Books on the Footpath

On July 8, 2012 by admin


Though I am yet to witness writers begging on the footpath, their books have long made their way there and have thus been silently facilitating their own journey there at some future point. It is sheer luck that the books have arrived but the authors have not yet.

Once born, humans must die; once written, books must arrive on the footpath.

This observation is quite scientific, in fact. I know of some eminent and insane people who heartily believe in this theorem. They are also avid footpath book ‘collectors.’ In a few select cities, and such cities are now rare in India, you may often bump into such lost and insane souls. They do not frequent cinema halls or other adda sessions. They do not have time for all that—their heads are filled up with books on the footpath. And most of their fallow time is spent on rummaging through books on the footpath. Often you will find them lost and vigorously trying to spy some pearl within the piles of books that lie strewn on the footpath. Having gone to buy wives’ sarees in the market, they will return with old books instead. I know of a man who is hardly able to run his family but the lure to collect first editions is simply irresistible for him. Nothing much at home, but the one full almirah is stashed with first editions.

I have known quite a few people who are dead certain about the scientific thesis that I have just advanced: that books must come to the footpath once written. These collectors keep track of every new book that arrives in the market. But if you happen to ask one of them, “Have you seen that new book, written by so and so?” The inevitable reply will be, “Yes I have been following.  The book hit the stands a couple of months ago, right? I sure will buy it; just hoping that it will reach the footpath in 3-4 months’ time.” Even a vegetable vendor will be horrified to hear this, and a writer, hah! What immense faith the soothsayer has in his own conclusion. As if he is the grand astrologer, the raj-jyotishi of each and every book and can easily predict their destiny. I have been fortunate to have known a few of the astrologers of this class. By merely glancing at the book or at the very mention of the author’s name these jolly souls can predict at what point the book will arrive on the footpath at half the original price. It is thus that I have been able to work out some sort of a horoscope of various classes of books from these folks. The half-price dateline looks somewhat like this:

Poetry                                                                                           2 weeks

History, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Criticism                                 3 months

Good Novel                                                                                  6 months

Film Gossip & Fiction                                                                  1 year

Detective & Crime                                                                       2 years

Pornography                                                                                 5 years

Religious books                                                                              5 days

I have consulted some rather experienced hands about this distribution, and there has not been too much of a variation in the past 50 odd years. If you have a sense about this particular horoscope, you will naturally be enlightened about the selling power of new books too. They are intricately linked. Look at the last two entry—the number 5 is common; but the rest? Thereby hangs a tale, does it not?

I have already proffered this quite scientific thesis about books—that if you venture to write, tablets and pamphlets and books must appear on the footpath. An obvious corollary to this thesis may come from the table above: the quicker a book arrives at the footpath, the less it gets sold in its first hand version and vice versa. The other corollary can be drawn from the first one: that the reader’s relationship with particular genres of books may reflect the nature of a social condition. It is pretty clear that poetry or religion are not visceral genres any more, difficult and serious subjects perhaps bore lay people and there is not even much time to read a good novel. These are no new observations. But that robust imaginative or analytical literature has taken a backseat is not even good news for popular literature, forget the classic. Those who have read the likes of Marquis de Sade or old vernacular fiction/poetry/lyric know well the art and romance of serious pornography, its lazy ruses, and its capacity to complicate relationships. Boisterous, messy, heartbreaking. They take it headlong. So also with religion or criticism. No such hope for the puny consummators and consumers of our time. We merely indulge ourselves and our proprietorship—of books and dear ones. One may get a sense of this by frequenting the footpath and not necessarily by participating in big seminars. May be the clock will turn someday.

But I also want to tell you about the huge and complicated organizational aspect of the old book market—a trade secret of the old book sellers. It is more or less a monopoly of an organized community. There are some big fishes. These businessmen get cheaper copies first from the publishers themselves—books which are left unsold. Though this is a minor source for procuring books. Sometimes the binders wilfully do a clandestine deal with the second hand book sellers, by goofing up with the editions. The books then are rejected and go to the ‘factory outlet,’ so to say. They get a cut of course. Then there are the office bearers of the big libraries and societies who are particularly efficient in transferring valuable and rare books to the footpath. I myself own a few of those books—with the library insignia boldly displayed on the first couple of pages. Besides, there is a huge lobby which keeps track of the private collections—in the cities and moffusils too. The buyers actually keep track of young scions of such houses, who are in need of money. They pilfer books from such family collections in ones and twos and sell them dirt cheap to the sellers. The procurers know, like the back of their palm, which family specializes in what kinds of books. And like blood hungry falcons, they wait for the collector to die—so that the sons and stepsons can provide them with the loot. Sometimes libraries get auctioned—this is legitimate. Old book sellers make a hearty beeline for the auction-house on such occasions. And yes, the old newspaper and scarp dealers are also a source. If you happen to be an insider you can actually get an entry into the godowns and warehouses where initially books get amassed and get your rummaging spree mitigated. You are likely to get a much better deal here. Thus the old book houses get hold of books and then they trickle down to the footpaths. This guild of the old book sellers is much more intriguing than the organizations of the publishers and fresh book sellers. I was once told by a seasoned bookseller that he sold a particular copy of the Mahabharata thrice, buying it for a few rupees and selling it for a mini-fortune every time.

So, this is the truth about the footpath and its bound inhabitants. Yes, howsoever famous you might be, your book will reach the footpath someday and do not be surprised to see that such a fate has befallen your book. This is the book’s destiny. Scientific destiny baba! As a writer you can ill afford to nurture any vanity. The other point is that always remember that you may be a great collector of books but after your death those same books will be sold cheaply by your progeny. Or will get dispersed. My suggestion is that instead of amassing books (cultural capital, are they?) like some hidden treasure, lend them to those acquaintances who love to read books. From time to time you may even like to give away some books to some local general library and such-like institutions. One may, if one wants to, acquire at least this lesson from our footpaths, no?


Kala-Pyacha is Binoy Ghosh—a prolific chronicler and satirist of the 1960s.

Translation: HUG

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