Sunday, January 06, 2013
The Book Boys of Mumbai
As the lights turn red at the Haji Ali traffic intersection in Mumbai, the boy slouching against the railings quickly straightens up. Yakub Sheikh is just 12 years old, but he knows he has only 45 seconds to make some money. Holding aloft his wares, he dashes toward a black BMW and in his cracking preteen voice addresses the woman inside: “ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?”
Mumbai once prided itself on its literary culture — libraries, journals and poetry societies flourished; foreign books, though hard to find and prohibitively expensive, were all the rage. It was into this economy of scarcity and exclusivity that, somewhere around the 1970s, the book pirates stepped in.
Initially, these literary entrepreneurs produced only thinly bound copies, their pages spilling out or missing altogether. Popular fiction sold well, as did American cookbooks and Asian volumes of dress patterns. It wasn’t until the ’90s that best sellers were pirated; today, they dominate the black market, selling at less than half the Indian cover price. (Don’t tell E. L. James, but the woman in the BMW bought the entire “Fifty Shades” trilogy for the equivalent of $10.) Eagerly anticipated books like those in the “Harry Potter” series are often available the morning of their worldwide release. As a result, the books most readily found in Mumbai these days aren’t purchased in the city’s established bookstores but outside, where children peddle shrink-wrapped paperbacks.
Ever since children have slept on Mumbai’s streets, they have worked on them, whether as sellers of trinkets or of talismans. The city has thousands of street children, but only a chosen few get to sell books. These are children like Yakub, who lives with his family and has a place to call home, even if it is on the pavement and contrived of bamboo poles and scavenged tarp. Such children are considered high-value sellers, more reliable than those who live in gangs without any parental supervision. Because the cost of one book is many times that of a handful of trinkets, book suppliers, who are called “seths,” or bosses, value trustworthiness in their ranks above all else. Suppliers traditionally hire only boys. “Boys move fast in traffic, and they carry many more books,” explained Ganesh, a seth I spoke with in Haji Ali. Ganesh, who uses only one name, is just 19 years old and has 15 boys working under his direction.