WAgibiMKmYvSj4hDhtXxp_xbM5c =10KNews=: MEET THE PIRATES OF INDIA AND THE BOOK BOYS OF MUMBAI!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

MEET THE PIRATES OF INDIA AND 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.

Bosses like Ganesh pick child peddlers over adults because they’re happy to earn small amounts. And they do exactly as told. Selling in traffic is also considered a starter job. After dodging speeding buses for a few years, inevitably suffering injury, child peddlers typically graduate to safer work as hawkers of fruits or temple flowers. If they’re ambitious, they become seths, working a group of children as they themselves were once worked.

India has laws against child labor and against copyright infringement, but both are openly flouted. In fact, most sales of pirated books, which take place at traffic crossings and on railway platforms, occur in direct view of the police. Traffic and railway officers say it isn’t part of their job description to round up child laborers or chase down seths. Ganesh is one of several seths who admitted to paying them off. “I know I’m breaking the law,” he told me. “That’s what bribes are for.”

Child labor and book piracy have something else in common: In India, at least, they’re socially acceptable. Children don’t just work on the streets for shady suppliers; they cook and clean in middle-class homes. And while some Indian readers disdain the very idea of a pirated book, most do not. It’s routine to watch Hollywood films on pirated DVDs and download American music from file-sharing Web sites. And it’s spoken of as openly as if this were legal. Students even buy expensive medical or technical textbooks from street sellers. If the excuse for buying pirated books was once an economy of scarcity, the justification now is that of abundance. It is far easier to buy a pirated book than it is to find a bookstore or library.

Some Indian authors have a similarly unconventional view toward the pirating of their books; they see it as a stamp of mass popularity. At least in private, they say there’s no greater thrill than spying their own latest novels in stacks of pirated books for sale.

The real problem, however, may not be corruption or social acceptability but poverty. Once a street child experiences the exhilaration of spending his own money, it’s hard to sell him on the long-term advantage of trading paid work for homework. Sellers pay their seths a fee of 100 rupees (about $2) a book; everything the sellers make above that is profit. Yakub sells at least three books a day, making a minimum of 300 rupees for himself. That’s more than his father, a plumber, brings home. “The key to encouraging street children to come to school,” said Kishor Bhamre, an assistant director at the nonprofit education organization Pratham, “is to show them that good money does not necessarily equal a good life. And that in any case, they can never hold on to the money they make. Older kids bully them out of it, their parents snatch it from them, it’s stolen.”

The tragic irony of Mumbai’s illicit book trade is that its best salesmen will never fully understand the value of what they’re selling. They can rattle off book titles and the names of best-selling authors. But because they forgo school for work, they can’t read, and so view books as no different from anything else they’ve sold — like boxes of tissues or bags of oranges. The pleasure, indeed the magic, of literature that shapes so many avid readers as children, defining who we are and influencing what we make of our lives, is beyond their reach. Yakub is poignantly aware of this. “I’ve grown up with novels,” he told me. “But I have never read one.”

Yakub has yet to realize that children like him are the face of an underground trade that operates in extreme secrecy. So little is known about the scope of the problem that the last official figures on the cost of piracy to Indian publishing were released in 1999. That study estimated that 20 to 25 percent of all books sold in the country were pirated. In fact, the only other adult in his network that Ganesh has even seen face to face is the young man who delivers his books. “When my seth retired, he passed on three mobile numbers to me,” Ganesh said. “When I need to place an order I call one of the numbers and a delivery boy reaches my house with 50 books. I’ve no say in what we sell. I’m told, ‘These novels are hot this week, move them quickly,’ and that’s what I tell my boys.”

Nor does Ganesh ponder the moral implications of his work. For him, selling pirated books is neither about the process of selling nor about the works themselves. It’s about survival. “My stomach doesn’t know the difference between an original and a duplicate,” he told me. Yakub, who along with so many other street children forms the mainstay of this trade, would agree. His father isn’t always around, and his mother, he says, is crazy. “If you catch her at the wrong moment she’ll scream curses that will fill you with shame,” he says. “I give her half the money I earn. She buys tea and chewing tobacco and forgets to swear. I ask only one thing of her: ‘Don’t touch my books.’ But I don’t take chances. At night I sleep with them. I use my books for a pillow.”

Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.”

Source: New York Times