Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ghost Stories and Second-Hand Books

Sunil K Poolani

Fame comes in multifarious ways: business, showbiz, philanthropy, politics, activism, crime, notoriety… you name it. With most ways, money eventually follows and you buy space to remain in the limelight. But is that enough? Not so, if some current trends are anything to go by.
An interesting and rewarding avenue has now been thrown open to failed authors and hacks in the till-now serpentine and serendipitous corridors of chaos and confusion — over how to make big bucks speedily. Many nouveau riche heroes of recent success stories want to immortalise their lives, good or bad, in book format. But there is a snag. How do you do it if you can’t write a line in English to save your life? Get a ghost writer.
There have been ghost writers in the last decades (mainly assigned by corporate houses; sorry, no names), but it was only in the last five-to-ten years that the aspirant ‘writers’ wanted to pen ‘their’ works using outside help. There are three types of ‘writers’ here, though.
One, biographies, written by somebody who possesses some kind of knowledge about the subject’s life and the work s/he is related to. Two, as-told-to pieces, where the real writer only has to have a perfunctory understanding of what s/he is writing about (so the credit goes something like this: ‘George W Bush with Jack the Ripper’). And three, where the writer is the ghost writer of the purest form (no one would ever come to know that who really wrote the book as there is an agreement signed between the subject and the real author).
Last heard in Mumbai: a failed actor and a realty tycoon have planned to write “their own” autobiographies. And, voila, a bahu of a big business empire, too, is writing a novel, and has paid a ghost writer a great deal of money to do the honours.
So, cheer up. The grass is greener here, you failed writers.

They may be second-hand, but definitely not second-best. We’re talking books here. Mumbai’s obsession with old and rare books is now at its peak. I have come across the most amazing collection of books on Mumbai’s pavements, and the prices are unbelievably reasonable. For instance, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the first prints of H G Wells’ works, which I don’t think I could find anywhere else in the world. Here I found not only reprints, but also first editions, for just Rs 125 each. It’s amazing.
The demand for second-hand and rare books went up by around 50 per cent in the last one decade. Sample some of the gems that have changed hands, courtesy the intelligent raddiwalas: 1) Complete bound issues of National Geographic and Playboy magazines from the date of their inception — Rs 50 for a 12-volume set; 2) the first prints of James Joyce’s unabridged and uncensored Ulysses — Rs 50 each; 3) an early 19th century biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji by an unknown Marathi author — Rs 200; 4) an original copy of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — a mere Rs 5.
Incredibly cheap, one would say, but these books find their way into the international markets, including major auction houses in London, the city of book-lovers, where sometimes a single title could fetch the occasional buyer-seller a fortune. And the books that find their way outside are not just rare books published in India (in languages as varied as Pali, Sanskrit, Mythili and Chentamil), but books published from practically every nook and cranny of the world.
The roads in and around Flora Fountain are the biggest delight of second-hand book buffs — though the sellers were banned from hawking a couple of years ago, they have just come back, mercy. In a stretch of about two kilometres — on which educated, Shakespeare-quoting street vendors have hawked books for the past 20-30 years — around 200,000 books are up for grabs. Every day. About 80 per cent of them are used books. All types are available here: fiction, non-fiction, technical, non-technical, you name it, you grab it.
Now, it is not just individual collectors who are throwing their hat into the ring. Big corporate houses and hotels are also stacking up old and rare books — of course, in good condition, and preferably gold-rimmed — in their showcases. The money at stake here is definitely higher.
Predictably, several of these collectors’ items are found in bad condition — due, in the main, to poor handling (even in bookstores) and weather conditions — so, they require professional retouching, which itself is a business on the rise, but that is another story, and will save for another day.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Poolani
This morning I read your piece on 'ghost stories and second hands'. I agree with you that the world of second hands is very much flourishing in India.
As an example, while Mumbai has its Flora Fountain, Delhi has its Cannought Place especially on Sundays when bargains can be had for a song. In Chennai, there is a unique book shop, of course, second hand run by a near naked man who refusdes to wear a shirt. No one really knows how he established a bookshop permanently on the footpath. Even the police or the civic authorities were unwilling to evict him. He was( the last time I visited the Mylapore locality was in 1998 and he was very much there.) I have lost count of the number of books that I bought from him. In Bangalore, where I live now, we have the Select Bookshop which specialises in old books since more than 40 years.
I am sure there must be many an old curiosity shop in other cities and towns of India... since fortunately neither the tv nor the internet has been able to replace the book and Indians certainly have proved faithful to the printed word.
Just a word about myself. After seving the print media for 40 years, I have retired myself to writing. My last book appeared in early 2007. It was published by the Writers Workshop, Kalkota as all other publishers were not willing to publish it.
Anyway, it was nice reading your column. I enjoyed it.
Somnath Sapru (

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil
My two cents on your piece on ghostwriting DC today ..... it can be good too. good for people who want to say something but cant write it. good for people who feel so strongly about something but cant say it the way the world would like to see it packaged. good for people who see so much meaning in someone else's life that can help transform thought and they can be the vehicle. good for doing something meaningful outside our own sphere as in my family, my home, my place .... gets a ghostwriter living, breathing, dreaming, celebrating someone else's glory, joy, sorrow, accomplishments, ...... a lil bit of otherness in these self-absorbed times.
I am persuading a friend of mine to write about her mother who has made her the gutsy achiever that she is today. i saw tears of immense admiration for the woman who brought her to life. she wants to say so much and asked me to write it for her. i told her if she writes it down just as she told it all to me, it would make better stuff than my words there. the matter rests here. i have given her time to think about it - if she wants to share her mother with the world. should i pressure her into taking that step - by offering to write? maybe its that that is keeping her silent - when i know her whole being is wanting to go out and say it? have also offered to do a short film - other mothers and daughters may take a leaf out of this remarkable woman. no parody of the grassroots suffering poor. nor is it the poor lil rich girl. just an un-everyday mother in an everyday household.
just felt like saying this - that there's a lofty angle to the ghostwriter too. may bring out many more voices - beautiful ones from out there .....
i'm no proven writer like you. your language is a toast. a fan of Bill Kirkman's column in The Hindu. and Art Buchwald's way of speaking the truth. the surprisingly good syntax in a comic strip, Bill Watterson's as in calvin & hobbes. the world is a happening place bless them all .....
switching, on second thoughts, i think i can like bombay for that street that hosts used books ... hmm..... paradise gained!
Uma Chandrasekaran (

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,
Greetings. I live in Madurai. My name is R.Sridharan. I have been writing under the name of Varalotti Rengasamy for the past ten years. I have published more than 200 short stories and articles in English and Tamil. My stories have been published in mags like Womans Era, Allive, Deccan Herald and leading Tamil mags like Anandhavikatan, Kumudam etc. Many of my stories have been translated into other South Indian languages and published in leading mags.
I am a chartered accountant by profession.
In Madurai we don't get the Decccan Chronicle. But when I go to Chennai or Bangalore, I do not miss to read it. Especially your syndicated column. I have been thinking that publishers are souls without humour; but you shattered my myth in a very pleasant way.
I googled your name and read an interesting account of yourself written by you.
His major worries in his life are his liver, Archana (wife), Julie (dog) - of course not in that order - and he loves all of them though he abuses them at certain times.
I was laughing uncontrollably reading the above lines sending shivers through the spine of my wife who has been observing my sitting before the system and laughing aloud for no obvious reason.
I also came to know that you have an aim of publishing at least one book a month. I have a 50000 word novel to be published. It is ready. I already tested it by publishing it as a serial in a website which has more than 30000 members. The novel was a hit there earning me rave reviews and great friends. If that's published as a novel I am sure at least a thousand ladies will surely buy the book.
Will you be interested in the proposal? What do you want me to send - a synopsis, my CV or the whole script in one go?
With Love,
Varalotti Rengasamy (