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From an Historian’s Notebook: The Progressive Bookseller

We sat together in Calcutta at the dining table of the old crumbling 1920s house in which we then lived, my progressive bookseller and myself,
russian literature
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I don’t think I ever knew his name: my first encounter with the tall, thin man with the light trousers, half-sleeved shirt, slight slouch and leather slippers, carrying a large bag on one shoulder, trudging along the city’s streets in the late afternoon sun, and proclaiming his wares in a not-too-loud, almost apologetic chant— books, progressive books, Soviet books, was on a very hot May afternoon, when the tar had turned to a black chewing-gummy glutinous paste on the streets’ surface. I had never, before I saw him for the first time, heard that chant before, in Calcutta, a city known for its street cries and itinerant vendors. After a great many years, I can still reproduce a number of those cries, now mostly extinct— “Chotiii! Bhanga chura goyna sharai! Knacher glass! Stainless steel!” And the ubiquitous “Bikriwalla!” The vendors of slippers, menders of jewellery, purveyors of glass tumblers or stainless steel goods, and the buyers of all manner of junk, attested to a universe before what came to be known as ‘liberalisation’: some of these characters survived into the new era in straitened circumstances. But books, sold door to door? I hadn’t heard of that before.

I have the books I bought from him before me now, on a nearly-as-hot Berlin afternoon, the whir of the electric fans and the warmth of the afternoon breeze eerily evoking a city far away, and yet sharing the same books, in different languages: English and Bengali for Calcutta, German and Russian for Berlin. The converted telephone booth for free books at the bottom of my street sometimes throws up specimens of this separately-shared era of Soviet books: my child’s copy of illustrated Ukrainian folk tales in English and the second-hand copy of the same book in German that I was too restrained to take with me since I had one already (and I have regretted not picking it up ever since). This morning, gulping in my first cup of coffee on the balcony, I thought of my short-lived friendship with the man whose name I have forgotten, and I took down from the shelves of my much-migrated library three books that I know I bought from him. Two are by Gogol, ‘Dead Souls’ (1987) and ‘The Government Inspector’ (1989), Raduga Publishers, Moscow. The third is a compilation of Lenin’s writings ‘On Culture and Cultural Revolution’, a 1978 Progress Publishers edition bought, according to my own scribble in the book, in 1991.

dead souls Nikolai Gogol
'Dead Souls' was one of my first purchases.

On that first occasion of our meeting, the now-nameless bookseller and I, we were at the edge of the disappearance of a world. On 9th November 1989, ironically and unrememberedly the anniversary of the German revolutionary republic of 1918 and the Nazis’ 1938 pogroms that they called Reichskristallnacht, the Berlin Wall was no longer a wall. We appear to have met in 1990 or 1991, shortly after the West German state took over the East German one, and shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev went into retirement, a metonymy for a bottle of vodka took over the leadership of the Russian Federation, and the universal victory of Freedom was proclaimed worldwide. We sat together in Calcutta at the dining table of the old crumbling 1920s house in which we then lived, my progressive bookseller and myself, discussing these changes in the world. He had been in the bookselling business for a number of years, I remember and had only recently taken to selling door to door. But the supply of Soviet books was drying up. The cheap English language translations of Russian classics would last for a while and perhaps be pirated or reprinted by one or other of the Indian communist parties whose bookshops still stocked a few copies. The larger compendia of works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, or Vladimir Lenin, would be discontinued, but the more commonly-known works like the ‘Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’, and perhaps even all three volumes of Marx’s ‘Capital’, might well be reprinted by Indian Party presses. That, at least, was his prognosis. He himself didn’t see much future in what he did: he’d continue to sell what he had in stock, and to restock what he thought he could sell (the Russian classics would be a better bet in the changed political circumstances, and the children’s books, as well as, perhaps, the science primers, which were notoriously better-written than Indian or other imported textbooks). But sooner rather than later, he’d be out of a job and be searching for something new to do. He was married and had a child, and he’d have to try and provide for the family.

As to his politics, I didn’t really get much of a sense of what they were. He was broadly progressive, as he’d have to have been to obtain and to do his job. He was for socialism and socially cohesive policies; against American Imperialism; he believed that foreign consumerism would corrupt the Indian nation. More I cannot tell; nor would I remember it across the distance of so many years. I do remember several visits by him and several cups of tea drunk together, several conversations, and an increasing volume of Soviet-published Russian classics in my bookshelves (did I ever finish a Tolstoy novel?), owed partly to my enhanced income as a freelance contributor to a newspaper, but more so to the soon-to-end low pricing policy of Soviet publishers, and what I know now in retrospect to have been probably distress-driven discounts for his customers. We spoke to each other as if our little bubble of a world-that-had-ended-elsewhere was still ours: in more auspicious times, we’d probably have disagreed a lot more. I’d like to believe that the last book I bought from him was the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, but that’s probably a deliberately false memory. And I don’t think I ever called him Comrade, nor he me.

We appear to have met in 1990 or 1991, shortly after the West German state took over the East German one, and shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev went into retirement, a metonymy for a bottle of vodka took over the leadership of the Russian Federation, and the universal victory of Freedom was proclaimed worldwide.

Then one day, after the customary buying and selling of books had taken place, and the usual cups of tea had been drunk, he asked me an embarrassed question: could I, perhaps, give him an advance on my next purchases? How much?, I asked. A few hundred rupees, perhaps, he replied. He sounded doubtful, as if he was doing something incalculably damaging to his conscience. I’m good for a thousand, perhaps fifteen hundred, I replied: I’d been doing some writing of late, and was feeling rich, and, still living in my father’s house, I had very few recurrent expenses (it wasn’t a small sum back then). Fifteen, he said slowly, that’s a lot of books. Yes, I said, but there’s no hurry. 

There was a longish silence. All right, he replied. Fifteen. Thank you, that’s very helpful. He stood up, as if to indicate that to speak again was unbearably painful. He looked up at me and looked me in the eye and then he looked down again. I’ll see you soon, he said, and we both knew we would never see each other again. I hope the new era was at least a little kind to him.

Notes:

  1. Chotiii! Bhanga chura goyna sharai! Knacher glass! Stainless steel!” And the ubiquitous “Bikriwalla!”- Street cries in Bengali by sellers and menders of things. 
  2. Raduga Publishers– Russian publishing house specialising in children’s books
  3. Progress Publishers– Moscow-based publishing house known for Leninist Marxist books in English language.
Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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