Lives in Literature: ‘Bookstores keep freedom alive’

"Two other tours—‘Poems on the Road’ and ‘Read More, India’—covered more than 20 states. Does that mean my state or country ended up reading more? I’d say: barely or not at all"

Children queue up outside a Walking BookFairs mobile library in Odisha  (Photo: Walking BookFairs)
Children queue up outside a Walking BookFairs mobile library in Odisha (Photo: Walking BookFairs)

Sampurna Chattarji

Akshaya Bahibala is the co-founder of Walking BookFairs, an independent bookstore in Bhubaneswar. The conversations he provoked around books and reading caught the attention of the district administration in Dumka, Jharkhand, who invited Akshaya to restore their state library and set up the Dumka State Library Literature Festival.

Walking BookFairs recently announced the first ‘Bookseller of the Year’ award in India to recognise the under-appreciated yet invaluable contribution booksellers make to the dissemination of knowledge and literature. Extracts from a conversation on his mission to take books to the people:


On the genesis of Walking Bookfairs

In the winter of 2013, just before I started Walking BookFairs, my partner Satabdi [Misra] and I spent a few days in a small village called Sarbati, in Koraput district, Odisha.

The little village shop was selling Pepsi and Coca-Cola but it didn’t have a pucca road; the primary school had an asbestos roof, but it didn’t have a library or science lab.

The village sarpanch had recently built a temple with a concrete roof and beautiful flooring, at a cost of more than five lakh rupees! We began Walking BookFairs in 2014, and by 2020, we’d travelled more than 35,000 km across India on our bookmobiles.

Three of our tours, named ‘Read More, Odisha’, took place in our home state, and covered all 30 districts multiple times. Two other tours—‘Poems on the Road’ and ‘Read More, India’—covered more than 20 states. Does that mean my state or country ended up reading more? I’d say: barely or not at all.

On how society devalues books and reading

We lack the ability to think critically because we don’t read. We mug up textbooks and feel proud of scoring 99 per cent. Our society reflects this mindless ‘99 per cent mindset’.

In 2014, when we started displaying books on pavements and driving to places in our old Maruti Omni converted into a bookmobile, the first question friends and family asked was: how much money will you make? One friend said: “Look at how your standard of living has crashed—you are now selling books on the footpath! Why did you leave your secure job and good life to sell books?”

On ‘footpath people’ and support for modest book displays

While travelling on our bookmobile around the states, we met many government officers to seek their support, permission and help in getting a little space to display books.

We also requested government accommodation on these tours, because they are cheap, and in many small towns, government guest houses are the only decent places to stay in. Some officers helped, some didn’t.

One district collector said, “We don’t give our circuit houses to even the Tatas or Birlas, why should we give it to you? You are selling books, it’s a business, you must find a hotel to stay.” That night, we slept in our bookmobile in the middle of the forest.

Many teachers told us they don’t read anything beyond the syllabus because they don’t have the time. We have been turned away from colleges, asked to get a permit to enter institutions.

In Bhubaneswar, while displaying books in front of one of the biggest private universities, we were asked to move by bouncers. We “footpath people” were apparently making the university look shabby.

On what gets public space and why

One morning, while displaying books in front of a public park in Bhubaneswar, we met the auditor general who was very interested in knowing more about our work and invited us to his office.

During the meeting, he suggested we get in touch with a particular housing welfare committee and discuss the possibility of opening a library-cum-bookstore in their colony. We were very excited, but the committee members were extremely reluctant.

All common spaces in the colony were taken, they said—for their annual Durga puja or the committee’s official work. Besides, the children were “so busy with their studies”, they had “no time for story books”.

In 2016, we went to meet the big man at the Bhubaneswar Development Authority, to see if we could get some land or shop space for a bookstore. We waited for more than six hours in his office, and came back more determined than ever to keep our bookstore going no matter what.

Governments, through their various departments, provide thousands of acres to various industries—mining, dairy, poultry, fisheries, sports, tourism... It’s not even that the government does not give land for art and culture, but it always goes to the elite, to those well-connected to the powers that be.

Even organisations like the National Book Trust or the Sahitya Akademi own land and office space—they could easily open bookstores in partnership with young people to promote literature, but they don’t. Why? We don’t know.

On piracy and buying habits

Ironically, the footpaths do roaring business in pirated books. People openly admit they buy, even prefer, pirated copies because they are cheaper; they don’t see it as a problem!

Social media has also helped popularise some bookstores, but I find that GenZ visitors to these popular bookstores are often here to make reels [for Instagram] rather than browse or buy books. Some do buy, but most opt for online purchases after comparing prices.

They obviously don’t see it as a loss to replace a book with its image. They don’t see that online giants like Amazon are taking away our freedom in lieu of a discount, that physical bookstores keep freedom alive by not prompting or directing or crowding our choices.

We need independent bookstores, set up and run by humans, not artificial intelligence or giant corporations that crunch human emotions into lifeless numbers.

When you look at the hundred bestsellers on Amazon, you will find not Camus or Sartre or Rushdie or Tagore— you will find colouring books and books devoted to pencil drawings and children’s activities. A society that allows corporations to commoditise literature is a society in danger.


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