Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bookless in Churchgate

Our politicians have a queer way of doing things. Some of them in Mumbai want to turn the city into a Shanghai. Of course, it is a difficult task - cutting red tape, etc. But there is also an easy way out - arrest beggars, evict slumdwellers, chase away pavement shops... the list can go on and on.
Some of the victims have been the booksellers on the pavements. Especially near Churchgate. They thought the books made the pavements look ugly (target Shanghai, remember?) So, they threw the booksellers along with the 'useless' books out.
The Times of India has an article about this by Jerry Pinto. Here it is:


It is a matter of public record that the oldest book published in India in the Heras library at St Xavier’s College was found on the streets. It is the account of the imprisonment of a French officer in the reign of Tipu Sultan and it was bought off the streets by the enterprising Father Henry Heras sj, Spanish Jesuit and Indologist extraordinaire.
This is only one of the smallest ways in which the booksellers on the
streets have enriched the public and intellectual life of the city. When we were disbanding the PEN office, hundreds of books went to libraries and institutions across the city. The rest were in safe hands, we knew, for as one of our members put
it, “They’ll end up on the streets around Churchgate and the people who want them will get them.’’
Part of the joy of the downtown area was the stroll out of Churchgate into a vast open-air library. Here medical students bargained for marked down copies of Gray’s Anatomy and secretaries hired romantic fiction, paying an average of Rs 50 for a book, forty of which would be refunded on the safe return of the book. That’s where I bought 17 volumes of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights (11 volumes and six supplementary volumes), in faux leather and gold, one of my proudest possessions. That’s where I got talking to Kamleshbhai who could look at my list of Camus and tell me which ones I hadn’t got. Any book lover in the city can tell you of similar experiences.
And now they are gone.
This is part of the class war that the state of Maharashtra has been waging on its citizens for the past months. The demolition of the slums cannot be equated to the removal of the booksellers at Churchgate but it is part of a pattern. You know what the pattern is. In its attempt to transform Mumbai into Singapore or Shanghai, the State has decided to wage war against the poor, against anything that does not fit into the cosmetic pattern of the international city. Of course, Singapore is one of the developing nations and Mumbai is part of one of the poorest nations, but the State isn’t going to let a fact like that stand in its way.
Perhaps it is best to see the city as a dictatorship masked as a democracy. It is all very well for politicians of the ruling party to say on camera that Mumbai would collapse in two hours without its slum dwellers. It is another thing to put that into action and create a situation in which the city and the slums co-exist until the slums can be replaced by low-cost housing. It is all very well for us to prate of our glorious heritage and our respect for learning but of course, the State can neither give us a public library to which we could all go nor will it allow the spirit of entrepreneurship to create ad hoc libraries on the pavements.
The Churchgate booksellers cannot be treated like other hawkers. Where the government has made provision for markets, it has not provided for public libraries. In the absence of such libraries, these pavement booksellers are the common person’s only source of affordable books.
This is the age of the market. It is for the market that we have demolished slums. It is for the market that we have cleared the pavements of the booksellers. Not only must we spend our money recklessly, foolishly, but we must spend it so that it goes back into the market. The pavement booksellers were not part of it. They paid the price for their subversion of our new tinpot god.