting from Lori times five, Windy Skies writer and found such an interesting and complex portrayal of Indian life and experience. Here in Puerto Rico, people sell DVD copies on tables by the side of the road even though it is quite illegal. Sometimes their is police action and most times people openly sell the copies. Just too tempting, I guess.

Day Dreamer said...

Nice description...told me a lot of things . But actually I started reading it sensing that you will tell why he is not shouting or selling books on foot..I thought its because it will be tough for him to roam carrying so many books nevertheless I always found book sellers at railway stations quite lazy..really nice post

Poonam Sharma said...

I am glad to read this post. Other day I discussed with my book vendor (we generally have our discussions) about the books sold on pavements of Delhi. I asked him do you know where they get their books from. He nonchalantly said, thats upto you to find out. Your post was insightful.

As for soemone asking fro White Tiger's review, here is one version: http://alchemistpoonam.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/book-review-the-white-tiger/#comment-4579

bhumika said...

Anil, this is such a heart-warming post. Also, it shows the importance we lay on books. People spend hundreds on a meal or clothes, but wouldn't want to spend the same amount on books, which will stay with them forever.

And the Pune station always brings back fond memories of many wonderful journeys i undertook during my 3 year stay in the b'ful city.

Thanks for such a lovely post :)

bindu said...

This was such a great read, Anil. You have a way of getting to the minutest of details. It was also informative - didn't know too much about these book sellers, though I've seen them working.

Anil P said...

CoyoteFe: Thank you. Someday you must visit India. Indian can at times be a bundle of contradictions.

Kamini: Thank you. I'm looking forward to traveling by the Grand Trunk Express. Hope I can do it someday soon. 36 hours is long indeed.

The longest journey I've been on was the one by the Punjab Mail from Bombay to Delhi. It took 33 hours to cover the distance, stopping at most places on the way. The Rajdhani does it in 17 hours, but you see more by the Punjab Mail.

Cynthia: Thank you. It's illegal for sure, but I doubt they truly understand the implications of it as in how artists who spend their lives trying to make it somewhere suffer on account of piracy. Then there's the compulsion to earn a living as well.

Day Dreamer: Knowing that there're not many takers for his books, even though they're cheaper than the originals could be one reason why he wasn't trying enough.

And like you said, carrying that load can be difficult as well.

Poonam Sharma: Thank you for the link.

Bhumika: Thank you. I agree. People wouldn't think twice spending on most things but books. That's a reality that won't go away anytime soon.

Nice to know you feel the same way about Pune as well. I've stayed in Pune only intermittently, a few days at a stretch at most.

Bindu: Thank you. Selling books was never easy, but I think they stand the best chance on railway platforms because of the flow of people. I suppose even that isn't easy as well, from what the bookseller told me.

Ms.N said...

hey- nice post. i like the way u delve into the life's of people with what seems like utmost ease!

i was recently hopping around matunga for books. the quality of paper is such a give away - i prefer to look for 2nd hand copies instead i suppose!

D said...

Speaking of books...Can you tell us how "Slumdog Millionaire" is being received in India?
I can't wait to read the book.

Anonymous said...

This is a really nice post. Very interesting. Just the other day I bought an 'Indian Copy' from a small bookstall in Mahim. It was a copy of The Da Vinci Code.

I've read the book before but I wanted to read it again. A friend asked me to rent it but I said I wanted a keepsake. So he asked me why I wasn't buying the original.....to that I replied, why waste the money. :)

I bought the book for 90 Rs btw. :)

Sherri said...

I'm completely enjoying The White Tiger - brilliant so far. Any booker prize winner I will read. So appropriate that it lies on top of the stack. The story depicts a blunt reality of life in India. Easy for some, incredibly tough for others (like this bookseller). Such is the case for other countries as well though. Same equation, though the variables are different.

karen said...

Hi Anil
I love the description of the train trip, (what a long long journey!) and the activities on the platform. It's quite similar here - when you visit the shops, there are people on every corner with their folders of hundreds of pirated DVDs.. i have never seen pirated books here, though!

I haven't read The White Tiger yet - it's on my list. Will buy a copy when we next go to a city!

Hope we will hear more about that train ride itself in a future post? :-)

Anonymous said...

I didn't think such low returns can make this a long-term job for anyone, unless he actually does sell a few higher than the base price every day. I am finicky about the quality of paper and print of books I buy; these 'Indian copies' aren't fun to read.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully told as always. I so enjoyed my visit to India again, learning just a little more each time. Thank you.

Coffee Messiah said...

I did not realize you posted again
; (

What an interesting story, especially for us here in the usa, as we mostly hear about China and all it's pirating.

Can't imagine taking a chance on a pirated book. Perhaps a few chapters would be missing? ; (

Also, can't imagine not only "not" looking out the window on a train journey, but not reading a book also.

Cellphones are going to be the death of us.

Cheers & Thanks once again for the interesting journey!

Vaidya_Vaakya said...

I recently happend to buy The Bhagvad Gita at a small shop in a temple town. Printed price - Rs.10. My grandmothers copy had a price of 5 annas printed on it.

N said...

i was just thinking (as a result of some personal experiences) that train journeys tell some interesting stories :) stopped by after a while. i have seen books being sold at traffic signals and footpaths, thanks for sharing what these guys have to say. most of the time id just walk past.

Lakshmi said...

Ive said this before somewhere and I cant remember where :) Train journeys open our minds to the world rather than just taking us to a specific destination..and sharing your journeys with us, you have opened our minds as well..aravind adiga incidentally is from chennai as well ..much of his early days before he left for australia was spent there as his mother comes from the city

Amber Star said...

Oh dear...I'd hoped you had commented on Slumdog Millionaire, but it wasn't to be. When I saw it I was surprised and understood immediately what the interviewers on tv of the producers and actors meant when they shrugged about not hiding the underbelly of India. It was an interesting movie and quite violent.

Your post about your travels is once again such a treat. You give us a glimpse of how magnificent India truly is. I enjoy reading the posts of your readers very much, as well.

Anil P said...

Ms.N: Thank you. The paper quality is surely a giveaway. I prefer to buy second-hand books as well if I cannot get hold of new copies.

D: Slumdog Millionaire has received mixed reviews, mostly by the film fraternity. One of my friends termed it a "masala" film. The grouse is about how it has portrayed India.

I'm yet to see it though.

Taraana: Thank you. I see lots of pirated copies of the Da Vinci Code around.

If I could I would wish book piracy away. It has more to do with knowing how hard it can be for an author to break ground and ensure sustenance to practice the art and sustain the craft.

Shireena: What a coincidence to have The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire appear back to back, and to similar mixed feelings among some of their treatment of India.

Karen: Thank you. It is certainly a long journey by any standards, long enough for thoughts to collect and disperse all over again, and many times over.

Yes, I'll be posting more of that train ride later.

Shantanu: I believe he does manage to sell a few above the base price. He said he manages to sell far more magazines than books. That's where he must be making his sustenance.

Nothing like good paper to thumb through.

Rob Inushuk: Thank you :)

Coffee Messiah: I believe it's more in China from what I hear and from seeing scores of Chinese goods flooding the markets here. Moreover Chinese goods have come to acquire a 'cheap quality' tag here, and that might drive the demand down.

A window and a book in hand is just what the doctor ordered on a journey that long.

Gadgets generally.


Vaidya Vaakya: That old a copy still around? Surprising.

N: Thank you. Traffic signals see many kinds of vendors, and they only have a minute or two to make a sale. The short time available to make a sale is a challenge I can't even begin to comprehend let alone pull it off.

Lakshmi: I agree. So I heard too. Adigas hail from Karnataka, and growing up in Chennai must have been some cross cultural experience for sure.

Amber Star: Hopefully I'll be able to see it sometime soon. Having lived in Mumbai I can sense beforehand the treatment the characters must have got, and I wonder if that will colour my own perceptions. But then one cannot really leave that behind either.

Sometimes violence lurking beneath the surface is easier to sense and comprehend than the one on the surface.

It's indeed a pleasure to learn that you've enjoyed my travel pieces. Thank you.

Anjuli said...

I get lost in your words- and I really don't want them to end. This was lovely- I especially liked Bhole Singh Chauhan wise insight concerning people's lack of desire to read in correlation to their increased used of mobiles!

Anil P said...

Anjuli: Thank you. India is an unending journey by itself.

Bhole Singh Chauhan said it in a resigned tone, people preoccupied with their mobiles on journeys.

It's a pleasure to know you enjoyed these narratives.

HereBeDragons said...

I've never seen pirated books before. Didn't even know they existed, though I suppose it makes sense. Thanks for a great entry!

Anil P said...

Jennannei: Thank you. Piracy feeds off successful books.

anish said...

great great! can you also do one on the riksha walas in mumbai who drive rikshas owned by some seths.. i had heard that there are 2 3 big seths around borivli and bhayandar/mira road who control most of this business. yours is an investigative street-photo-journalism that unearths subterranean informal systems :) great man! i'll ask my friends to vote for you on lonely planet

Anil P said...

Anish: Thank you. There're many undercurrents to life on the road, and they make for interesting insights.

I've done a piece on rickshaw drivers from an entirely different angle, but at close to 6000 words it was meant to be a chapter and not a post :-)

Thank you for the vote and appreciate your wanting to take the message to your friends.