Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Seller of Pirated-Books

The illegal but very open business of selling pirated books fascinates me. I think it is terrible that the entire publishing industry (authors, editors, publishers) is being subverted by the makers of pirated editions. But I seem to be in the minority here, because all these roadside sidewalk vendors are doing very good business. The authorities who should be cracking down on it are ignoring it, and people who should know better are buying the books.

I met one young vendor in Matunga in Mumbai who was surprisingly open about his business. Amidst all his shrink-wrapped pirated books, I spotted an original non-pirated hardbound version of the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol.
“How much is that?” I asked more out of curiosity than a desire to purchase.
“Oh, that is an original copy. I can only sell it for 590 Rupees.” That was quite a bit more expensive that the pirated books which typically cost 50 Rupees or less.
“How about that one?” I was pointing at Chetan Bhagat’s latest book – 2 States. My wife and I had been to the author’s book launch in Mumbai just the previous week and I was surprised that it had already made its way to the roadside vendors.
“The cost is 95 Rupees. I can give it to you for 85.”
“Is that an original copy?”
“Yes, it is.” He then explained to me that the pricing was such that making pirated copies was not immediately necessary.

The publishers, Rupa & Co, have cleverly priced it at 95 Rupees, an amount the buyers didn’t mind paying. When it comes to books priced at 300 Rupees or more, many of the same buyers don’t seem to mind buying pirated copies instead.

The vendor then went on to say, “That is a very new book. It takes 2 months to make the copies and get them to us.”
“Where do the copies of the books get printed?” I asked because I have always wondered.
That was the only time he hesitated and didn’t give me a straight answer. I let it go.

“Are you from Bengal?” I asked him, because I thought I detected his accent.
“No sir,” he said. “I am from Bihar.”
“You have a very impressive collection of books,” I said, which was true. Though they were all pirated books he seemed to carry a good cross-section of the bestselling books from India and the US.
“I have been in the business for 9 years now,” he said. “So I know what sells and I stock only those.” On his own, he then said that he could name all the Chetan Bhagat books, in the order in which they had been published. He named all 4 as proof of his claim. He said he also knew all the books by Robin Sharma, and all the other bestselling authors as well.
“If someone wants children’s books, I can give them those. If someone wants a stock market book, I know which books to offer even if I don’t have what they are asking for.”

“How do you know about all these books? Can you read English?”
“No I can’t. But I know the covers.”
He was obviously a smart man. Thinking that a working knowledge of English would help him I asked, “Why don’t you learn English? Are you not interested?”
“Very interested, sir. But I have no time. I set up my shop at 10am and I am here till 10pm, sometimes 11pm. I work all seven days of the week.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trust and Distrust in Currency Notes

I witnessed a very small interaction at the Pune railway station while waiting in queue to buy a train ticket. It was a very ordinary incident, but it reminded me that there is a very thin line between trust and distrust, and one can become the other very easily.

By way of background, I should mention that people here in India are extremely wary of accepting 1000 and 500 Rupee notes. There is a widely-held belief that a good number of counterfeit notes are circulating in India. Therefore, vendors will spend a lot of time carefully looking at the note, feeling it, and scrutinizing the watermark against the light before they accept either of the 1000 or the 500 Rupee denominations.

In Pune, after a longish wait to buy train tickets, I was second in line. The man ahead of me handed a 500 Rupee note. The person at the ticket counter spent a good while checking it and refused to accept it. He wanted another note. The man ahead of me, who was wearing dusty clothes and looked to be a day laborer, said he didn’t have any other currency notes.
“Then go and get another note. I can’t accept this,” the ticket vendor said.
“Where will I go, saab? No will give me change. The train will leave.”
Meanwhile the other people in the queue were getting restless and started to murmur.
“Where did you get this note? Where do you work?” the ticket vendor asked.
The man said he worked in a construction site nearby.
“Do you have a mobile phone?”
“Yes, saab.”
“Give me the number.” The laborer rattled off a number, and the ticket vendor wrote it on the 500 Rupee note. Only in India have I seen people freely writing on currency notes. The ticket vendor didn’t do anything to verify the phone number or the identity of the person, but his distrust had somehow morphed into trust. Satisfied, he issued a train ticket and gave the man his change.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lessons in Hotel Management

R. Panwar looked to be very young, but he was the hotel owner. We had ended up at the SK Hotel’s restaurant in Gangotri because we desired a change in our breakfast fare. His restaurant had a huge menu compared to the typical options we found in most other restaurants throughout Uttarakhand.

That is also where we ran into the owner, a very young-looking man named R. Panwar. He was very customer-oriented. He invited us in and said that he could make anything on the menu. True to his word, he was able to make for us eggless western pancakes (not dosas, he assured us) which he served with ginger tea.

The only other group that morning was a group of three young French-speaking backpackers who were finishing up their breakfast. Panwar’s restaurant doubled as a shop that also sold food for those trekking to the Gomukh glacier.

His inventory included every imaginable brand of soda cans, trail mixes, Barilla pasta, pasta sauces, Iced tea, Red Bull, noodles, Pringles and numerous other East European cookies and biscuits I didn’t recognize. Anyone from the US or from Europe would have been able to find the things they missed from back home. His shop was extremely well-stocked. Gangotri is literally the end of the road, but from everything that was on sale, we could well have been in a big city.

When I asked him how he came to become the owner of this hotel, he narrated his life story.

He said that he had no background in the hotel industry. He had joined the army after school, as a temp. He was hoping to become permanent in the army. He hadn’t liked it there, though the pay and the food was good. An old man in the army, who had seen what happened to those who served in it for too long had advised him to get out before it was too late. Heeding that advice Panwar left his army job.

Since he had learned how to cook in the army, he had started working as a cook in a hotel in Gangotri. He observed, studied the business and talked to the tourists. In a few years, he became the manager. He made friends with tour guides, who steered visitors to his hotel. In time, he borrowed money and slowly worked his way up to owning one hotel.

You have to listen to what the tourists say and look for what they want, he said, imparting his lesson in hotel management. He had paid special attention to what the foreign tourists wanted and had provided that. Business picked up steadily.

“Even though the tourist season is only 6 months, I am able to save 5 to 7 lakh (rupees) each year,” he volunteered proudly. (That is about USD 10,000 to 14,000.)

With the money saved, he had recently opened one more hotel. He got out a map and showed us where it was.
“Why did you build the hotel in Chinyalisaur?” I asked him. It was a town I hadn’t heard of, and it was over 150 kms from Gangotri.
“I considered opening in Uttarkashi. But it already has too many hotels. The Chinyalisaur area is only now being developed. The Government has just opened a GNBV guest house there. I have built one right next to that, hoping that the tourists will come. It’s a really beautiful area.”
“Who runs your new hotel?” I asked him.
He said had appointed a trusted employee as his manager there.

It was getting to be time for us to leave. So I asked him one last question, something that I am always curious about. “How do you ensure that your employee, your new hotel’s manager, doesn’t cheat you and keep some of the money for himself?” I asked because in India we rarely received receipts for many of our hotel stays and I could never be sure who ended up pocketing our money.

That’s when Panwar gave me the Indian Hotel Owner’s version of speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick.
He said that he had full trust in his employee and that these people (he called them paharis – mountain people) were by nature very loyal and honest. They didn’t cheat like the “city people.” But he was also holding on to six months of back pay for his employee. And he had his father or his brother, who stayed near the new hotel do surprise spot checks late at night. They would compare the number of rooms occupied to what the register showed. And if they found even one instance of cheating, then he lost an entire six months of pay. Thus Panwar made sure that cheating a little wasn’t worth the big loss of pay.

We paid up and I wished him the best for his new hotel and left.