Press "Enter" to skip to content

Getting lost in the mela

If you are in the neighbourhood and know your ABC, a visit to the Delhi Book Fair under the clouded winter sky is intellectually stimulating

Books will never be a fast moving consumer good, but that doesn’t mean Patanjali has not embraced the print business as it puts a finger in every piece. Under the imprint Divya Prakashan, it has books not only in Hindi but in English and other Indian languages. So you can buy the Aao Seekhe Yog (Let’s Learn Yoga) series for students of Classes 3, 4, and 5 and titles like Pranayam Rahasya (Oriya), Secrets of Indian Herbs for Good Health and Yog in Synergy with Medical Science.

Theirs is one of the fascinating stalls at the Delhi Book Fair – quite popular, by the looks of it, as people can be seen milling around Sanatan Bharatiya Sanskriti Sansthan stall and the impressive megastall of Gorakhpur’s Gita Press. Yes, quite as big as Hachette, celebrating 10 years in India and the Penguin space, where not many people browse, as they know they can get better prices on Amazon and Flipkart. But book fairs are not meant for penny pinching – although rockbottom prices can be found – they are a celebration of reading as a habit.

A habit which is dying, you think? Not at all. Visiting a book fair is a trip down memory lane for those who belong to a generation when reading was the only form of entertainment, before electronics rocked the world. When you see all those Robert Ludlums, Jeffery Archers and John Grishams lying in heaps, being sold for a song, you remember the good old days. And you slip back into them.

The youngest generation, of course, is dragged to the fair by stern parents. Which is why you can overhear a father telling his daughter: “You’re hungry? Tell me what you want, anything. Chola Bhatura, Kathi Roll?” The answer, of course, is “Burger” but you get the feeling some force-feeding of literature is also on the menu.

What about the middle generation, the one forever glued to electronic devices, are they there too? A steady stream comes in from the Pragati Maidan Metro Station, either with a thirst for knowledge or for a date amidst the swirling crowds. Besides self-help books on how to succeed, youngsters can be relied on to pick up cheap copies of Fifty Shades Darker as well as its precursor Fifty Shades of Grey. Hopefully, these kids are impressed by all the action and buzz around publishing and will sometimes pick up a book to read.

Snatches of conversation you hear at the fair are mostly political. “At least if the Congress comes, they’ll bring someone decent” or “Five years is not enough to make a change.” “After the sealing drive, my family will never vote BJP again.” And it is politics that comes centrestage (literally) at the Author’s Corner subtitled Reflections, Conversations put up by the National Book Trust. On a Monday evening, you could find Member of Parliament Sudhanshu Trivedi holding forth on how the Modi Government’s ‘Act East’ policy is predicated on the cultural connect of India with neighbouring countries. How India aspires not to make India a superpower but a Jagat Guru (World’s Teacher). How Swachch Bharat and Beti Bachao are social — not political — programmes. All this not as an election speech but to promote a book Dynamic Diplomacy with the PM’s photograph on the cover.

At another Author’s Corner to launch Cave Temples of India, we are told that it’s not a fact that readers are a dying breed, it’s real writers who are missing from the scene. The point being made is that non-fiction is written by reading a bit here, a bit there, and copying large parts from the Internet. If you picked up Subramaniam Swamy’s Ideology of the Indian Right, you would certainly agree, for in the hurry and the copy-paste mania, entire pages have been repeated.

Clearly, the good days remembered by the oldies weren’t so great either, as Indian publishing had not yet come into its own. Now the choices for readers have exploded, though readership has not kept pace with population growth. But there seems to be enough money in publishing for all those shiny stalls packed with new paperbacks and hardcovers.

The great thing about melas is that each browser finds his/her own niche. Who can resist picking up three books for 100 bucks? Or getting one free on buying two. Or spending 100 bucks apiece on pulp fiction – which should have been pulped after being remaindered in some Western city but was instead shipped to India to be bought wholesale.

This is also where you discover that Chinese presence in Indian publishing has been kicked off under the brandname Phoenix. That there is a publishing house called Pentagon Press which is not an American company but a home-grown enterprise specializing in books on foreign affairs and security. That Children’s Book Trust books are so cheap and that Agartala has a Tribal Research and Cultural Institute. And that there are no less than 60 Hindi publishers who have made it to Delhi in the hope that the Capital has a fair share of people interested in reading their books or doing business with them.

Melody Corner

One of the best surprising discoveries at the fair is a publishing house devoted entirely to music. Like The Music of India, Introduction to Raags, History of Music and Facets of Tabla Playing. It is based in Hathras near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.

The gentleman running the show (in picture) is Mukesh Garg, whose father gloried in the name Kaka Hathrasi. That venerable gentleman wrote a book Music Master (Hindi) in 1932 and published it himself. Later he started publishing books by other writers under the imprint Sangeet Karyalay. The idea was so quaint that once, (in 1957-58) the great actor Prithviraj Kapoor got off the train at this mofussil town just to meet the man and see the place – this was before the success of Mughal-e-Azam.

Garg says that he naturally stepped into his father’s shoes, since he had grown up in that atmosphere. He did his MA in Violin from Meerut Unversity in 1976, and then MLit (now called MPhil) and PhD in Hindi Literature.

While the owner is based in Delhi, the business (if you can call it that) is still run from its place of origin. They have been coming to the fair for the last 20-25 years and have been trying to get registered on Amazon to start selling online. Hope there is no swan song here.