It is 12.30 pm on a Wednesday and there’s none of the rush-hour bustle on platform No. 1 of Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. Ravindar Kumar, 42, in his half-sleeve khaki shirt, that he has worn unbuttoned over a light blue shirt, sits on a chair beside his book stall — an improvised cart with wheels — waiting for customers.
The cart, one of 15 such carts and stalls that sell books at the station, has an assortment of books, newspapers and magazines arranged in no apparent order — from titles such as Oh Yes, I’m Single to Chanakya’s Arthashastra, from Manohar Kahaniyan magazines to popular Hindi pulp fiction titles authored by Ved Prakash Sharma (Wardi Wala Gunda) and Surendra Mohan Pathak.
“Books by Durjoy Dutta, Amish Tripathi, Chetan Bhagat do well these days. In Hindi, Manohar Kahaniyan and Madhur Kathayen (magazines with stories that deal with sex, tangled relationships, murder and more) are favourites and sell the most. When I started off some 20 years ago, Hindi authors Premchand and Jaishankar Prasad used to be bestsellers,” he says.
Kumar hasn’t heard of a recent Railway Board circular that said all multi-purpose stalls (curio stalls, bookstalls, chemists etc) at railway stations “must display and sell books on Indian tradition, culture, values, morals and history”. “I haven’t heard about the new rule, but I will sell those books if that’s what the government wants me to do. Anyway, I don’t remember people ever asking for such books,” he says.
Kumar, 42, came to Delhi 22 years ago from his village in Bihar’s Chhapra district. He started off carrying books from the godown to the railway station, before he took up this job at the cart. “My brother knew somebody at N C Jain and Sons (the company that has the licence for the stall) and that’s how I got this job in 1995,” he says.
For someone who dropped out after Class 5, he didn’t take to the job naturally. “Pehle toh mushkil tha kitabon ka naam yaad rakhna, par karte-karte seekh gaya main (Initially, it was difficult to remember the names of the books, but I learnt on the job),” he says.
Over the years, something else changed too. He says that these days, he spends a lot more time idling on his chair because he has fewer customers. “Earlier, I would have to stay alert for people stealing books. Par ab kitaab ka dhandha bahut kam ho gaya hai (But now, we don’t sell as much),” says Kumar, who earns a daily commission of 10 per cent on the books he sells. “Now people like these magazines and glossy books. Also, many of them read on their laptops or phones. Till a few years ago, I would sell books worth at least Rs 10,000 in a day; now, that has come down to Rs 2,000 on a good day. My earnings have also shrunk: from Rs 400-500 a day to Rs 200 a day,” says the 42-year-old who lives with his family of five, including his three children and his wife, in Faridabad.
The stall stays open from 5 am to 11 pm and Kumar is one of two men who handle the stall in shifts. “My shift is from 11 am to 7 pm,” he says.
Just then, he is interrupted by a salesman, Lakhan, who is here to deliver the latest edition of “RD” — Reader’s Digest. The two exchange greetings and Kumar says he has known Lakhan for at least 15 years. “RD ki kya demand thee ek time pe, ab toh zyada nahin bikti (Reader’s Digest used to be very popular at one time; now it doesn’t sell much),” he says, handing Kumar a pile. “I used to bring 100 books earlier; today, I have 30 and I know most of these will go back to the godown in Gole Market,” says Lakhan.
As the two discuss the recent Railway circular on stalls having to stock up books on Indian “tradition and morals”, Prashant Rajora, a 27-year-old Chinese interpreter travelling to Surat, listens for a while and joins in. “We are moving towards a situation that George Orwell had predicted in his book 1984. I recently read the book after an acquaintance from Russia suggested it. We are moving towards a surveillance state. The State should not force people to do anything, and honestly, this is alarming — the State trying to control what we read. I have very good knowledge about Indian culture and I read about it of my own free will. I would not want to do it if someone’s pushing me towards it.”
Rajora, a resident of Delhi’s Karol Bagh, has to board the Garib Rath but the train is only scheduled to depart at 3.40 pm, an hour from now, and he is in no hurry. As he leafs through a copy of Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, he says, “I can’t read on my phone… I like to read real books.”
As he holds forth on everything from Orwell’s dark predictions to his reading habits, Kumar looks at him expectantly, in the hope of finally selling something other than magazines and newspapers. Just as he looks set to seal the deal, Rajora looks at his wallet, shakes his head, asks for an ATM, looks around and walks away, without buying anything.
It is 4 pm and a middle-aged man walks around the cart, peering at the book spines. Kumar asks him what he’s looking for. The man does not reply and continues browsing through some Hindi magazines. He leaves after a good five minutes, knocking down a few books in the process. “Ashleel kitabein dhoondh raha tha woh (He was looking for pornographic books),” claims Kumar accusingly, picking up the books and arranging them back on the cart. “Some people come here looking for just those books, but in my 22 years here, I have never sold them. I may not make as much money as the others, but that’s fine,” he says, going back to sit on his chair.
He then takes out a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbles something on a piece of paper. “I’ll just make a note of the order (the recent Railway circular) that you’re talking about and ask my senior about it. Though I don’t think this order will change anything — people read what they want to read, not what you ask them to,” he says, trying to concentrate on what he’s writing.