THOSE WHO bemoan the dismal sales of books and the waning reading culture in India certainly have not factored in the Railways. While Indian writers in English exult over five-digit sales, their counterparts in Indian languages sell in the millions. They have the Indian Railways to thank for that. With the billion passengers that this public utility behemoth ferries annually, daily visits to platform bookstalls can clock anywhere between 30 and 50 lakh.
But in the past few months, many prominent paperback titles have begun to vanish from these bookstalls, courtesy an unusual tussle between various book publishers and the company that holds the licence to run these stalls, AH Wheeler and Co (AHW). The company traces its origins to a bookstall at Allahabad station in 1877. Today, its stalls are a fixture across train stations in the country. For most Indian travellers, no train journey would be complete without a visit to the Wheeler stall. From the famous teak-lined AHW bookstall in Kolkata’s Howrah station, to the nondescript one in Meerut, the sight of the stall with its wondrous assortment of thrillers, comics and fiction evokes fond memories and nostalgia.
But things are changing. The Federation of Indian Publishers (FIP) claims that books from these genres are being crowded out by glossy English magazines and sleazy pulp fiction. To a query by TEHELKA, AHW admitted that a conflict had risen over their proposal to have a hologram featured on books, to prevent sales of those titles that had not come through AHW licences. “Some of the bookstalls buy books directly from local publishers, as they get more commission. They display those items more prominently. The hologram will only benefit the publishers and prevent the sale of pirated books,” says Prabal Ghosh, senior manager, AHW. The FIP disagrees with this argument and feels that the problem lies at the distribution end. The hologram, according to FIP president Sudhir Malhotra, is simply a ruse to deflect attention from the real issue: “If some of the bookstall owners are selling pirated books, AHW should take legal action against them. Why should it fall on our heads?” he asks.
In May, the FIP convened a meeting of publishers and authors along with other officials, in Delhi, to discuss the issue. Eminent Hindi novelist Narendra Kohli recounted how he was greeted with a blank stare from a bookstall attendant at the Indore railway station when he asked for one of his books. “This has never happened in the 40 years of my writing career. When I told him I was the author, they furnished a dusty old copy of the book from somewhere, probably from outside the station,” said Kohli. He added that most of the books at the stall were hidden behind an array of magazines and erotic fare.
Malhotra even brandished a picture of a bookstall at the Allahabad railway station, which had scarcely a book in sight. “Since Indian Railways is a national property, all facilities being provided by the railways ought to be for the public good and not for profit alone,” he said. Publishers allege that the monopoly enjoyed by AHW has morphed into a bullying attitude, with the latter threatening to close accounts and return the books. Joginder Singh, a former CBI director and author of 55 books, who was present at the meeting, said that a yeoman service being rendered by Indian Railways had come under a cloud. “In many small towns, railway bookstalls are the sole outlet for the sale of books in the area, and there is a need to scale up bookstalls to meet the soaring demand,” he said. The past two decades has seen passenger trains going from having six or seven coaches to more than 20. Platforms have also lengthened considerably, but the number of bookstalls has remained the same, and passengers often have to walk considerable distances to locate the stalls.
A few months ago, publishing bodies and some authors’ guilds had written to former railway minister Pawan Bansal. But Bansal, it turned out, had bigger fires to douse. Until AHW gets its ho use in order, its standoff with the publishers is likely to continue.