Saturday, December 10, 2005

Indian Bookstores

Indians should be proud of their bookstores. I’ve been going to bookstores in south Bombay, Bandra, and Santa Cruz and I’ve been impressed. I am impressed because I compare my Indian book experience with my experience in Latin America. In most of Latin America, books are expensive and relatively hard to find. Bookstores in Latin America are like curio stores for the rich. Not only are books expensive and hard to find, it is also very difficult to publish in Latin America. For example, if one writes in Spanish and wants to publish in the Latin American market, he or she has to go through a Spanish publisher because the Spaniards have the best distribution system in the Americas. This is in contrast to India, in which books are published within the subcontinent and the prices are prorated to the subcontinental market.

One of my cousins told me that India has great bookstores because there is no system of libraries like the United States. But I do not accept this argument. Latin American countries do not have good public libraries. And Latin American countries also do not have good and economical bookstores. For example, Mexico City’s prime bookstore, ironically called “Gandhi,” has books that are very expensive by U.S. standards. How can the average Mexican afford to buy $30 books? Brazil is an interesting case because there is a decent selection of books within the sebos (used bookstores), but the prices within the new bookstores are also prohibitively high (like Mexico).

India has a lot of great new and used bookstores. And the prices, prorated to the Indian consumer, are fantastic. For many Indians, book-reading is very much valued and I think this is wonderful. Shashi Tharoor, in his overly-haughty but readable Bookless in Baghdad starts his book with, “Growing up as the child of middle-class parents in urban India in the late 1950s and 1960s meant growing up with books.” There is a great tradition of reading that exists in many Indian families.

Last week I went to a small bookstore in South Bombay. I was truly impressed by the collection in this little store. I found one giant shelf with only Indian authors. One could find numerous books on Bombay, all of Salman Rushdie’s works (minus The Satanic Versus, which is sadly illegal in this country - for all of the great books, censorship, while relatively mild, still exists here), and most of the relevant works from the more established Indian writers (e.g. Mulk Raj Anand) to the up-and-coming writers.

There was also a shelf with writers from all over the world. I found all of Sartre’s major works, a good selection of Chomsky’s work (not just his political writings but also his linguistics work), and a lot of important philosophical works.

As an American reader, I noticed that the English literature in Indian bookstores is heavily weighted toward Britain. It is possible to find Hemingway, Whitman, Melville, or Faulkner, but one will have to inquire with multiple booksellers. In contrast, the great English writers (e.g. George Orwell, Charles Dickens, W. Somerset Maugham, etc.) are in abundance. British colonization put forth the paradigm that British literature was considered the epitome of good writing in English.

Yet India, as always, is the land of contradictions. It is a place where a book lover can find bliss. But it is also a country in which an appaling percentage of the population is illiterate (60% literacy rate with less than 50% of women literate). India is the country that has the most PhDs and the most illiterates in the world.

Despite the many contradictions, I've very much enjoyed making the most of Bombay's varied bookstores and talking to Mumbaikers who love to read and learn.

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