This article was first published on the Radio Active Blog
It’s a regular day on Brigade road in Bangalore. The four wheelers are earnestly trying to worm their way through the slow moving traffic, the two wheelers, more aware of their advantage in such situations are aiming for the gap between the bumpers to zoom ahead and the pedestrians crossing the road, are maneuvering themselves through the maze the road has become. I am here to meet Akshaya Routray and Shatabdi Mishra, who I am sure have become pros at handling all kinds of traffic situations in India. They have been travelling for over a thousand kilometres across villages, small towns and big cities to be here in Bangalore. I finally spot them in front of Mota Royal Arcade. They are standing next to their customized minivan, filled with books. I notice curious onlookers stopping for a few minutes to look at the van and browse through the books, and sometimes buying books. Some others are busy clicking selfies with the duo.
Akshaya and Shatabdi have always been passionate about books. But when they noticed how fewer and fewer people are reading these days, either because they don’t have access to books, or because they have fallen out of the habit, they decided to set out on a unique journey. Through the Walking Book Fair Project the duo will be travelling through 22 states in a customized minivan with over 4000 books in a mission to spread the joy for books and reading. Radio Active caught up with Shatabdi who spoke about their love for books, their unique journey and the people they met along the way. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Thank you for choosing to come to Bangalore.
It has been great in Bangalore. In Karnataka we were in Mysore before this for two days and now we are here for two days. Probably we will be going to Hubli or Dharward next on our way to Goa.
How was life before Walking Book Fair happened to you? How did it all start?
We started Walking Book Fairs in 2014 and the idea was to take books to more places and people. There are so many places in our country where people do not have access to good books. And by books I mean, books beyond curriculum books, text books or guide books. For instance, we have hundreds and thousands of small towns in our country where we do not have book shops or functioning libraries. Akshaya and I met around 2013 and we were talking about the problems that we face as a society and the problems that we have created as human beings. And we agreed that books are probably the solution to the world’s problems – the human greed, the wars, the starvation, which contrasts with the shopping malls , automobile showrooms and all of that. So we thought we should be able to do something about it in our own way. Also books are not available to people to a lower socio economic background. That’s how Walking Book Fair started.
So at that point you were walking with the books in your backpacks?
Yes, when we started we didn’t have the money to start even a small book shop. But we wanted to take books out of where we lived because sometime a very poor person could feel very intimidated walking inside a shop. So we wanted to books to be just out on the road where anybody who was walking down could just come easily and take a look, without feeling bothered to buy the books. So yes, we started carrying books in backpacks and trolley bags. We displayed books on the footpath. A lot of people came which was surprising. That is because we started a lot of people discouraged us. They said things like ‘ Maybe books are not a good idea, who would read in these places?’ But a lot of people came, to look at books and also buy books.
But you continue to call yourself Walking Book Fairs?
Yes. The whole idea is that it connotes something that is moving, something that changes.
Tell us about the geographies that you are covering. You mentioned villages, small towns and also big cities. How do you choose your books for such diverse reading audience?
We will be travelling across 20 states – the south the north, the Hindi speaking states, the non-Hindi speaking states. We generally have only English books on this India Tour. English is a language that connects a lot of people in India. Also, the books that we are carrying are a mix of different kinds of genres. So we have a little bit of literature, non-fiction, a lot of children’s books, many picture books. When we stop for a public book display in a small town or a village where maybe children are not familiar with English they really don’t have to read it. They just have to look at the illustrations and they are able to relate to the story by themselves. So we have tried to keep the collection diverse, so that everybody who comes in finds something to read, browse through or buy.
So it’s also about the joy of reading from a book.
It IS about that. It’s purely about that. In our country we focus a little too much on our degrees and our marks which comes from a deeper aspiration to have a secure life and to have a jobs and cars. But somewhere we have forgotten to open our minds, which is why we have not been able to create a good political system or a good citizenry. We find that people are not open to new ideas and we are constantly pushing back new ideas and it is detrimental to our political system and our society. And we see people killing each other because they look different or each different food. That’s so sad. And probably the only way we can ever imagine for all that to change is by opening our minds. And a way to do that is definitely through books. It gives us a better a understanding of the world around us.
What observations have you made about the people who come to pick up books as you travel through rural/urban India?
In urban centres people do have access to a lot of book shops as well as e-book shops. Yet in a city like Bangalore where people already have access to books, they were eagerly waiting for us to arrive. That I find very interesting. So I guess, though we have book shops and though we have online platforms that sell books, something like this has captured the imagination of people. They are very excited to see something like this. Apart from that, it’s essential that any healthy society has physical book shops and physical libraries because it is a completely different experience from seeing something online. Online might have created a buzz that it’s cheaper or that it’s more convenient. But I don’t think so. I feel that it’s a dangerous trend. If a reader goes to an e commerce site and he knows of a particular author and then he searches for the book. He probably would not see the thousand other authors in a books store. Whereas in a bookstore if there is a book that costs hundred rupees, thousands of people can have a look at it, and it will only cost that much.
Also, the sheer joy of reading a physical book; to hold it in your hand, to smell it, to look at the book cover. And the joy of meeting people and making new friends in a book store. It’s a space where you meet other people, you communicate with them, and you laugh. I think we are alienating people through the online market.
Tell us about your stories of making friends along the way…
We have made wonderful friends. One such friend has come to meet me here in Bangalore. We connected on social media and we got talking. This was happened just because we are taking this journey. Otherwise we would have never met.
What are you planning to do when you reach the end of this journey? Are you also planning to write a book on this project?
S: We really don’t plan much. We mostly end of doing things in an impulsive way. I am not sure if we will write a book. But we are documenting this tour and we are writing down our experiences. But yes, it’s an interesting idea, we have also explored it. So yes… maybe.
Listen to the full radio interview here: