Pirates have feelings, you know


Mark this moment in which a Bollywood movie pays tribute to the common reader and piracy makes a book a bestseller. Here comes the future, says Nisha Susan

Illustration: Samia Singh
Illustration: Samia Singh

IN ALAN Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader, Queen Elizabeth becomes an obsessive reader when her beloved corgis wander by a mobile library near the palace. She’s transformed from a bored, frankly amoral monarch into a sentient being. In one episode, she flummoxes the visiting French president by asking him about Jean Genet.

Recently, Bollywood too offered a tribute to reading. (Perhaps for the first time, but do send angry mail contesting this.) Not to say Hindi cinema ignores the arts. Bollywood often allots characters its outdated conception of the artist’s life. A love for dance, music and pastel landscapes inevitably bring on the head-clutching Bohemian In Decline. Writers are rare, except 2005’s Shabd where Sanjay Dutt plays a Booker winner who prods wife Aishwarya Rai to have an affair so that he can work it into his next plot. But readers — when have we ever seen readers?

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s recent film Shor in the City traces the sentimental education of a book pirate. Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor) runs a mini empire pirating bestsellers at traffic lights. His best friends are baby goons and he doesn’t know what to do with his alluring new bride. And so, for the best reason in the world — social awkwardness — he begins reading. “The boy’s name was Santiago,” says the first line, and little by dictionary-enabled little, he’s hooked to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It helps when he discovers that his wife is a reader and they have something to talk about. His goon friends are appalled — what does he mean he’s done with the old life? Now he is a new kind of menace — someone who will recommend books to any victim.

It was minor genius for Shor to enshrine reading through a) The Alchemist, b) a non-reader and c) a book pirate. Alan Bennett may die if he comes to know he has been out-commoned but Coelho would be delighted. A few years ago, Coelho’s publishers had a cardiac arrest when they found he was pirating himself — posting links to pirated editions of his books on his own website. Coelho argued convincing-ly that his sales soared in countries where readers first encountered him through pirated online editions, sometimes translated by fans. Perhaps those reports of pirated Hindi translations of Chetan Bhagat —a rage in UP before any official translation was even conceived — were true after all.

Paulo Coelho’s publishers had a cardiac arrest when they found out he was pirating his own books

This fortnight had another happy pirate tale. Adam Mansbach, a tired American parent, wrote a book called Go The Fuck to Sleep. The book is a parody of all those children’s books like Goodnight Moon that are supposed to induce adorable sleep. Now here’s the weird bit. Akashic Books (the Brooklyn-based publishers who also produced Delhi Noir) only plans to release the book in June, but it’s already No. 1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list and optioned for film rights. The explanation is apparently a pirated PDF that’s gone viral — presumably among amused parents. Like Coelho, Mansbach’s ‘real’ book has been feverishly ordered due to the bootleg’s popularity. Akashic is beleaguered. And pleased!

As filmmaker Paromita Vohra argues in her latest documentary Partners in Crime, “Copyright is an idea that is constantly evolving the relationship between the artist, the producer and the audience.” Is piracy, she asks, organised crime or a class struggle? The book, the reader and reading are all going through lightening changes that publishers everywhere are grappling with. The only consensus often is that piracy is bad. Of course it is. But piracy creates readers where none existed before. So is piracy then good? Of course it is.

What piracy is doing is messing with the order of things. A bit like reading.

Nisha Susan is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.


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