Literary Review

Hitchhiker’s guide to books

Home is where the heart is: Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray. Photo: G. Moorthy  

A truck full of books is one way to travel, and it’s not a bad way either. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray have been on the road for the past 70 days, and their India tour, covering 20 States and approximately 10,000 km in 90 days, is winding up. Soon, they’ll be back at home in Orissa, where they own a small bookstore, and where this story began.

“We started the Walking Bookfairs in Semiliguda, a small town in Koraput district, Odisha. We started on foot. We’d just carry books in our bags and walk to villages and towns to people who didn’t have access to reading. We’d lay them out on the pavement, where people who might have felt intimidated about entering bookshops could take a look,” says Mishra.

The idea developed and then got wheels when the pair bought a second-hand Maruti van. “We travelled to more remote districts of Orissa in that van,” says Mishra. Today, the truck they use is a bigger and better option, its customised design allowing them more display and storage space.

In the two years since its launch, Walking Bookfairs has travelled to every one of the 30 districts in Orissa, covering over 10,000 km. And then, as 2015 ended, Mishra and Rautaray set another, bigger goal. They planned a tour across the country, with a slogan that sums up the essence of their project: ‘Read More, India’.

The truck itself is quite beautiful, filled with over 4,000 books, each carefully selected. “We mostly stock fiction; about 90 per cent is fiction. We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story,” says Rautaray. The collection in the truck is eclectic, with popular bestsellers tucked between little-known novels and anthologies, as well as a large number of children’s fiction and picture books. It’s easy to find something that catches your eye and interest.

“We are churning out entire generations who follow a path set for them, don’t ask questions, just do what they’ve been told to. Books teach you to question, to ask why, to understand things more, to challenge norms. We need books today more than ever. There are fewer physical book stores in cities now, fewer libraries too. People set aside budgets for everything in life, but how many families set aside a budget for books?” This tour though, he adds, is not about the sales. “The tour is more about introducing people to the idea of reading, of promoting books and literature across the country. We are taking these books to people so that they can see the need for bookstores and libraries in their own cities.”

Rautaray also talks about the stark similarities between the bigger and smaller cities the duo has been visiting. “Broadly speaking, all cities are becoming the same. We stopped at Chandigarh and learned that there were over 100 auto showrooms and even a Rolls Royce showroom, but there aren’t more than 10 bookshops.” Only, as the two notice, the people in bigger cities are faster to cite alternatives like e-books, kindles, online booksellers. “Our experience in smaller towns has been better as far as that is concerned.”

Of course, the physical act of touring on road non-stop for 90 days is exhausting. Mishra, who does the driving, says that the very sight of a woman behind the wheels of a truck gets her enough curious stares. “It is the parking, though, which is the most difficult part. This is a big vehicle and finding a spot to park is incredibly difficult in some cities.” Sometimes, if they have friends in the cities they are visiting, they call in advance asking for advice on locations. Stopping at parks, marketplaces, pavements and bus-stops is also a conscious effort to break the confines of the spaces that books have been limited to and bring them out in the open, where anyone might stop and browse.

It’s almost impossible to ignore a beautiful, colourful truck full of books. Walking Bookfairs has been creating a steady buzz, its name becoming familiar through word-of-mouth and social media. “Lots of people have been calling us, inviting us to come to their towns and cities,” says Rautaray. Along the way, they have also connected with schools, publishers and book-lovers involved in similar projects.

When I talk to the couple, the tour still has Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal left on its list. Once they do reach home, though, Mishra and Rautaray have no plans to stop. “We will keep doing this, maybe in Orissa, maybe nearby. Right now, it’s tough to tell exactly what our next step will be, but we do know that Walking Bookfairs will go on.”

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 4:13:28 AM |

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