“What do you do with the books that don’t sell?”
I was in an independent bookstore, talking to the owner about the challenges of running a brick and mortar outlet in the times of Amazon and Flipkart.
“I usually have a sale-or-return policy,” she replied. “If the books don’t sell, I simply return them to the publishers.”
“Oh, but all of them don’t take back the books, no? I know a couple of publishers who simply ask the retailers to pulp the books.”
“Yeah, there are those people too. They find the cost of taking the book back higher than the loss of sales.”
“So what do you do with those books?”
“Dealing with those is heartbreaking,” she sighed. “I have to tear off the covers and send them to the publishers as proof that I am not selling it behind their backs. Then I give them away to a kabadiwallah.”
“Do you know what the kabadiwallah does with those books? Where does he send them for pulping?”
She thought a while about that. I could clearly see that she had no idea what the man did. I still waited for her reply.
“Today is Tuesday, right?” she finally asked.
“Yes, it is,” I said checking my phone. I usually don’t remember the day of the week either.
“He will come by today.”
“He comes every Tuesday?” I said a bit surprised. “You have so many books to give him every week?”
“No, no. But I have no way of contacting him. He doesn’t keep a mobile phone. So he just comes every Tuesday to check.”
“Isn’t that painful?”
“For him, yes. Doesn’t cost me anything. You can wait and talk to him. Unless, of course, you have something better to do.”
“No, no. I am totally alright hanging out here. You have a nice place, I must say. I can sit and read on that corner table. Let me know when he comes by?”
About two hours later, the man was before me. He didn’t look much like a kabadiwallah. He wore old, faded, stained clothes, yes, but they were all washed. And he had nicely combed his hair. He even smelled nice.
He waited patiently as I packed my laptop, charger and other stuff into my bag. I noticed him looking at each of those things intently.
“Hi. Do you mind telling me what you do with the books you collect from here?” I asked once I was done.
“Are you a publisher?” He seemed suspicious. Probably he wasn’t used to people asking him this question.
“No, no. I am a writer. I love books. I just wanted to know where you take the books.”
“Some to their graveyard. Some to a heaven.”
“Haha. You’re poetic. Do you read poetry too?”
My light-hearted attempt didn’t have any effect on him. He was still suspicious and still uneasy around me.
“No, really,” I asked again. “What do you do with them?”
“I keep a couple of copies of each book, and send the others to the paper factory outside town.”
“That’s interesting. Why do you keep two copies?”
“Why are you asking so many questions?” He looked at the store owner, who told him I was okay. I could be trusted.
“I send the copies for hard binding. And I keep them at a little library I run in my neighborhood. People are too poor there to buy books.”
“Wow. That’s great. Can I come and see your library?”
“If you want to. It’s not here, though. We have to go there tomorrow. It’s 80 kilometers away.”
“Oh. I won’t be able to make it then. I will not be here tomorrow. I have a flight to catch.”
He just nodded.
“But, I am really happy,” I said extending my hand for a shake. “We have similar thoughts, you know? I dream of opening a library for poor people one day.”
He kept looking at my hand for a long time. Finally, he didn’t take it. Instead he looked square in my face.
“I am a kabadiwallah. I dropped out of school in Class 8th, never held a job for more than a year, never saw more than ten thousand rupees in my bank account. I have no mobile phone, no computer, not even a pair of decent shoes. I have no flights to catch. I have five people at home counting on me to put food in their stomachs everyday. And yet I am already running my library. But you are still dreaming. You may think so, but our thoughts are in no way similar.”
He folded his hands in a namaste and walked away.
This was a year ago. I am still dreaming. He is still running his library.