New Delhi: On a scorching summer day, Prakash Chand winds his way between the cars at a crowded traffic crossing in Delhi, holding a stack of books that is nearly half as tall as he is. The collection that he’s trying to hawk is eclectic; Ayn Rand, Chetan Bhagat, Spencer Johnson and Dan Brown jostle for space in his crowded arms.
Chand has been doing this for six years, but it’s a precarious living. The days are long, the pile of books heavy, and the bargaining hard. There’s no room here for dead weight and literary fancies. To find a place in his pile, a book must be cheap, cost less than Rs200, and it must be popular, very popular.
Somewhere in the middle of the pile, cheek by jowl with Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth lies a book in a dark green cover. A. Hitler reads the spine, followed in bold by, Mein Kampf. The blurb on the book jacket collates some facts about the author. “Occupation”, it reads, “Dictator and Nationalist”.
It’s an oddity in this mix of pot-boilers and self-help/motivational books. Did it come from spare stock? “No,” says Chand “It sells a steady three or four copies a week.” Other books come and go, this one however, he claims, is a steady bread earner.
Hitler might be one of the most reviled figures in history; his autobiography banned in many countries and ignored by the rest, but in India Mein Kampf is selling an increasing and surprisingly large number of copies.
This fascination, unlike previous historical and academic connections, is growing and broad-based. Going by the informal yardstick of Indian publishers that classifies a book that sells more than 5,000 copies a year a “Best-seller”, Mein Kampf at 70,000 (according to R.H. Sharma of Jaico Publishing House, the first publishers of the book in India) is a super hit.
It actually has been for a few years. Much before Bollywood director Rakesh Ranjan Kumar decided to make his controversial upcoming biopic Dear Friend Hitler, a movie that will focus on the human side of Hitler and his love for India.
The sale of the book is widespread. Apart from roadside hawkers, kiosks at railway platforms, small and large bookshops across the country stock it, as do online stores.
Since 2003, when the book was first published in India, the number of publishers has grown to 25 (it helps that the book is no longer copyrighted). They range from small publishers, who print 2,000 copies a year, to Jaico, which with a print-run of 15,000 copies, is the largest.
The copy Chand is selling is published by Colourful Books International, which belying its name, is a small publisher based in east Delhi. Its meagre list of 6 titles, which includes Think and Grow Rich, How to Win Friends and Influence People and My Experiments with Truth, is a predictable medley of the aspirational and spiritual.
As far as Akash Jain, the owner, is concerned Mein Kampf is no different. The book, he says, is “fast moving”. He manages to sell nearly 2,500 copies a year. At Rs10 a copy, the margins are low, but the quantities more than make up for that. Gandhi and Hitler bring him the same numbers and margins. Mera Sangharsh, the Hindi translation of the book has brought its publishers equally good business.
Meerut-based Dheeraj Pocket Books started selling the book just five months ago. Their first edition of 2,000 copies has already sold out, and the second is in print. Most of the readers are from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where the Dheeraj Pocket Books edition is sold exclusively at bus stands and railway stations.
Radha Krishan Sharma, who mans the small book kiosk of Pankaj and Co. at platform No. 2 of the New Delhi railway station corroborates the books’ popularity.
“The most popular author right now is Chetan Bhagat, but Hitler is sadabahar (always in bloom),” he says, referring to the sales statistics rather than the content of the book.
What’s the book about? “I’m not very sure, I think Hitler was an emperor of some sort.” The book does equally well with Internet-savvy and up-market readers.
Bahri Sons, an established bookseller in Delhi’s fancy Khan Market, sells three copies a day. Flipkart.com, one of the largest online bookstores in India currently manages 20 copies a month, and says that the number is increasing every month.
But who is reading a book that even the most charitable of literary critics have dismissed as being a boring and agonizing read? And why are they reading it? All the sellers and publishers concur that the readership is young, largely in the 18-30-year-age bracket.
“Rebellion appeals to young people,” explains Anuj Bahri of Bahri Sons “Here is a man who rebelled against everything. He created his own path.” Bahri thinks that the book has become “inspirational”. “The message,” he says, “is that if you put your mind to it, if you’re focused, you can do anything.”
Interestingly, most of the young readers are engineering and management students.
Their online networking and discussion forums are peppered with animated discussions on Mein Kampf and its author. On PaGaLGuY.com, a very popular MBA resource website, someone who goes by the pseudonym “Deepinside” writes, “I think Mein Kampf is a true masterpiece. Though a bit chauvinistic…it’s the best one to understand management from the root.”
“Hi.Shivani”, another member of the forum ranks the book fourth among her favourites. She likes reading “motivational writing or the real stories of great people”. There’s even a “Meinkampf”, who turns out to be Tarun Singhal, a student of the Department of Management Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He read the book in his 3rd year of B.Tech. “I enjoyed the philosophy of Hitler,” he says “It can be a great morale booster.”
Jaico’s Sharma is not surprised that the book has caught the “management imagination”. Hitler’s rise from penury and obscurity, he says, is instructive. “A lot of students admire his leadership qualities.”
The transformation of Mein Kampf from an oddity of interest only to academics to motivational and leadership guide hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact many people find it disturbing.
Noted sociologist Ashish Nandy says he’s “saddened” by the growing sales, a trend which he attributes to an “increasing and desperate obsession with fame and money”.
Jaico has got letters accusing it of profiteering from a book that is anti-semitic and downright evil. After getting one such letter early this year from an irate Italian, the company decided to make amends. In April it published a book called Hitler’s Lies: An Answer to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a relatively unknown book written by Irene Harand, an Austrian human rights activist, in 1935.
“The book debunks Hitler’s theories completely,” claims Sharma. Have the sales been as good as those of Mein Kampf? “No, no. Of course not.”