Red letter days

Red letter days
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 11 PM IST

A new chapter: Caretaker Rishav behind the counter. Javeed Shah/Mint
A new chapter: Caretaker Rishav behind the counter. Javeed Shah/Mint
Updated: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 11 PM IST
By a curious accident of alphabetical order, the bookshelves of People’s Publishing House (PPH) in Delhi’s Connaught Place are probably the only location in the Capital where John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus stands right next to a series of tomes on Marxist philosophy.
A new chapter: Caretaker Rishav behind the counter. Javeed Shah/Mint
It’s an accident that best captures the challenges of the PPH—a veteran Left-leaning publisher and chain of bookstores run by party members and supporters of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Started in 1939 as a way of disseminating Communist propaganda by the then illegal CPI, it operated out of an underground facility on Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road in Daryaganj. The initial group—comprising P.C. Joshi, the first general secretary of the party, and Shripat Amrit Dange, the founder-editor of the weekly magazine Socialist, among others—operated a single manual printing press to churn out pamphlets, handbills and manifestos. “These are the kind of people who could work 24 hours without a break,” says Mohan Lal, a PPH employee who has been with the outfit since 1971. “They would run the machine through the night, and pamphleteer through the day.”
After the party was legalized in 1942, the PPH became an important arm of its promotional activities. The press was moved to a godown in Jhandewalan, from where it was operated till March 1999. “It was ancient machinery—it had become obsolete, and repairs became a problem,” says Rishav, the current caretaker of the PPH store in Connaught Place. “We had some contract work, printing textbooks for the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the National Book Trust (NBT), but these projects had such tiny margins...and the press couldn’t make enough money to even cover worker’s salaries.”
The PPH still brings out a sizeable roster of pamphlets and booklets, but deals case-by-case with a number of local presses based in Daryaganj.
The PPH’s Connaught Place branch, one of three in Delhi, is located in one of the few remaining corners of the commercial area that are still recognizably Connaught Place. Nestled in the G-Block of the Outer Circle, it’s flanked by a sleepy 60-year-old furniture shop on the left, and a “Leather Works” showroom peddling bags from the early 1990s on the right. A fruit seller has set up shop down the arched corridor, just outside a dealer in army equipment. At around 10.30 in the morning, Rishav opens the shutters, sweeps out the dust, and takes his place behind the counter. Traffic to the shop is light—while Rishav sweeps up, three visitors browse the shelves. One buys a Rs 50 booklet on caste written by Ardhendu Bhushan Bardhan, the current general secretary of the CPI.
Rishav joined the PPH in 1974 while he was in class X, his interest piqued after reading Maxim Gorky’s Mother. He describes himself as being from a “normal, middle-class family”, and says he was drawn to the “focused, no-strings-attached” work that the CPI was then engaged in. “At the time, the PPH was very influential. People used to leave their cushy government jobs to come work for us,” he says. “That was a time when, with your PPH badge, you could just walk into the Delhi University vice-chancellor’s room anytime.” There were around 500 employees at the time Rishav joined—now that number is down to 20.
“It all went downhill after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990,” says Lal, drawing deep on a beedi. “We were drowning in work earlier—all these Russian books, and magazines like Soviet Nari were coming in, and there was so much interest in these subjects.” The “foundation”, he says, has since fallen from the ideology.
“The last four years have been very challenging,” Rishav says. “First we had to deal with all the Metro construction, and we thought we’d seen the end of that, along came the Commonwealth Games.” All Rishav and Lal could do was put stools outside the shop (forced to shutter down during large stretches of the construction) and sit amid the dust and debris. “Some days, we didn’t even have money for evening tea,” Rishav says.
The time, however, gave Rishav the impetus to reinvent PPH’s dominant strategy. While Leftist literature remains their focus, Rishav has bought in popular titles and tourist phrase books. These help generate a steady income to fund his pet project—making the PPH store a focal point for Hindi books in central Delhi. “There are very few bookstores remaining that stock sizeable quantities of Hindi books,” he says.
Half the shelves on the right of the shop are dedicated to cheap Hindi paperbacks by authors such as Premchand (“I still read lots of Premchand. He’s very popular,” says Rishav), Saadat Hasan Manto (“I picked that up recently. There’s a very nice new set of all his works”) and translations of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Between these are books of what Rishav calls “popular interest”—cookbooks, a guide to “practical hypnotism” and vaastu manuals. Prices are almost always less than Rs 100, with the PPH’s margins varying between Rs 5 and Rs 15. Under a staircase that leads up to the first floor is a table filled with pamphlets, newsletters (such as Samyanter and Socialist Standard) and CPI material—booklets emblazoned with the hammer and sickle and titled The BJP’s Road to Fascism.
“We keep everything except communal literature—that is anything the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is actively pushing,” Rishav says. “We go beyond the usual trinity of Marx, Lenin and Mao—we stock Ambedkar and treatises on caste, and books on tribal rights and environmentalism.”
Up on the shop’s first floor, Rishav and Lal are installing tables and chairs and more shelves of Hindi titles. “People can come, sit, read as long as they want. Like a library.”
The PPH is operated like an independent business— donations are not accepted, and the CPI does not fund its operations. Lal estimates that the Connaught Place branch sells 50-60 books a day, with monthly revenue going up to Rs 1 lakh. Their second store, near Indraprastha, does similar business.
The PPH’s third branch in Jawaharlal Nehru University is its main cash cow, generating four-five times the revenue of the other two.
In the evenings, the duo of Lal and Rishav take a round of other book shops in Connaught Place to source books the old-fashioned way—finding out what’s popular through observation and shopkeeper gossip. Over a cup of tea, they draw up lists of books to obtain, and reprints to order. “We’re always trying to analyse our situation,” Lal says. “It’s the only way we’ll survive—constantly change and improve.”
krish.r@livemint .com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 11 PM IST