Aaya re aaya, bookwallah aaya!

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Four enterprising writers traverse Australia peddling treasures of Australian and Indian literature

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We have all heard about the local sabziwallah, istriwallah, doodhwallah, macchhiwallah, dhobiwallah, kulfiwallah – but a bookwallah? What’s that? And here in Sydney? I have yet to see any kind of wallahs here. Or does the fortnightly home-ice cream-wallah in his van count? My curiosity was piqued and this led me to the State Library of NSW to find out more. And it was such a delight! Four of the bookwallahs out of the original team who toured India were passing through Sydney. They are en route to Brisbane for the Writers Festival, where they speak on September 8, after having presented their wares at the Melbourne Book Festival in August.

The Bookwallah is a project organised by the Asialink Writing Program of the University of Melbourne. This roving international writers festival ran its tour of India in October-November 2012, starting at Mumbai and ending their journey at Pondicherry, travelling via Goa, Bangalore and Chennai. Indian writers like poet Sudeep Sen, novelist and book critic Chandrahas Choudhury and journalist and fiction writer Annie Zaidi, were joined by Australian young-adult fiction author Kirsty Murray and non-fiction writer Benjamin Law, in the 2000+ km journey. The unique part of this journey was that they travelled by train, lugging over 300 kgs of books across southern India.

The writers are now in Australia doing the same thing – sharing stories and conversations as they traverse the states, in this case from Melbourne to Brisbane by train. Along the way they stop to discuss their books, and the books of their respective countries, meeting readers, sharing ideas with other writers, and whoever else they meet serendipitously on their journeys. Benjamin Law, a Brisbane-based writer is the author of The Family Law (2010) which was shortlisted for Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards. His first journey into India was when he was researching his second book, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East. Benjamin travelled to India in 2011, not long after homosexuality was decriminalised in India. Annie Zaidi is the author of Known Turf, a collection of essays, and co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She also writes plays and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a new manuscript of poems. Annie said that before her involvement with The Bookwallah project, her only contact with Australian literature was through the work of Les Murray. Travelling with Kirsty and Benjamin opened her eyes to the world of Australian literature. All the writers rued that the global publishing world, dominated by US and UK companies, saw little of the literature of their countries available outside the local arena.

Kirsty Murray has nine novels and numerous works of non-fiction and junior fiction to her name. Her latest novel, The Lilliputians (released in Australia as India Dark), is based on the true story of a theatrical troupe of Australian children that toured India in 1910. The real children were members of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, a famous Australian theatre company. In the book they are recreated as Perceval’s Lilliputian Opera Company, and research for this book took Kirsty to India where she followed the train route the children took. So she was delighted when invited to be part of the Bookwallahs.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and literary critic based in Delhi and the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf. He is also editor of an introduction to Indian fiction, India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion, and reviews books for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He spoke about the richness of the multilingual literature of India and which is in fact so rich, that no one has a sense of the whole. New discoveries are made from translations all the time. Being part of this travelling roadshow with The Bookwallahs gave him the opportunity to not only take his own work around, but also the traditions of hundreds of years of Indian literature. Chandrahas’ introduction to Australia was through cricket and he wrote regularly for the Wisden Bulletin on this subject.

Another important traveller, or rather travellers, on The Bookwallah journey in India were the six handcrafted suitcases filled with books which could be turned to a portable library, and vice versa, in a matter of fifteen minutes. These ingenious cases were created by Georgia Hutchison and Rob Sowter and made of Australian hardwood, plyboard and vegetable-dyed kangaroo leather. The writers spoke of their adventures and misadventures lugging these beautifully crafted colourful cases around trains and hotels in India. Due to their size, the cases travelled in the rail luggage compartments, at times in the company of coffins, and were once soaked in drippings of water from frozen fish in the journey from Mumbai to Goa. A good rubbing of eucalyptus oil later, they were ready for more travelling! At the various destinations, the travelling writers would empty these suitcases to set up the library filled with offerings from classic and contemporary Australian writers, using the cases as seats at times, and referring to the books to discuss aspects of Australian culture and literature.

The writers bonded well on their three-week journey through southern India, the proximity forced by travelling on Indian trains not withstanding! They did not know each other at all at the start of the Indian leg of The Bookwallah journey, but it was evident that they had become the best of friends in this Australian leg of the journey. Kirsty said that the trip had opened up a window to each other’s culture, and Benjamin said that it helped to eliminate the blind spots. Travelling through India they realised how few Australian books were available in Indian bookstores and libraries. They redeemed this by leaving collections for public use.

“Though electronic books are becoming very popular, it has not diminished the value of physical books in preserving the words and memories of people, especially in a country like India where millions have little access to books, let alone e-readers,” remarked Annie.

Benjamin rightly concluded saying, “A physical book has a tradition, a currency and a respect imbued in it that was hard to beat”.

And then, if there were no paper books, how would The Bookwallah leave memories, conversations, essays and stories for many others to access?

This project is the well-deserved winner of the Federal Government’s inaugural Australian Arts in Asia Award in the category of community engagement.

Jyoti Shankar
Jyoti Shankar is a freelance writer and sustainability professional, who is passionate about nature
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