“Nowadays, more expensive books get sold in Chennai”

“You may have tangible wealth untold; Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I can never be (for) I had a mother who read to me,” ends the poem, The Reading Mother by Strickland Gillilan. But G. Balakrishnan, a minor boy of Nelpettai here neither has wealth nor a reading mother. Yet, he was spotted at the Tamukkam Frounds, venue for the ongoing seventh edition of Madurai Book Fair, on Sunday afternoon. And he was there, not to buy books but to sell stickers, pens, and pencils to other children.

At an age when he is supposed to go to school and rewrite his destiny, the boy was seen running behind other children outside the entrance and luring them with stickers of heroic cartoon characters, ‘Ben 10’ and ‘Chhota Bheem.’ Asked for his age, he unconvincingly claimed to be 15 years old (one more than the age limit to be termed as child labour) and studying in Standard X at a Corporation school near Tirumalai Naick Palace. His height, other physical features, and way of speaking did not gel well with his claim.

He only seemed to be one among hundreds of children and youth who remain excluded from the idea of creating a knowledge society through book fairs.

It was in 2006 that former Madurai Collector T. Udhayachandran, now Secretary Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, conceived the idea of organising an annual book fair here on the lines of one conducted by The Book Sellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) in Chennai every year. He invited the office-bearers of the association and offered them the Tamukkam Grounds for the exhibition. He also personally coordinated with all government departments to get necessary clearance for the fair which had 176 stalls occupied by 126 publishers in the very first edition itself.

Now, in its seventh year, it has 212 stalls occupied by 151 publishers. Asked for reasons for Madurai Book Fair being small in comparison to the 35th Chennai Book Fair held in January this year with the participation of over 380 publishers occupying around 700 stalls, BAPASI secretary S. Vairavan said that the first fair in Chennai was attended by only 25 publishers. It grew gradually through the past 35 years. “In the same way, we are confident that the Madurai Book Fair also would grow. In fact, it is already growing at a much higher rate,” he said.

Acknowledging efforts taken by Mr. Udhayachandran to bring the fair to Madurai, he said that the officer was still in touch with them and continues to persuade them to organise the fair here without a break.

“Conducting the fair here is not an easy task as we have to start working on it at least three months earlier. Our office-bearers have to make frequent visits to the city to take the necessary permission,” he added. Refusing to divulge the total cost of books planned to be sold, he said that the association estimated the sale to be at least 5 lakh books this year.

BAPASI treasurer AR. Venkatachalam intervened to say, “We want only visitors and not sales. Our success depends on number of people who visit the exhibition for they would any way become customers in the near future. In Chennai, we have been uniformly organising the fair during Pongal holidays and the people have got accustomed to it. Similarly, in Madurai we have stuck to the first week of September so that people begin expecting the fair every year during this period,” he said.

Explaining the buying pattern among book lovers, he said: “Of late, we have been noticing in Chennai that it is the expensive books that get sold more. Generally, it is the English titles brought out by top-notch publishers. But the trend of people preferring costly books has led to some Tamil books too being sold for as high as Rs.3,000 a copy. We hope that the mindset of not minding about the cost when it comes to buying a worthy book would catch up with the readers here too.”

Accommodation issue

Yogi alias Y. Gilbert, founder of Divine Poet Tamil Philosophical Research Centre that had put up a stall here for the first time, said that spending money on accommodation here was the biggest problem faced by the publishers. “Most of us are from Chennai. Whenever we go to Neyveli for such exhibitions, the Neyveli Lignite Corporation officials provide us accommodation in their quarters. Similarly, we were made to stay in a marriage hall during a fair in Coimbatore. But, here, we are forced to stay in lodges by spending from our pockets. The district administration could do something about this,” he said.

R. Lakshmanan, a visitor to the exhibition, said that he was happy about every aspect of the exhibition but for the stuffy interiors. He suggested that the organisers could consider raising the height of the roof in the next fair.

“Visitors like me could bear the heat and sweat for an hour or too, but I pity the stall in-charge who have to stay indoors for 11 days together. I hope the fair would grow much bigger in size next year. Then, all care should be taken to see that the visitors as well as stall owners feel comfortable,” he concluded.

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