December 28, 2008

Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store

Stepping out of a bookstore recently I came upon a bright glow in the street as we made our way out of the shopping complex. On a closer look it turned out to be Granthayan, a mobile book store on wheels that launched in Bombay this August. Parked to the side of the road, three fans running, it was a winter welcome I couldn’t resist.

Unlike last year there is little chill this time around. Last year the chill lasted for over a month. Bombay usually sees little or no winter so it was a surprise last year to experience a drop in the mercury. Even then it rarely drops enough to force you back home early or think twice before setting off to the market for groceries. It is only in the early mornings and evenings that there’s a nip in the air.

Usually Bombay sees its winter last a little over a week when it gets cold enough to huddle under the blankets a wee bit longer in the mornings. So it was a surprise to find temperatures cooling considerably last year and it was a pleasure to step out and shiver a little when a stiff breeze blew your way.

I had hoped that this year too the winter would last like it did last year but there is little sign it will last beyond a week and even then the temperature hasn’t dropped by all that much. Actually it is pleasant in the evenings.

Monsoons and winters are two seasons made for reading if you’re stuck at home or wish to stay back the evening.

I haven’t lived in Bombay long enough to know if reading habits have changed over the last two decades. I believe they’ll have. I do see people read in the trains, mostly the local newspapers, and occasionally books. Unless you manage to get a seat in the train in the morning rush hour it is well neigh impossible to read anything at all but office goers have adopted novel methods to scan newspaper inches. Reading a book in the crowded local trains is no less difficult even though they’re handy to carry and read.

Entering the mobile book store I had the space to myself except for an elderly gentleman scanning the shelves for Marathi language books. Granthayan runs out of a modified TATA mini-truck. On the street outside sodium-vapour lamps lit up the roads.

At a computer terminal in a corner by the entrance Avinash Rane sits on a small stool, barcode scanner in hand. Behind him traffic zooms past, disappearing into the Christmas night. Occasionally a horn sounds, slicing the steady hum of fans whirring in the parked book store. There're hundreds of titles in the shelves awaiting discovery, titles new and old, some familiar, some not. Avinash rarely steps away from the computer terminal. Every once in a while his assistant, a silent youth in a blue t-shirt with Granthayan emblazoned in bold orange letters hands him books that customers selected for purchase. He quickly scans the books and prints out receipts before collecting payment. There's hardly a word uttered in all the time. It is as if they're answering to a purpose beyond selling books. It may well be so.

In Sanskrit, among the oldest and the most formidable of ancient Indian languages, Grantha is variously a book, a treatise, and a composition. Granthayan can be loosely understood to be a book movement of sorts, or may be a book journey.

Avinash tells me that they have ten such mobile book stores operational in Maharashtra State. “One is in Kudal at the moment, another is in Raigad. There is one in Vidharba as well. They drive to where they feel they’ve takers for the books.”

Kudal is in the Konkan to the West of Maharashtra, along the coast. Granthayan apparently aims to take the reading habit to far flung areas in the State of Maharashtra where book stores are not easily accessible, like villages and small towns for instance. For a moment I picture this initiative on wheels trundle along quiet country roads, drawing curious attention along the way as it stops from place to place. And dusty villages where village centres are typically a smattering of shops selling basic provisions while village folk gather under trees or on platforms around a Banyan or a Neem tree must present an interesting challenge in spreading the reading habit, more so if reading has been largely restricted to school textbooks.

Even as I think of rural scenes I smile to myself, warming to the idea. A bookstore on wheels is just what the doctor ordered.

Looking around I’m surprised at the number and variety of book titles stacked in neat rows on book shelves that line the three walls of the truck. A book rack in the middle partitions the space into two sections. The shelves are a mix of popular and business titles. The titles are most likely selected keeping in mind the localities they drive to, for I cannot imagine these titles finding many takers in say, Kudal.

“The Marathi books are costlier than the English ones,” the elderly browser I first saw on entering the back of the truck tells me, shaking his head at the thought.

“Maybe it is difficult for Marathi language book publishers to keep the costs down. There isn’t as much sales volume to Marathi books as there is for English books,” I offer as an explanation, unsure if that indeed is the reason. However in reality Marathi books are cheaper than the English titles. It is likely he was referring to certain Marathi titles.

“Of the remaining seven Granthayan mobile book stores, four are in Mumbai, of which one is doing rounds at Tilaknagar in Chembur. Outside of Mumbai there is one operational in Airoli, and one in Palgar,” Avinash remarks as I hand him a Gerald Durell title I’ve chosen to take home, Rosy Is My Relative. The blurb reads thus: What does a young man bequeathed Pounds Sterling 500 and an elephant with a taste for liquor do? Adrian Rookwhistle thought he had the answer - he'd give her to a circus. But it wasn't so easy. As Avinash makes a receipt for my purchase I notice a family of three passing by the truck pause by the open door on seeing book shelves reflected in bright tubelight.

There’s a ‘What on Earth is a book store doing in a truck on the side of a road this late at night’ look on their faces. A mobile book store is not a common sight on city roads. Curiosity gets the better of them and they take the short flight of retractable stairs up before venturing to the back of the truck, scanning book titles as they move along the shelves.

I ask Avinash if the venture is drawing enthusiastic response from the public.

“Yes, yes. It is,” he replies. “I’ve had many people asking me if I can bring the vehicle to where they stay. I told them that if their Housing Society permits me to bring the vehicle into their complex I will readily drive it over.”

Over five hundred books were sold the day I chanced upon the 'Books on Wheels' truck. I’m not sure if Avinash Rane sold the five hundred off his stock of books in the truck or if it was aggregated across all ten trucks. Whatever the case may be I thought five hundred is an encouraging number for a mobile book store aiming to bring books to your door.

Note: Granthayan operates a toll free number (1800-209-8074) that you can use to order books to be delivered free to your home anywhere in Maharashtra with payment to be made in cash on delivery. Only orders above Rs. 250/- are accepted for home delivery, the delivery taking between 1-10 days.

Series On Books People Read While Commuting

1. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part I
2. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part II
3. Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part III

December 21, 2008

Black, Yellow, and Shades of White

Passing me the change he owed me, the taxi driver smiled as he said, “Janglala aag laglyavar sukhya barobar oley pan jaltey.” Hearing him use the Marathi proverb I broke into a smile as I prepared to open the door to step out of his taxi. Translated from the Marathi it reads, “Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.”

I opened the rear door, thanked him and got out before pushing the door shut. It was the morning of the 26th of November, a little over three weeks ago. Behind me cars honked on their way past vehicles parked to the side of the road, narrowing it further to a point where only one vehicle could pass at a time. The impatient among the drivers honked to warn oncoming vehicles of their right to way.

Set back from the narrow lane the corner tea stall operating out of a makeshift shop was up and running while women in nightgowns swept the floor clean in front of their doorways. At a turn in the road behind me taxi drivers stood talking by their taxis even as they kept an eye out for potential passengers.

Early mornings are languid affairs in the many bylanes that section off city’s neighbourhoods. Long before residents descend from their apartments a working underclass comprising vegetable vendors, milkmen, sweepers, newspaper vendors, and taxi drivers among others rouse the city to life even as black and yellow taxis, their engines warming to life from the slumber of the night before, rumble the morning stillness as people ready for office. A quick cup of tea prepares taxi drivers for the long day ahead. The sight of a taxi driver in khakis leaning against the bonnet of his taxi awaiting passengers is a trademark Bombay morning scene.

Behind me an elderly man in a worn banian (cotton vest) wiped the windshield clean before bending over the bonnet of the sturdy Premier Padmini, the preferred choice of Bombay taxi drivers. Dipping the cloth rag in a bucket of water he reached over the roof and gave it quick swipes, back and forth. Then he emptied the bucket to the side of the lane.

While the taxi got a scrub the taxi driver settled in for an early morning read on the pavement, his back to a tree.

A product of PAL (Premier Automobiles Limited) formerly owned by the Walchand Hirachand Group that used to assemble Fiat’s Fiat 1100 series of cars beginning 1950s, the Premier Padmini, also known as Padmini Premier, debuted in India in the year 1962 as the Fiat 1100-D, and barring some modifications in the years that followed it came to be known as the Padmini Premier, in time becoming as much an icon of the city of Bombay as the Taj. The last of the Padmini Premiers rolled out in 1998 and like with many things in the city time moved firmly to overtake this black and yellow identity of the city.

The reassuring sound of the taxi door settling back on its hinges is an event by itself, signaling as it does the start of a working day. Unlike most days spent in the silence of the backseat today was different. Though there was no foreboding of the event that was to kick the city in its teeth later that night, none in the air and none in the gentle demeanour of the Maharashtrian cab driver, there must have been much on his mind as he left me chewing on the Marathi proverb he flung my way like a boxer might throw a punch at the stroke of the bell.

As I crossed the road I reflected on his feelings for many of his fellow cabbies who were slated to lose their taxis to the rule the city had passed to ‘phase out’ taxis older than 25 years. Only a little over a week remained for the rule to come into force. But little did we know that morning that in a little over a week from now the city of Bombay would begin to lose more than just a few thousands of Premier Padminis.

From the time I had stepped into his taxi, a Premier Padmini 1992 Model, the Maharashtrian taxi driver, originally from Kolhapur, quickly spelt out his stand on the rule. “If the taxi is functioning well and also now that almost all of them have converted to CNG, why should they be banned from the roads?” A rolled-up copy of Maharashtra Times lay wedged between the rearview mirror and the roof.

Drawing an analogy with the human body, he said, “If one is not keeping well then only the affected part is treated, isn’t it?” I nodded. Then he told me of how “only the papers go for passing” while the taxis merrily criss cross the city instead of showing up at the Road Transport Office. “Often the taxis are not even checked for their (driving) ‘condition’ before issuing their ‘passing’, only the papers reach the RTO, not the taxis.” He had one eye on the road as he spoke of how some cabbies wouldn’t be bothered to present their taxis for the yearly ‘passing’ at the RTO if they knew it is easier to pass the papers along by making available some ‘consideration’ to the officials. He reserved his ire and curses for the ‘three star’ officers who wouldn’t be bothered so long as they ‘earned’ their keep from the taxi drivers.

“If the door doesn’t close properly, or if the headlights are poor, the body is rusted, or the engine smokes then don’t pass the vehicle na. Let the driver get it fixed before allowing it back on the road,” he continued. “Even I would love to have a Skoda instead of driving this one. But where is the money. To go for a new vehicle now will cost a lot of money and most drivers can’t afford to feed their family well.”

I sat listening quietly as we passed traffic on our way, slowing down to let early morning shoppers at the vegetable market cross the road. He spoke in Marathi. As he shifted gears to take a turn into one of the lanes he said, “Why should age be a factor, and not performance? So now they (government) think nothing of dumping all vehicles older than 25 years even if they’re running on CNG and functioning smoothly. They’re throwing everything away, the good and the bad.”

Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.

Later that night the terrorists struck Bombay in a coordinated assault aimed at killing as many innocents as they could get hold of.

Then the news anchors announced that the terrorists were Muslim, and that they came from Pakistan.

I stayed home the next day, Thursday. Much of Mumbai did. I doubt if it was because the city was afraid of the terrorists. If I know the city well it had to be because no one wanted to get stuck in the middle of nowhere should the terrorist strikes throw the public transport haywire, leaving people stranded with no way to get home.

On Friday I left for the office early in the morning passing an elderly Muslim woman selling sundry items on the railway foot-bridge. Spread on a blue plastic sheet were colourful combs, safety pins, and envelopes. The last of the terrorists were still engaged in a battle with the security forces that morning at the Taj. The presence of hundreds of hostages had made the entire operation arduous. The religious dimension the terrorists brought to the attack turned the mood in the city palpably.

I hailed a passing taxi sporting an old registration number plate. This is an old taxi I thought, probably older than twenty five years and its days on the city roads must be numbered. It is funny how the seemingly inconsequential occupies the mind when there’re pressing matters forcing the conscious to take note of and reflect on. Thoughts tend to localize when demands made of them are global in nature. In the moment I took to slide into the backseat of the taxi the morning Sun kicked up a ruckus in Usman’s hennaed beard, turning it into an angry fluff of deep orange and setting off his wrinkles.

Usman, the elderly Muslim taxi driver, came to Bombay from Gujarat in 1957 when he was “still young”, working odd jobs before taking to driving a taxi. “It’s been years now that I have been driving this taxi,” he was to tell me later that morning.

Usman backed up his taxi before turning onto the highway. There were only a few people on the streets and it was not difficult to imagine why. Since the night of 26/11 television channels were falling over each other to beam live ‘exclusive’ footage of the unfolding attacks and even as I got into Usman’s old taxi that Friday morning television was beaming live the counter-terrorism effort underway at the Taj. It was in it final stages.

Bahut bura ho raha hai, bahut bura hua,” I said to him. (What is happening is bad, and what happened was bad). It was more an intonation within earshot as in exhaling a knot of emotion than directed at anyone in particular, driven more by the need to share a feeling with another than to start a conversation around the comment.

Yeh koi insaniyat hai,” he shot back at me (Is this humanity?) before continuing, “Nirdoshon ne kya bhigada tha kisika?” (What had the innocent victims harmed anything of anyone). A palpable disgust took hold of Usman as he flailed his arms in the little space the taxi afforded him, venting his anger at the terrorists who shared his religion, his voice shaking, and eyes wide open. With old age the voice can quiver when rage takes hold of it. A quivering voice even if an angry one can project little menace, compensating instead with flailing arms projecting the anger in the arc the hand describes. Usman looked to be nearing seventy.

Usman was probably aware of the intense scrutiny the Muslim community is undergoing, reinforced as much by similar fanaticism countries across the world have faced from the community as by the slew of terrorist attacks emanating from elements within their brotherhood in India, for he declared forcefully, “We (Muslims) ourselves say that they (the Islamist terrorists who attacked Mumbai) must be shot,” mimicking the pulling of the trigger as he spat the words with vehemence before continuing, “They should be hunted down.” A tubelight holder affixed to the roof of his taxi sported colours of the Indian flag. As the taxi hit a pothole the Koranic notation that hung from the rear view mirror jumped and swayed before steadying.

I ask him if the elders in his community have any say in what is preached in Mosques and taught in Madrassas. He lowered his voice, turning to look at me even as he kept his attention on the road, and said, “Talim bahar se milta hai. Bahar se,” (They receive their education – indoctrination here – outside, as in from beyond Indian borders), before repeating, “Bahar se. Bahar jaatey hai, talim wahan milta hai.” (They – the students – travel abroad, and they get their education – indoctrination in this context – there).

“They (those terrorizing in the name of Islam) bring us (Muslims) a bad name,” Usman said. I kept silent in the time he spoke. In the confines of an old taxi the warm air came to acquire a purple welt from the lashing an outraged Muslim man meted out on the morning the death toll in the waterfront attack inflicted by terrorists from Pakistan climbed steadily towards 200.

Watching Usman negotiate the crowd from the backseat and the quiet dignity he brought to the ethos of the street I could well imagine the ‘going away’ of a certain stolidity his generation brought to the city, bringing their ‘shades of grey’ to populate the black and white.

The average Bombay cabbie, especially the one who has lived in the city for a long time, is not easily hassled. He will not talk much, listening quietly while you speak, occasionally nodding, and other times silent, rarely acknowledging what you might have to say. And when he speaks it will be to nod in agreement with your assertion whatever it maybe, while keeping an eye out for jaywalkers on the busy road. Chances are he will own an old taxi and know every lane that goes anywhere in Bombay. Elderly cabbies are more likely to own the older of the Padmini Premiers. The ubiquitous yellow and black taxis and their elderly drivers are an underlying narrative of the lanes that intersect and connect city lives. In phasing out Padmini Premiers older than twenty five years a certain dignity the elder among the generation of Bombay cabbies brought to the city street could soon be a thing of the past.

I listened to Usman in silence. Another time we might have discussed the impending deadline issued to city cabs on the wrong side of 25 years. Another time I might have asked Usman if his taxi would be affected by the ruling as most likely it was. But these were extraordinary times. Another time Usman along with fellow taxi drivers might have organized himself for relief from the ruling. In all probability it must have been on the cards. But the terrorist strike will have changed all that. There was little else that occupied the mind, including Usman’s as I soon found out.

“They (the terrorists) don’t think of their parents? Their relatives, and all those left behind?” Usman said, his voice rising, exasperated at the thought of how the parents must feel to lose their children thus, at least some parents if not most.

Then he spoke of the brotherhood his community shared with other communities (notably the Hindus) in the city over the years, priding in their ability to afford ‘protection’ to the relatively ‘less prone to using violence, meeker, and god-fearing’ Hindus.

“In the neighbourhood we (Muslims) used to tell them (Hindus) to tell us if anyone gave them trouble and we would deal with it,” Usman said, his voice expanding even as he lamented, “and look what it has come to now (suspicion against his whole community). Every one of us is now lumped with the terrorists!”

Everyone! Yes, everyone!

Once the jungle catches fire, even the wet burns away with the dry.