Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Under the fast lane, dreams for sale

By Amelia Gentleman International Herald Tribune

NEW DELHI The traffic lights beneath the IIT Gate overpass in southwest Delhi are set to stay red for 92 seconds. Some time ago, in a moment of thoughtful urban planning, a digital monitor was screwed above the lights, designed to let impatient drivers relax by counting down the seconds until they could progress through the junction.

No one can remember when the screen was last working, and the city's commuters are left to vent their fury at the motionless traffic by endlessly hammering at their horns.

The hawkers who weave their way between the stationary cars and rickshaws never looked at the clock anyway: Their working existence is divided into 92- second cycles, and they can sense the disappearing seconds instinctively.

For Dhiraj Kumar, an 18-year-old bookseller, the efficiency with which he uses these minute-and-a-half bursts of activity determines whether he can eat, save money for his younger sisters' marriages, and send enough home to his village in the impoverished eastern state of Bihar to stop the local loan sharks from seizing his family's land.

As the lights turn red, Kumar, with a flick of the wrist, turns a pile of 10 paperbacks into a fanlike display, easily sized up by passing drivers.

In the six months he has been working this patch of dusty asphalt, he has developed a nuanced understanding of the public taste in popular literature. He knows what weary office workers want as they make their way home in the evening.

Sex sells, but not as fast as dream fulfillment; people want to find out how to get rich, how to be enlightened, how to find love. "The Magic of Thinking Big" (David Schwartz, 1959) promises in block capitals on the cover to explain HOW TO TURN DEFEAT INTO VICTORY. Spiritual rather than material self- help comes with another big seller, "The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari" (Robin Sharma, 1999), a fable about REACHING YOUR DESTINY.

Keeping up a fast rhythm, Kumar makes his way methodically from the front of the four-lane traffic junction, knocking on as many car windows as he can. He divides drivers into two categories: "Those who are friendly and encouraging, and those who abuse me and threaten to run me down." Women, he knows now, read more than men; people in expensive cars rarely wind down their windows.

He doesn't have time to discuss the merits of the books with his clients, which is fortunate because he hasn't read any of them. He left school at 13 without learning English and can't even decipher their titles. (He can tell the books by their covers, however, with help from more literate friends.) Is he curious about the contents of the books he is selling? "I've come here to earn money, not to read," he says.

Kumar has no need for these manuals, with their peculiar anecdotes drawn from an alien American society. His own life is a powerful example of ambitious determination in the face of adversity - of precisely the kind that self-help writers feed on.

Successive years of flooding have brought his family in their village in Bihar close to destitution; in desperation his father borrowed 55,000 rupees, about $1,200, last year to try to repair the land.

"The day he took that loan was a turning point in our lives," Kumar says. The new seeds were soon washed away by another violent monsoon, leaving the family with no means of paying back the loan.

"Farming the land barely brought us enough to eat," he adds, and quickly the high interest on the loan doubled the size of the debt. "The moneylender told my father that if he didn't have the money, he should send his sons out to work."

Kumar and his 12-year-old brother, Sindhu, left their parents and three young sisters last year, with 700 rupees between them. They traveled more than a thousand kilometers by train to New Delhi, where they met up with another boy from their village who taught them the principles of the book trade: how to pick out the best sellers at the Daraya Ganj Sunday book market in Old Delhi, where to buy cellophane to protect the volumes from the grime that sweeps along the highway.

Kumar had never visited the bigger cities near his home, but he won't admit to feeling overwhelmed on arrival in the capital. The only thing that alarmed him were the policemen, who periodically stop by to harass the sellers, seizing their takings and their books.

"To begin with I'd waste hours hiding from them," he says, "but then I realized that way I wasn't going to earn enough to eat."

Delhi is home to millions of migrant workers forced to flee desperate rural poverty, and Kumar quickly found his place among them, renting sleeping space on the floor of a room in a block of flats in Ganesh Nagar, eastern Delhi, alongside four other Bihari boys.

Every morning at 8, he squeezes himself onto the crowded 344 bus, joining a dozen other regular sellers at the junction shortly after nine.

Booksellers are near the top of the hierarchy of street hawkers: They run their own businesses, answer to no one, have clean clothes and make respectable profits. They earn about 30 rupees on every book they sell, and hope to sell at least 10 a day. If things go well, each boy sends home about 12,000 rupees a month to their parents.

Their friends who sell newspapers, dusters, flowers and flags look more worn down by their work, and their profits are lower.

Despite their truly destitute appearance, a large family of beggars from Rajasthan, who parade their tearful naked babies through the traffic, earns the most, Kumar says, because of their aggressive persistence. All the other sellers have to pay a daily fee of 20 rupees to the matriarch, who has worked the junction for so long that she regards herself as its proprietor.

Kumar tries to avoid the filthy children, who turn cartwheels as they beg, but he does not resent the family. "They're on the streets, too," he says. "They are in difficulty like the rest of us."

Along the central barrier there are government signs proclaiming, "Clean Delhi Green Delhi," but the leaves of the scrubby bushes by the roadside are blackened with car exhaust.

By 6 p.m. it is getting too dark for people to see the titles of his books, and Kumar pushes his way back onto a crowded bus to go home, exhausted and often coughing, after nine hours spent in the eight-lane traffic beneath the motorway overpass.

The evening before the two boys left home, Kumar's mother told him to "try to live a good life" in the city and to make sure his younger brother got enough to eat. He thinks she would be happy with him, but he wishes he were earning more so the debt could be paid off faster and he could return home.

"In my heart," he says, "I would rather be back in the village, working in the fields."
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