13 November 2018 10:42 AM



The Back of Books

The world of books and the people in it, before the book reaches your hands

The Jamun trees that line Copernicus Road outside the Mandi House metro station provide shade during the worst summer days, and also act as umbrella when Delhi weather chooses to confirm its arbitrariness by raining in November. The pavements are regularly chalked with coloured drawings – sometimes kids, sometimes women, sometimes middle aged men, can be seen drawing on these tiled pavements with deep interest.

It was one such evening. Three young men were sitting with an old battered black radio in a circle and sketching with coloured chalks on the pavement. Kishore Kumar’s voice left a smile on almost all metro goers faces, many of whom would look at the coloured covers of books spread out on the tiled sidewalk but no one really stopped.

The bookseller who sits near the station exit sells bestsellers. These are set and spread so that you see all the books. I was interested in this art of setting up books – a way to garner attention – it was like the books were themselves getting up a little bit and calling out to you to have a look at them.

In the front row sits Chetan Bhagat’s new book. In the last row lies The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. All the books are covered with cellophane packaging for this one.

The bookseller at the metro station is a man who sits behind a desk covered in white plastic. The desk is two feet from the ground. The plastic seems old and looks like it has been reused several times. On it he sells mobile accessories. Adjacent to the desk, on the ground is the collection, spread again on old white plastic, that invited attention but not sales. He says he sits there only in the evenings. “From 4 to 9.”

This is also the time when Mandi House is most active and bustling, when office goers and students like me are returning home. I ask him “Do all the books get sold?” He looks at me, pauses, studies me and says, “No. But look at this.” He points at the wide expanse of his plastic sheet and the books upon it. He stretches his arms. Surely, the white plastic sheet on the ground takes more space than the mobile accessory desk. “But how do you get to know which books are being sold, or what people are buying, because I can see that all the books you have are bestsellers?” I ask. “We know. We keep a list. We keep getting it updated.”


He corrects his arrangement of books and puts the bestseller Chetan Bhagat in the first row for other heads on walking legs to see. I see legs hurrying by. As we speak, his eyes remain alert to potential customers; many slow down but no one really stops. He keeps the books in a slanted position, so that each book is supported by another. All the book titles are also visible to passers by. It is only the books in the last row that are lying flat and hidden by the shade of the tiled platform above.

He also sells tempered glass for mobile phones, back covers, etc. He sits on the broad tiled and paved railing that runs along the footpath. Behind him are plants with sharp leaves. I ask him how many books he sells in a day. His answers are short and evasive. I ask him where he gets the books from. He says “I get them myself.” “But, from where?” He looks hesitant. Finally, he asks why I am asking him all this.

It is my turn to become nervous. I tell him that I am writing about books and their life before books are made. “Matlab, you are looking at Writing. Because before the books come, it is the writing that happens. People write books. Then you read these.” I laugh at myself. I correct myself. “No. I mean that I am looking at the time in the life of books before they reach someone, like how you get it, how you store it, where you store it…”

He cuts me off. He points to his collection of books and says, “I get these from Daryaganj. I carry them myself in this bag.” It doesn’t seem large enough – but another set of bags has been kept under his seat. He gets up and tilts the seat cover for me to see. “A lot of care needs to be taken. See?” He shows me how he packs books and puts them together. He places one layer of books vertically and then above it, another layer of books horizontally. He uses his hands and forms a ‘T’ to explain to me.

“This way, books do not fold and their covers do not fold. I clean them myself. They need to be wiped at regular intervals as this is a busy road and dust settles on them quite frequently. The plastic covering prevents the books from getting dirty. I covered these myself. We don’t get these covered from the market. You can see for yourself that these are clean right now.” I nod in agreement.

“So, what do you do with these after you are done for the day?” “I take them back.” “To Daryaganj?” He shakes his head with energy and says “Akshardham.” “How do you carry them? Rickshaws?” He shakes his head resolutely and says “No. By Bus. Rickshaws will take a hundred rupees, for just taking this much load!” “So, what do you do if the books do not get sold?” “We exchange with people who want them. There are people who ask us or call us saying they need so and so book. We go and give it to them.”


“But then what is your primary business?” I ask. He opens his arms a bit wider this time, as if throwing some playing cards around, as if there is a visible treasure that I am not seeing. “This,” he says, pointing at the white plastic clad desk. “I sold only 10 books last week. With this (mobile accessories) I make around Rs 1000, 800 per day.” I ask him whether he accepts people’s bargaining. He says yes, but defeatedly, as if he doesn’t have much choice.

Now, a young man in a hurry stops and asks the price of a book. He points at it. The bookseller says “200”. The young man leaves without saying anything or looking back at the book or the book seller again.

I ask him about the competition from other book sellers at Mandi House or Rajiv Chowk. “There is no point going to Rajiv Chowk. There are already a lot of booksellers there. If I am only selling 3-4 books in this area, entry of one more person in the market will defeat both our sales. So, no one enters. Why would they?”

As a consumer of books, I see books both as goods and as a service. Goods are the items you buy; service is an action that a person does for someone else. In communicating with booksellers and libraries I was seeing the act of dealing with books both as a good and as a service. A bookseller who gives me a book is also initiating my reading experience.

If you go to bookshops in Daryaganj, you will realise how busy the sellers are. That at every point of time people employed in bookshops are involved in more than one activity. That these sites are not just about books, for the pleasure of books or their beauty or about how time seems to stop in libraries. These sites are about labour. They are infected with exertion, with the effort involved in making books reach readers.

It is at the billing counter where you see what is being sold and what is being bought. Not only books, there are pencils, pens, fevicols, stapler pins carefully placed near the exit of the shop or near the bill counter. There are pencil boxes, water colours, coloured A4 size papers, being bought. The famous Book Bazaar in Daryaganj, is a large bookshop which sells books according to weight – ‘100 Rs for a kilo, 200 Rs for a kilo’ – the cards can be seen hanging outside as well as inside the shop. Books are not just stocked on shelves here, there are cartons filled with books. What is more important to sellers is that a 100 rupee book doesn’t mix with a 200 rupee one.

These card boxes demand effort. Searching for a book demands effort. And then being disappointed when you like nothing inside a box, demands an equal struggle to move to the next box.

The delight is not just in finding a book. It is the labour around books that fulfils such moments of delight and these laborious moments that are mostly hidden away. Someone has kept books there on the shelf, they have catalogued them. A reader keeps a book on the wrong shelf, this is called a mistake. You complained about the dusty bookshelves, next time maybe you will find the shelf a little less dusty, this is called taking care. You may also find hard bound copies of that classic, or the rolled and yellowed pages of that book of poems and choose to change your plans and buy something different.

What interests me about hidden labour is the act of sacrifice. This hidden labour is as much as a thing in motion as is the book. This kind of attention to the process of following the life around books or things-in-motion, returns our attention to the things themselves. When people say ‘It feels like time is stuck in libraries’, to understand this feeling we have to follow the things themselves. In libraries, the jacketed books, the yellowing and folded books, the dust that appears to never have lost its track and is always settling on shelves, in the spaces between books. The physical thing called dust collects timelessness.

A person who helped me out at the bookshop in Daryaganj, sits at the back, and is not employed by the bookshop. He says he likes coming here and helps with the sales. He has some idea of where books of which kind are kept. He confidently points, while sitting in his chair, to corners where the cookbooks are, or the coffee table books, the JEE Main prep books, or the yoga books.

At Daryaganj, recently more of such ‘sell by weight’ bookshops have come up. At one of them the seller tells me, “We were earlier at Nai Sadak. We were there for more than 10–15 years. We came here 5 years back. All the other bookshops that you see around you have just come up. We are the oldest here.”

The life of books is also about the time the book remains inside its carton.

Circulation is not the word that I am looking for. There are books in houses used as paperweights, as a way to level something up, or to support a frail picture frame. Class 12 computer science books are kept underneath the mixer grinder it does not fall off. Reading is not the only function of books. However, it is true that someone at some point read all those books, before using them for something else.

So what happens after you read the object? It is equally important to see what happens to a book after you read it. As much as there is the ‘before’ side of the book, there is also its ‘after’ side.

Some books will always remain at bottom in the carton, unattended, sometimes attended. The labour behind books needs to be observed and valued as much as the book. Even if the canvas bag is torn and weary, it is still being carried on someone’s back.