“There is some good in this world Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

— Samwise Gamgee, 'The Lord of the Rings'

Since the beginning of March 2020, we have been in a face-off with the pandemic. As the term “Coronavirus” started getting media attention, the footfall at airport bookshops started to decrease. Gradually, the decline spread to high street stores, before the lockdown came into effect on 25 March.

For the first time in 16 years of my professional life, I didn’t have anything substantial to do apart from checking old work email. I started spending my day by meditating, and catching up with my pile of unread books.

On the fourth day of the lockdown, I went out to get medicines and saw a long queue outside a Delhi government school. I was told the people were waiting to get cooked meals distributed by the government. They had been standing there for four or five hours, stripped of dignity while being exposed to the deadly virus.

By then, the news of exodus of migrant workers was all over social media. It took me no time to realise the gravity of the issue. By the time I got home, my emotions got the better of me. I made up my mind to do something to help the migrant workers. But what could I do with my limited capability? I could not forget the helplessness and embarrassment on the faces of those waiting in the queue for meals, and that’s when I realised people needed food, but it should not come at the cost of their dignity.

Back to the beginning

My parents came to Delhi in the early 1970s from Garhwal, Uttarakhand. I was the youngest among five siblings. As my father was in government service, I spent the first 20 years of my life in a government accommodation in central Delhi. I completed my schooling from Harcourt Butler, a government school founded during the British Raj, but despite the name or its history, we didn’t have much exposure to the English language. Even after finishing school and rigorously trying to enhance my vocabulary, words like “restroom” and “upstairs” were alien to me.

I don’t exactly remember when the dream of becoming a journalist came to me. I had film studies in mind initially. I started preparing for an undergraduate course and secured the eighth rank among nearly 8,000 applicants. But I couldn’t arrange the fees – a mere Rs 20,000 came between me and my dreams. I could have opted for a student loan, but I was just 18, with no guidance.

It took me almost two years to overcome this setback.But one day, I told myself, enough was enough. I took up part-time jobs, like distributing sales pamphlets outside the store of a leading jeans brand at a Gurgaon mall; door-to-door visits to sell newspaper subscriptions; two short stints at cafes, first inside a BPO in Gurgaon and then at one of the Delhi domestic airport’s coffee outlets. Let me tell you it’s not easy to work in a café – there’s too much work, lots of bullying,and then there are always customers screaming at you.

Stepping stone

My journey into the world of books started in 2004, when I became a sales executive with the newly opened Oxford Bookstore at Statesman House in Connaught Place, Delhi. Till then my idea of a bookshop was where I would buy textbooks. This new world of non-academic books was completely alien,and perhaps overwhelming, to me. It was here that I first started reading in English, and a new door opened.

No matter how critically one judges Chetan Bhagat, his novels Five Point Someone and One Night at the Call Centre gave me the confidence to read in a language I wasn’t well-versed in. For that, I will always be indebted to him. My next read was Q&A by Vikas Swarup, which later got adapted as Slum Dog Millionaire for the big screen.When the film was released, I told everyone I knew how the book was much better. I continue to prefer the books over movies.

It was at Oxford that I learnt about books, authors, publishers, distributors, and wholesalers, which helped me crack the interview with Hemu Ramaiah, a lady who transformed organised book retail in India. I was then appointed a merchandiser (in simple words, a buyer) for the new Landmark store in Gurgaon in 2006. This was a much bigger playfield.

The first time I went to the Landmark store at Spencer’s Plaza, Chennai, I thought I had entered a casino. I had been a frog in the well, and frankly the store felt like the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t too difficult to survive in a Chennai-based organisation despite my limited knowledge of English, except I probably did not understand half the things my reporting manager used to tell me over the phone in polished English. I handled buying and replenishment of books from various distributors and publishers across India for five years at Landmark.

My father died in 2007 owing to medical negligence during a cardiac arrest. With that, I had to bid adieu to any plans of quitting my job and joining a post-graduate journalism course. The days at Landmark were tough, with long working hours. I had to work on weekends, national holidays, and even festivals. But they were fun. Since I was the only one from the buying team based in Delhi, it gave me the opportunity and exposure in the book trade I wouldn’t have got otherwise.

Turning point

Then in 2011, I joined Penguin India as a product manager. In a publishing house, a product manager is responsible for the business of its in-house line of books, along with other publishers it exclusively represents. Almost nine years later, I am now a divisional lead of international products at Penguin Random House. I manage the business for PRH USA (adult titles) and books from our distribution partners Hay House, Icon Books and Zubaan.

My job includes deciding what books to sell at what price, how much to import or print locally, where to sell the books,and coordinating with the marketing team to get books promoted and reviewed on different platforms. Annual budgets are assigned to each product line, and my performance is judged on the basis of numbers.

I am also responsible for stock ordering and replenishment for annual rituals such as comic con events, the World Book Fair and the Kolkata Book Fair, preparations for which start from October and keep me occupied till mid-February. In short, after nine years in PRH, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the literary world from behind the scenes.

Face to face

After the lockdown began, and I saw the predicament of migrant workers, which set me thinking about what I could do, I came across the tweets of Dilip Pandey, an old acquaintance whose first book was published by Penguin in 2014,and who is now an MLA from Timarpur, Delhi. Pandey had started his own initiative of distributing dry rations in his constituency.

I contacted him, and he immediately responded and connected me with his team. I bought 220 kg of rations from a neighbouring grocery store, and both the shopkeeper and the driver who came to collect the rations were confused and surprised after learning that I had made the purchase with the intent to distribute them. Before the vehicle had even left, I had made up my mind to send the next batch of supplies at the earliest, and that’s how the idea of crowdfunding came about.

I posted pictures of the first batch of rations on social media and requested my close friends to contribute, along with the details of the next batch I intended to send. I had initially set a target of raising Rs 25,500, based on the amount I’d paid earlier. Honestly, I didn’t expect the figure to cross even Rs15,000. But I ended up collecting Rs 50,000, and thus doubled the quantity. I continued my efforts to raise money for another round, and, with Rs 72,000, sent 1,450 kgs of dry ration sin the third batch of supplies.

I did not expect any more donations,even when my details were widely shared by my friends on social media. To my utter surprise, one morning a veteran bookseller known across the trade for his integrity, generosity, and amicability – and for his Harley Davidson, which he prominently displays at his bookshop – commented on my post.

He promised to donate Rs 1 lakh for my campaign. That was the turning point, and an absolutely unexpected one too. I was able to buy 2,568 kg of rations with this money. As I said before, “There is some good in this world.”

Cries for help

I also started receiving messages from many people who were stranded and helpless. The first one was from a man of a large family of eight in Lucknow with three children. When I called back, he told me that he worked as waiter in a local restaurant, and as the restaurant was closed, he was out of work and left with no money. In a broken voice, he said, “We have not eaten anything since last evening as there is nothing left to eat.”

I was numb for a few moments, hearing the desperation in his voice. It was heartbreaking to think that a man was asking a complete stranger for help. I asked him to find a nearby grocery store with an online payment facility. He found one, and I quickly transferred the money so that he could get the rations.

He passed my number to his colleagues. I tried to help a few on my own; for others, I contacted local support groups in Lucknow. Another call came from Jaipur, from a man who worked at a sari showroom that had been shut for over a month. He requested for rations along with some milk for his two small children. “Reduce the quantity of rations if you want, but please add some milk,” he pleaded. He asked me not to disclose his identity on social media. “We are helpless but not beggars.”

The third call came from a family in South-East Delhi’s Jaitpur area. Eventually, my number was circulated in the entire mohalla, and I received over 50 calls. I wrote down the details of every family and helped them either by buying them rations or by passing on their details to a local social worker. The calls and messages never stopped.

The horrifying fact was that most of them were from what we would ordinarily call middle-class families – Kashmiri students in Jaipur with requests to get their LPG cylinder refilled; a single mother of two in Jaitpur requesting rations; an online re-seller in Dashrathpuri, Delhi, asking for rations as well as for someone from the government to speak to his landlord who had been harassing him to pay the rent even in this period.

A weekly magazine mentioned my campaign in a story on similar initiatives from different parts of India, and it got a remarkable boost. I connected with some NGOs and groups working in the field too. I had calculated the cost of rations for a family of four, and turned it into the theme for my campaign: “Contribute Rs.1177 to sponsor dignified meals for a family for a month.” Gradually, I started sending sanitary pads and milk powder, and snacks, biscuits and nimbu-paani for migrants walking back home on the highways.

The campaign has collected about Rs 8 lakh so far, with which I have procured nearly 14,200 kg of dry rations and packs of 2,000 sanitary pads. The campaign is now listed on the crowdfunding platform Ketto, and I have been receiving many messages from foreign nationals and NRIs who wante to contribute.

Friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, authors and booksellers have all contributed generously and helped spread the word. Over 40% of donations have come from people I didn’t know personally. One elderly gentleman went all the way to his bank to transfer some money to my account.

Learning never ceases

As the retail price of rations is 25%-30% higher than wholesale prices, I began to reach out to wholesalers and manufacturers directly, and used my work experience to bargain for better prices. I learned that business-minded local grocers sometimes charged higher prices even though they knew of my cause. One didn’t accept UPI transfers initially, making me walk about 6 km at least five times to an ATM.

Those were the days when policemen were generously and indiscriminately using their batons on people walking on the roads without asking questions. I had a narrow escape on one occasion. As James Clear says in his bestselling book Atomic Habits, if you keep doing something regularly for more than 21 days, it becomes a habit. I think the habit of exploitation certainly doesn’t differentiate between the festive season and a pandemic.

Now that the lockdown has been lifted in most parts of the country, both online and brick and mortar bookshops are back in business again. Imports have also been resumed. The PRH India warehouse is operational, most distributors have restarted, and things are gradually heading back to normalcy. However, because of my work-from-home mode, my room has become my war camp. I may not be able to continue this campaign in the same way as earlier, but I have pledged to help every single person who reaches out to me for any kind of assistance.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.