This article of mine appeared in the Pune edition of Times of India on January 10, 2018.
Walking through some of the commercial hubs of Indian cities — including around CST and Churchgate stations in Mumbai, Connaught Place in Delhi, and Pune’s Deccan Gymkhana has always been a satisfying experience for me, not least for the fact that some of the hawkers stock excellent books on the pavements.
You ask them the name of an author — from Albert Camus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy, or Vladimir Nabokov to William Faulkner — they would get up in an instant, dig through the pile of books, and hey presto, the book would be in their hands.
I have always been amazed by the phenomenal grasp that these hawkers — who most people still think are illiterate and unfamiliar with internationally kjnown literary figures – had over a wide range of
books. More importantly, the books they sold were not new and had apparently been dumped by some other readers. Consequently, one could pick up a good Plato or a Virginia Woolf book for less than Rs 250.
At fancy outlets, such books would not only be rare but also unaffordable for ordinary souls. And most libraries, including those run by international bodies from the United States and the United Kingdom, did not have many books by authors who were not from their country, so you could not really get too many good books to read — except from the pavements of many Indian cities.
Sadly, there has been a decline in the number of such hawkers in recent years, perhaps because of them being pushed away by local officials or because of a sharp decline in public’s interest in books. However, thanks to technology, things are happily changing for the better.
Over the past few days, I have downloaded half-a-dozen volumes — each of 15,000 to 20,000 pages — from Amazon’s Kindle, and even on smartphone sets from the Amazon website.
These include volumes by Golden Deer Classics. I had to pay just Rs 38 for each volume of 15,000 or more pages. In one or two cases, the cost was between Rs 50 and Rs 60. Of course, there have been other famous sites — including Gutenberg, Authorama and Librivox — that offer hundreds of classic books for free and online reading and downloading. Project Gutenberg alone has over 56,000 free eBooks for readers accessing its site. It’s a virtual delight for those who enjoy reading.
Indeed, for someone fascinated by literature from around the globe and running back in history for hundreds of years, there are enough sites where one can access great literature — either for a few tens of rupees or for free.