If you can get chocolates, should you not be able to get books too? The question by a Kerala bureaucrat gains significance amid the ongoing tussle between the Centre and the state on what goods and services should be exempt from the lockdown.
Kerala wanted to draw its own list of services that can be deemed as vital, as it moved to ease the lockdown in certain pockets. The move was supposed to allow the resumption of operations of micro and small scale industries within municipal limits, restaurants, motor vehicle repair shops, barbershops and, true to its status as India’s most literate state, book stores.
But the state’s decision was immediately questioned by the Centre, with a Union home ministry spokesperson tweeting that the state “has allowed the opening of activities, prohibited under Consolidated Revised Guidelines". The tweet had attached a 19 April letter sent to Kerala’s chief secretary Tom Jose, advising it to comply with the orders “without any dilution". The move forced Kerala to revoke some of the relaxations, but book stores were allowed to operate for two days a week.
In Kerala, nearly everyone agrees that reading books is essential in a pandemic. For instance, when the countrywide lockdown began, one of the firsts things two of the biggest Malayalam movie stars, Tovino Thomas and Manju Warrier, did was to rush out to buy books, said a person who was aware of the purchase, requesting anonymity.
Thomas went to a book store in central Kerala and bought a bag full worth ₹10,000, the person said. Warrier could not get out, so she got home-delivered some of the top-selling titles by Malayalam authors such as Benyamin and T.D. Ramakrishnan, he added.
The publishers are also intensely lobbying to get books into the essentials lists. “It is most essential, not just essential, for Malayalees," said Ravi DeeCee, managing director of DC Books, a Kerala-based publishing giant. He said the administration has remained positive on the need for bookstores to open. “There are more than 100 publishers in Kerala, publishing more than a thousand titles every year. The readership and sales in Kerala is always on the rise. Even if you look at something like PDF piracy in Kerala, you won’t see that anywhere else in India."
“Since the lockdown began, we had been flooded with requests from reading groups and individuals asking us if they can buy one book at least. The government has taken note of it and agrees that it is part of the mental health of the public," said Dee Cee. “We put up this memorandum to the CM Pinarayi Vijayan for book stores to be open and he responded within eight hours."