Today, I had to board a train to Hyderabad from Pune at 4:30 pm. I arrived at Pune station around 3:45 pm in a casual T-shirt, black trousers and formal shoes (A rather weird combination). Since I had almost one hour ahead of me, I decided to stroll around in search of souvenirs for mom.
Not long after, my eyes stumbled upon a middle-aged book seller and since I love reading, I walked towards his stall, smiled at him and began looking at the collection he had to offer, through the corner of my eye, I noticed he didn’t smile back.
He was a serious looking man with a wolverine-like beard and a regular Indian moustache. He wore an unbuttoned khaki shirt over his blue and white striped shirt, resembling a uniform.
“Are these all books original copies?”, I asked in Hindi in order to test his honesty. I knew they were not.
“Yes”, he answered plainly.
“They’re nice, is this stall yours?”
“No, It belongs to the station, i get 10-20 percent commission for selling books” he said after spitting out deep maroon paan.
“Where are you from?”, I asked, noticing his interest level rise. (Why else would he spit out something he had bought just to answer me?).
“Gwalior, i moved here 8 years ago. I’ve been selling books here ever since.”
“Do you read these books?”, I asked, not realising the foolishness of my question.
(How could a railway station book seller from Gwalior read English books like The Alchemist and The kite runner?)
“No.” He said, slightly shaking his head.
I felt I was bothering him so I shifted my gaze back at his books and casually asked him for his name.
“Rajeev Chauhan” he said, not looking into my eyes.
I figured he spat out the paan just because he had to, and not for speaking to me.
I checked the time. It was 4:10 pm. I quickly checked the status of my train on the screen on my left.
‘Hyderabad Express – Platform no. 4’
After five minutes of pushing through the crowd and tripping quite a few times, i reached platform 4, 15 minutes before my train was scheduled to arrive.
To my surprise, i found a similar book stall with similar books arranged in similar style but a relatively younger looking book-seller standing next to it wearing a cheerful smile and a similar khaki shirt over his multi-striped T-shirt. His moustache resembled that of Rajeev Chauhan’s, it was just a bit thinner.
The cheerful book-seller from platform no. 4
Looking at his cheerfulness, I somehow didn’t feel the need to beat around the bush. I straight away asked him where he was from.
“Gwalior, I came here 12 years ago when i was 12″, he replied, looking into my eyes.
I could feel the pride in his voice when he spoke about how long he was selling books there.
“I met another book-seller on platform 1. He is from Gwalior too. His name’s Rajeev Sinha something…Do you know him?” I asked, not knowing I’d made a mistake in recollecting his name.
“Rajeev Chauhan, Saheb, not Sinha, he’s my elder brother, I’m Ramu Chauhan. There are many of us from Gwalior here. I was the one who first came here and later got Rajeev bhai with me as well.”
I replied with a long ‘Oooh’ seeing the coincidence.
“Do you people earn enough by selling books? I mean, this isn’t even your stall, is it?”
“I earn enough to buy myself food twice a day, Saheb, what more could i ask for? I feel that one should stay focused on only one job if it gives them happiness, God takes care of the rest.” he answered, still looking at me.
“Are these all original copies?”, I asked yet again with the same intention.
“No Saheb, They’re not original but they’re readable, have a look”, he said as he pulled out The Alchemist from his stall.
“I’ve read it, I’ve read most of the books you have here, they’re really good”
“Do you read?” I added in haste.
He replied with a bold YES!
“I read whenever i go home, sometimes I read at nights too. The stall and the cloth I’m wearing aren’t mine, the books are, i purchase them myself and i sell them here. I really loved reading The Alchemist, The Secret, and I’ve read all books of Chetan Bhagat too, he writes very well.”
His eyes glittered when he spoke about the books he had read.
“Have you read Dongri to Dubai?” I asked just to keep the conversation going.
“No Saheb, what will a person like me do by reading about the underworld? I feel books can change a person, I fear that if I read something of that kind, i might change into a violent person”
I stood there in awe, admiring his knowledge about books and simplicity about life. I couldn’t believe he could read so well. It’s very uncommon to find railway station book-sellers in India who possess a desire to read and write. He spoke in a mix of North Indian Hindi and an English too good for a man of his profession.
I asked him if his brother, Rajeev liked reading too. He told me that he didn’t but sold books anyway.
We spent 15 more minutes in an absorbing conversation, talking about his life in Pune to his talents. He told me he liked Shaayri (Urdu poetry consisting of 2-4 lines) too.
“Do you manage to finish every book you read?”, I asked, as a part of small talk.
“No Saheb, sometimes i need to sell the book before I complete it, how else will i feed myself? I pay 15,000 Rupees for this stall every month, I wait for the next month and buy that unfinished book again, Saheb”
He paused ” it’s worth the wait, always.” He added, with an innocent smile.
I felt really bad for him the way he said that but I secretly admired the fact that he didn’t appeal for sympathy but in its stead, chose to hide his helplessness by saying it was worth waiting for.
I checked the time. It was 4:40.
“Shit! Did Hyderabad Express leave?!” I cried in fear.
“No Saheb, it’s running late, look at that screen over there.” He said, pointing towards a screen that showed the changed timings. The train was running 20 minutes late.
I sighed in relief and subconsciously admired Ramu’s attentiveness and ability to read.
When my train finally arrived, I asked him if he believed in destiny since he’d told me he had read The Alchemist.
“Saheb” –he began, smiling- “this is my destiny, this place is my home, I prefer it over Gwalior. I open my stall when i want to, I close it when I want to, I’m free here, I’m happy here.”
I smiled at his simple definition of freedom and joy. I thought about how great my lifestyle is. Late night parties, College, and travelling to places and yet I, like everyone else, expect more, complain often and here he was, Ramu, relishing every moment of his life, reading the books quickly in fear that someone might buy them before he completes them, fearing that his books might not sell and stay there, forever. It was ironical. It was different. It was him, being free.
When my train finally arrived, I thanked him for his time to which he said;
“Saheb, you should’ve stayed for at least 2 hours, I would’ve told you much more about myself. It felt good, it felt different”
Lifting my handbag up, I replied with a smile, “We’ll definitely meet again, this is where you belong, we’ll meet right here once i return, it did feel good to have such a chat with you. It really felt different.”
“Also, give me The Times of India newspaper” I said, handing him five rupees.
“No, no, Saheb, take it for free, take it as a gift from my side”
“I really can’t, you take this money, it doesn’t look nice to take it for free”
“It feels different, Saheb”, he said with a grin, “it feels good” he added.
Taking the news paper from him as he playfully gave it to me, i said “Thanks” and shook his hand.
I waved at him from the train and watched him happily disappear into freedom once more.
I spent the entire journey wondering how much change, reading could get into one’s life. How different a person’s attitude can become, how simple, how different, how good.
(Writer of the article Samay is a first year engineering student from Kashmir studying in Pune)