What is selling in times of COVID: ‘Naari Dharma’ and ‘Stree Dharma’ are best sellers by Gita Press
In the wake of the pandemic only around 300 trains out of 12,500 have been allowed back on track, affecting hawkers and book sellers. A.H. Wheeler has shut down but Gita Press has never had it so good
My monthly train journey home from Ghaziabad to my village, 25 Kms from Allahabad, had come to a halt during the lockdown. But towards the end of November, I decided enough was enough and ventured out to board the train at Anand Vihar Railway station.
The station looked eerily deserted. Only one train was being allowed in at a time. Most of the hawkers were also missing. And people on the platform and in the train were quieter than usual. As the train left the station, I missed the vendors who would move from one compartment to another, selling everything from peanuts to paan masala and from tea to newspapers and periodicals. Nothing. No hawker of toys or locks either. Also missing were the singers, the travelling magicians and the Bahurupia, who would dress up as various gods, goddresses and historical characters on different days by way of entertainment. Passengers wee glued to their mobile phones as if their life depended on it.
Fewer trains and fewer passengers clearly translated to less business. Passengers also seemed wary to buy food or snacks outside, opting to carry food from home. But what was even more shocking was the total absence of hawkers selling books and periodicals. I had looked around for the familiar AH Wheeler stall on the platform. It was shut. I eagerly waited for one inside the train. But none came. At every station the train stopped, I craned my neck in vain to spot a magazine stall or a hawker. I drew a blank.
I got down at the Prayagraj station feeling annoyed and frustrated. I strode towards the AH Wheeler stall and found it shut. Even other magazine stalls, including the one of Geeta Press, were all shut. It seemed distinctly odd.
A.H. Wheeler & Co. has been in the business of selling books and periodicals at railway stations since 1888. I was restless enough to get in touch with Amit Banerjee, Director of the company. He confirmed that all 378 stalls of the company at 258 railway stations were shut. “If you add the counters and the trolleys, the number would go up to 900 and yes, none of them is functioning,” he informed.
“Many of the agents and sellers worked on a fixed percentage of commission on sales. With no sales, they are all out of work. We had many hawkers at major junctions and stations. They are all gone.”
Most of the permanent employees have also left while a few are still being paid their salary. It is hard to be hopeful, he admits. The financial crisis would hit sale of books and periodicals the most, he felt. It seemed a long haul at the moment.
Gita Press stands out as exception: Surprisingly, in the prevailing gloom, sales of Gorakhpur based Gita Press, publisher of religious books in 15 languages, remained unaffected. October this year saw sales worth Rs. 6.8 crore, highest in the company’s history. This when over 50 bookstalls of Gita Press across railway stations in India remain closed.
Sales did take a hit initially with sales plunging to Rs. 39 lakhs in April, and 57.7 lakh in May. But it soon zoomed with online sale. Trustee Devi Dayal Agarwal says there is an increase of 800% in Gita Press’s online sales. The website book.gitapress.org which had almost no sale till March 2020, received 719 orders in May and 856 orders in June. Sales are also increasing on online platforms like Amazon.
Gita Press publishes over 1800 different religious books in 15 languages. Over 400 titles have gone out of stock during the lockdown. As many as 150 titles are linedup for reprints. Printing machines are running overtime for four extra hours. Titles like Sri Ramcharit Manas, Gita SadhakSanjivni, Valmiki Ramayan, Bhagwat Mahapuran and Shiv Mahapuranare among the highest grossers. The Head of their main stall Ram Murat Singh says some people have placed bulk orders for books to be distributed near temples and other public spaces.
Significantly, the titles in demand include Naari Dharm, Param Seva, Naari Siksha, Stri Dharm Prashnottari (Duties of Wife), Durga Saptasati, Durga Chalisa, Gita, Hanuman Chalisa.
Also, in demand is Gita Dainandin, a replacement of the traditional New Year’s diary.
(With Poornima Srivatava)