At the New Delhi World Book Fair

The New Delhi World Book Fair finished on 22 February. Sayoni Basu writes about the platypus experience.

This was the first time that Duckbill was at the New Delhi World Book Fair as Duckbill (we had been represented by Westland earlier). We shared a stall with Karadi Tales (small independent impoverished publishing houses run by women unite!) and the experience was exhilarating and exhausting.

Everyone nowadays has ‘learnings’ from experiences but that is not a real word, so we refuse to use it. And ‘takeaways’ are just for food. So bring you our platythoughts (because that is a real word) fresh from Pragati Maidan.

1. People loved our books.

We rejoice. Because, like anyone else who creates things, one sometimes has doubts. And worries. And wonders if one is being self-indulgent in creating things one loves. But our worries were laid to rest. People loved our books, wanted our books, bought our books. Many lamented that they had not seen our books before and they rejoiced at finding us. School librarians bought bunches. We were happy platypuses.

2. People liked our crates.

We had—impoverished publishers are also improvising displayers—displayed our books in hand-painted crates made from recycled wood. People wanted to buy them. We asked them to buy the books instead. They took photos of the crates to make bookshelves. They also wanted to buy our ladder, for displaying the hOle books; our rugs and the little baskets in which we kept miscellaneous items on the billing counter. It was good, but a trifle strange.

3. Many myths were busted.

a. Indian teenagers do not read Indian YA fiction.
Maybe it was only the sampler who visited our stalls, but they bought them with glee. And many had read the YA books we had published.
b. Age groups are all important in children’s publishing.
‘What age is this book for?’ is a question we were frequently asked, and while we could answer this confidently at the start of the fair, by the end of it we were totally confused. For we had seen six-year-olds confidently read books we thought were roughly for a thirteenish age group, and twelve-year-olds joyfully pick books we had thought were for six-year-olds.
c. Indian adults do not, by and large, read children’s books.
‘Why don’t you buy this for yourself?’ we would ask customers who came in without kids, or who were longingly looking at books which their kids were not interested in. And a fair proportion of them did. This was a revelation.

4. Families are strange units.

There were some delightful families, where parents wanted books and kids wanted books, and happy conversations (and purchases) ensued.

Otherwise, it was usually one or the other. Parents who loved to read and wanted to buy for their kids were accompanied by sulky kids who wanted Rubik’s Cubes. And we would have to explain that it was perfectly okay if their kid did not want to read, and they should not force their child.

More tragic, and heart-wrenching for us, were kids who really really wanted to buy books, but the parents would tell them sternly to buy educational books. There was one little girl who came to our stall four times and really wanted to buy two particular books. Twice alone, once with her brother (‘Kya karegi inka?’ he said) and finally with her mother. The mother, who was carrying many bags bearing the logos of academic publishers, needed a lot of convincing but she agreed to buy her one after a lot of negotiation. And then she bought one of our books for herself, with not a second thought. Why not get the poor daughter her other book too? There were several kids like this, who came over and over, pleaded with their parents, but often to no avail. When will parents realize that reading fiction is an admirable activity?

5. There are many kinds of books.

There was someone who walked into our stall and asked, ‘You have only reading books?’ While we pondered on what other kinds of books there could be, he explained, “You don’t have colouring books?’

Then there were the two librarians from a school.
Librarian 1: ‘Jaya ma’am, idhar se books lete hain, look interesting!’
Librarian 2: ‘Nai, storybooks hain.’

We always knew that many Indian children and young adults read classics, but we did not realize how deeply embedded they are in the mindset of some readers. Three teenagers looked at the author photos we had on the walls. ‘Your authors are so young!’ they complained and walked out.

And then there were people who just doubted why fiction existed. Like the lady who told us that we should only publish the real words of real people. When we argued that fiction was that as well, she said we must find the true connections between people—what connected her amla to our amlas. We will never look at the Indian gooseberry in the same way again.

6. There are many kinds of fellowships.

It is not possible to spend nine hours a day for nine days in the same place without making lots of new friends. And a strange kind of fellowship binds the disparate people who spend this time together. Our little corner in the children’s hall was a motley mixture of book publishers (Duckbill, Karadi, Tara, Dolphin Press), stationery sellers, toy sellers, CD sellers and printing machines. But while we sat and waited for customers, we shared stories and cupcakes, stapler pins and markers. We had our own cleaning lady; we had our tea supplier—it became a little home away from home. And every morning as we untied the curtains that were to protect the stalls (from angry monkey infestations? from the evil eye?) and at night when we hung up our curtains again, there were many exchanges of tales of joy and woe.

For a small publishing company, the fair is a fabulous opportunity. A handful of people knew about Duckbill earlier, now hopefully it is an armful. And above all, it was just much fun to see people interact with our books.

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2 comments

  1. I wheeled my son’s pram into your stall hoping to find more books for him. Or at least that was the plan. I walked away with two Karadi books for him and six Duckbill books for myself. Happy baby, happier Amma!

    I loved how you pointed out children’s books that you thought I might like (my 2 yr old only wanted his cheese slices and your chocolates). Vanamala and the Cephalopod was lovely, and now I’m torn between moving on to Flat – Track Bullies and reading The Vampire Boy for the third time.

    Looks like I’ll be the Duckbill fan here until Jr is a few years older 🙂

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