The Bambaiya-accented hoarse cries of “loot hai... sale hai… only Rs10” rented the air at the corner of a street near Flora Fountain. I turned to see a man standing a head above the passersby, waving his hands and pointing at his wares. I couldn’t make out what he was selling because a small, excited crowd had gathered around the man, blocking my line of sight. I pushed through the crowd and there I saw it; a treasure trove of brand new English paperbacks strewn on a plastic sheet. I hesitated, wondering whether the books were pirated. While my 16-year-old brain was trying to decipher my next step, the fresh-book aroma hit my nostrils. I dropped all reason by the footpath and dove towards the pile — and thus began my lifelong journey into the world of popular fiction.
Over the next few years, I made weekly treks to the paperback-mile between Flora Fountain and Victoria Terminus (now CST), walking the streets looking for book-bargains. Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy were all to be had at Rs10 a pop. The booksellers who went by names like Babu, Peter, Ganya, etc., could not speak more than the rudimentary “tata-bye bye” kind of English, but they introduced me to the latest in popular fiction from around the world. They knew them all — James Hadley Chase to James Albert Michener. They patiently explained to the uninitiated reader that Ian Fleming was the author and James Bond was his character. What surprised me most was that these seemingly uneducated guys were extremely fond of people who read. They could tell the readers’ likes and dislikes just by the book that they glanced at. If a buyer was struggling to make up his or her mind, they would immediately give options. Sure, they wanted to make a sale, but they also encouraged young readers.
Over time, the booksellers set up makeshift stalls, but sadly the `10 foreign-printed books became scarce. The prices of the books increased too. As a regular, I had befriended a few street-side booksellers. They noticed that I felt the pinch, and offered me a buy-back scheme. They began to operate like a large-scale lending library cartel for the bargain-reader. For me, the buy-back deal was like manna from book heaven. All through my late teens and early adulthood, I devoured books from their stalls. Sometimes, I tried to interest vendors by singing praises of a new international author’s popularity abroad in the hope that they would procure his or her books, but most of the time they just dismissed me with a smile. They knew that if the author was gaining popularity, his or her books would surely make their way to them. It was these booksellers’ firm belief that an author could truly be deemed popular only if his books were found on Mumbai streets. Over time, I grudgingly began to agree.
Not that these booksellers were a complacent lot. They were quick to pick up trends. For years, I could only see Indian authors such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth and Ruskin Bond. But after Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize, the streets were soon adorned with copies of The God Of Small Things, both pirated and original. In fact, that was the turning point for Indian authors; soon you could see copies of Vikram Chandra, Anita Desai and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and the likes. The next wave came after Chetan Bhagat, and now one can find books by Indian and foreign authors piled side-by-side on the ubiquitous plastic-sheet covered stalls.
As far as I am personally concerned, long before the discount pricing of Amazon and Flipkart, it was here that I found the means to read the latest bestsellers on my meagre allowance. It is here that I fell in love with crime thrillers, the kind of fiction that I write today. It is here that I experienced a moment of unadulterated joy when I spotted my own book lying atop a pile at a stall. I couldn’t help but mouth a small hurrah for Mumbai’s unsung book-district and a big thank you to the men who run it.
A Mumbai resident, Jha is the author of crime-thriller novels such as Anti-Social Network and Mumbaistan: 3 Explosive Crime Thrillers. He has also written scripts for Hindi films.