“During the lockdown I realised, for the first time, that my books are heavy.”

Sitting cross-legged on a concrete slab on Platform Number 1 in a deserted Shyamnagar Railway Station, Dipankar Kundu, 44, tells me of this and other realisations from the Covid 19-induced lockdown in March 2020. The lockdown stopped suburban trains from running between Sealdah and Ranaghat, and put an end to Kundu’s livelihood as well.

Kundu was born and brought up in the BRS Colony, about 30 kilometers outside Kolkata, where he still lives. This colony was a camp set up by the Canadian Government for destitute refugee families escaping from the mass killings in the former East Pakistan in 1970 and 1971. The Kundu family invested its collective capital in a grocery shop in Shyamnagar Market, but their earnings rarely topped the bare minimum required for survival.

During his childhood, Kundu studied at the free government-run primary school. However, he had to drop out in Class Nine when the family split into several fractions. In the aftermath, his part of the family lost their ownership of the shop which had till then been their sole resource.

It was as an adolescent that Kundu developed his addiction to books. Making use of the public library network set up by the Left Front government as part of its programme for community education, he read voraciously, learning to separate good books from trash. When he was 18, he sourced what he called a few “serious books” on credit from a kind publisher, and started hawking them on suburban trains.

And so it was that young Dipankar Kundu became one of the 700-and-odd hawkers who make their living selling anything from pens to peanuts on board the local trains running between Sealdah and Ranaghat. There was no looking back after that.

For the next thirty years, Kundu would sell volumes spanning every conceivable genre to passengers, either travelling in trains or waiting at the platform. Kundu is, arguably, the only one of his kind on the suburban train network in Kolkata. He insists modestly that there are three others too, but his fellow hawkers don’t have the same range. Trading in “heavy” books for a select few is not seen to be lucrative, particularly since the purchasing power of commuters on this particular route is limited. In that sense, then, Kundu has been lucky.

Among the many who have bought his books – and who continue to buy them – are scholars, researchers and like-minded voracious readers who use the local trains. The tea-shops on the platforms are also a regular delivery point. The books are handed out from a fat and heavy bag which serves as Kundu’s mobile bookstore. In case he doesn’t have a volume that customers are seeking, he notes down the title, collects it from the publisher and delivers it on the train the next time.

For myself, when I met Kundu, I picked up – almost at random – Marie Seaton’s extensive analysis of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, titled Portrait of a Director, a 500-plus page Archeological Survey of India publication titled Cave Temples of the Deccan, and a Bengali book on the forced migration of Bengali refugees from Barisal (in Bangladesh) to Bastar.

This lucrative, fluid network came to a grinding halt when India went into lockdown last year. Life became a stark contrast between what it used to be, in pre-pandemic days, and what it was now.

Take, for example, the Rastriya Sanskriti Sangsad. It was the biggest and best stocked bookstall at Naihati Station, but appears to have closed permanently as soon as the lockdown was imposed. Arun Pal, the bookstall-owner at Sodepur Railway Station, is thinking about lending his stall to a tea-vendor if the rent is good enough. He has no idea, however, if this will work out.

As for Kundu himself, his personal income was hit badly by the suspension of suburban trains. Before the lockdown, his monthly earnings were Rs. 15,000. He tried his hand at a number of jobs since then – all of which turned out to be temporary. For some time he sold newspapers and surgical masks. This time, his bicycle served as his mobile shop. The venture was short-lived.

Kundu next tried his luck by enrolling as a labourer at one of the few jute mills that were operational in Kankinara, but his contractor refused to pay his wages. Too proud to stand in a queue to collect food rations donated by NGOs, he and his family were on the verge of starvation by the end of May. It was then that his regular customers came to his rescue. They surmised his condition and pooled some money to deposit in his bank account.

This was a boon, since it allowed Kundu some breathing room, though it was still not enough to send his children back to school. As first generation formal learners, his children – like those of many other hawkers at the railway stations in Kolkata – depend heavily on private coaching. But the lockdown meant that Kundu, for one, had no money to pay for this.

Prachesta – an organisation in Ichapore – has taken many such children under its care, to help them with their studies. Yet, as the lockdown across the country eases, and life begins to find its way back to some kind of new normal a year later, attending online classes remains out of the question for Kundu’s children.

The pandemic has affected the lives of booksellers – and, indeed, of all hawkers – on trains and railway platforms in ways they could not have imagined a year ago. On 23 November 2020, the suburban train network began running again in West Bengal. However, local authorities initially prevented hawkers from getting into trains for fear of spreading the coronavirus.

While they are now back at their regular trade, it is a changed world. For one, the number of commuters opting to take local trains has diminished drastically. With the closure of small businesses, employees no longer need to travel to the city on a daily basis. Educational institutions remain closed, which means that Kundu, for one, is bereft of a large chunk of his regular customers.

Against this backdrop of economic havoc, he is fighting a hopeless battle to keep selling his “heavy” books. Over the years, it has become as much of a passion as it is a profession. So, apart from hawking books, Kundu now works as a courier for a number of bookshops around Shyamnagar and Naihati.

Still, selling books remains his first priority. Early every morning, he leaves for College Street, Kolkata’s famous book-market, to collect school textbooks for bookshops operating in the suburbs. He also collects his own kind of books from College Street and hawks them on his way back.

And so Dipankar Kundu lives his dual life – one to survive, and the other, to live.

All photographs by Joydip Mishra.

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