Why don’t Indians Read?

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

A man reading a newspaper at the Jaipur Literature Festival,2013

One of the many ironies of the Jaipur Literature Festival is that hardly  anyone reads in Jaipur. There are no bookstalls worth their name in the Pink City and literature here could be an African side-dish.

I believe  more than 80 percent of the attendees at the Jaipur Literature Festival don’t read  either.  Its well known now that most people  go there to be seen in this merry cerebral carnival. This is not to take  away from the import of the festival itself –which I believe is a wonderful platform not only for writers of all hues but also a great opportunity for interactions and learning for any discerning readers.

But the fact is wherever you may go in India, Indians don’t read.

I believe,  one of the  main reasons why we don’t read in India  is because historically in the East the exploration has  always been within. If you want any answers you looked within rather than without.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Truth is Within: A Buddhist Monk meditates in Sanchi, India

 There is a very interesting story in the Chandogya Upanishad which illustrates this point beautifully.

Once  there lived a 12 year old boy called Svetaketu. His father Uddalaka sent him to a Gurukul of a  learned sage. For  12 years Svetaketu learned all the Vedas, the scriptures and read  all the books available. He became a scholar of great renown. One day the sage  told him he had learnt everything there was to be learnt so he could  go home.

Svetaketu returned home to his father. Svetaketu was proud of his knowledge and could not hide it. This distressed his father.  One day he called his son and said you are a great scholar but do you know that by knowing which everything is known?

Svetaketu was flummoxed. He said he knew the Vedas   and all the  scriptures by heart and had read everything there was to be read.  What do you mean?

The father said there is that by knowing which everything is known and every other knowledge he  had gathered was useless. He told his son to go into a jungle with 400 cattle  and return only after they multiply into 1000.

Svetaketu left with the cattle into a forest. Over the years his pride in his scholarship began to drop. He realized the cattle, the wild animals, the trees and the existence itself  did not give a damn about  what  books he had read and how much he knew. The story goes that one day his pride dropped completely and he became enlightened.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

A Writer at his stall in downtown San Francisco

In the West reading has been a means of expanding the mind. In the East, as Svetaketu’s story shows, the effort has been to ‘drop’ the mind.  In the East scholarship  has always been looked at with distrust. More well read a person more the ego and arrogance.

 I can vouch for the ego bit. There was a time when I was doing a meet- the- author column for a newspaper.  I would meet writers of all sorts and the bigger the writer the bigger was the ego.  You can say the same for scholars and artists.

In India wherever you go, it is a rare sight to see someone read a book. But in the West  its rare to enter a public space and not see someone hunched up over a book. You can see this in almost all countries in  Europe. I travelled all across the US last year and  wherever  I went,  I saw people reading. People there love to read traveling to and from  work in trains, buses and tubes. The New York subway is particularly full of readers. A photographer has documented the New York subway readers in what she calls `New York Underground Public Library. She not only photographs the readers but also identifies the titles and the authors, linking them with the reviews.

 (sanjay austa austa)

And in India meet Laxman Rao - the author of 18 novels who makes his living selling tea from his pavement stall.

A Nation of Newspaper Readers. 

India is a country of newspaper readers.  We read syllabus books as students and as grown ups graduate to reading papers.  But what is fascinating is the phenomenon of newspaper reading in rural and small town India.

People may not have finished  their 5thth grade but you can see them devouring newspapers.  This includes the cobblers, the tea-vendors and even the beggars. Everyone wants their taza khabar. No wonder then that while the circulation of newspapers and magazines in the west is rapidly declining,  in India its on a steady  rise.

As for the  successful Indian writer, its a  a myth created by the media.  In fact in India any book that sells about ten thousand copies is declared a bestseller- a very poor sales number for any writer in the West.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

A roadside mechanic reading the papers in Nagpur, India

But its not just  India. People generally don’t read in the East.  Travelling in Malaysia a few years ago, I did not see anyone read but almost everyone was plugged on to their Ipods. In Singapore it has gotten so bad that many Singaporeans are reporting with serious auditory ailments.

The problem in the East is that unlike Svetaketu  we will never know that by knowing which everything is known mired as we are in rites, rituals  and superstitions.  Over the centuries we have tried but failed miserably in ‘dropping’ the mind.  Our  efforts  has only made us  spiritually and intellectually smug  which I think is a  far worse kind of arrogance. Its best  we read a few books and expand the mind.

Delhi -Kalka Shatabdi readers. March 27 2013. ''Saini's Appointment Upheld : High Court Finds no Fault in Govt. Decision-Making, Dismisses Petition''. (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Delhi -Kalka Shatabdi readers. March 27 2013.

Brahmpuri, Jodhpur. Rajasthan. March 2013. Newspaper: Tisra Pahar. Headline: ''A foreign tourist on her way to see The Taj gang-raped'' (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Brahmpuri, Jodhpur. Rajasthan. March 2013. Newspaper: Tisra Pahar. Headline: ''A foreign tourist on her way to see The Taj gang-raped'' (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Newspaper reading by the tea stall, MP


A newspaper reader in a Wankaner Village. Rajkot District. Gujrat. April 2013. Divya Bhaskar. Headline -''The wildlife researcher who had suggested the shifting of lions from Gir had to run for life''. (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

A newspaper reader in a Wankaner Village. Rajkot District. Gujrat. April 2013. Divya Bhaskar. Headline -''The wildlife researcher who had suggested the shifting of lions from Gir had to run for life''.



36 Responses to “Why don’t Indians Read?”

  1. rohit gautam says:

    It’s worth reading this post and the point of view was very clear.

  2. pinaki says:

    Hi Sanjay went through the piece. Nice read. Some points of departure though! In an heterogeneous society such as ours reading is distributed. East, especially Bengal has a long tradition of reading and writing too. There are some traces of that in Gujarat too.

    The reading and reading habits are perhaps best reflected through the available secondary literature and I think a book shop (read any) kind of reflects that. True we do not read as like the west (which is more of reading on the go) but we do read. In a vibrant and bustling environment of our’s and in general our inquisitiveness to look around refrains most of us from reading in public spaces like metros or stations etc. But I guess we do read. The occasional newspaper to start with!

    The reading of the paper in the villages and the suburban areas are also a interesting set of observation in your piece, which to me seems more of an sense of empowerment emerging in the process.

    In all enjoyed reading.

  3. SM says:

    Loved reading this post & seeing the photos that you strategically placed. I am amazed how you manage to find people like Laxman Rao (the author/tea-vendor mentioned in this post) & Gabbar (the shepherd in MP’s tribal Belt – your Facebook post).

  4. Mukul Sheoproy says:

    Good article Austa!
    I wonder if it has anything to do with a scarcity of good writers who can relate to the poor? Most of the Indan writers of prominence today appeal to the sensibilities of the middle class and upper classes (Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, etc.). Even Arundhati Roy discusses social issues but her target audience is the left wing intellectuals.
    If we had authors like Munshi Premchand today, I wonder if reading would be more prevalent.

  5. Rashmee-Karnad says:

    The pictures as always capture a moment in every person’s story. Also affordability is an issue. I remember years ago in my corporate career the snide remarks about med rep candidates’ reading habits being ‘only newspapers and RD’ . The elite expense account managers who dropped in at Crossword or bought books at airport stalls didn’t see the disparity in these two realities. Pay bills or buy books? Without an equitable public library system, how can literacy become a right?

  6. Radhika Dave-Vora says:

    Lovely article Sanjay! Very insightful

    It kind of makes me wonder, lately I have been reading a lot of Amitav Ghosh and he is so descriptive, but the reason I mentioned him, is because, lately I miss my Indian roots (5 generations out of India, cant seem to take out the India in me). So anyway as i was saying, I miss India, and his books are of an Indian not in India. I find myself missing the characters of the book when I finish reading, that is how much I get attached.

    Sorry I digress much! Anyways so what I was saying is, do you think people will read books when they feel “associated” with the book? Like Arvind Adiga, his books are could be well related to those who live in India. Do think that may want people to read?

    Well either ways, I must say I find it hard to compliment you.. they say a picture speaks a thousand words! Your photographs speak so well and you too are so well articulated! Bravo.

  7. Aleem Shah Mohammad says:

    In my opinion, the sheer bombardment of information/misinformation through Internet & media keeps us Indians in a happy oblivion that we are already “well-informed” and don’t need more. Of course, literary reading is beyond our society. We are too busy getting “successful”, and nothing else seems to matter!

  8. Harsha Swamy says:

    Wonderful article and insight into reading habits. Yes, it is difficult to spot bookreaders in India, but everyone seems to be reading a newspaper. I think we have succeeded in creating a generation of educated illiterates. Most of the reading is confined to newspapers/Internet and we can all swell with pride like ‘Svethakethu’ in gathering information.

    Sadly, the current quest to become global citizens has killed the regional writers, whose books were a testimony to the stories of real India.
    Wonderful photographs accompanying the article.

  9. farah khan says:

    its true,an interesting article.

  10. Vijay Singh says:

    Interesting Article. I have not been to kerala & Bengal but I read that the Kerlites & Bengalies do read a lot. Literature in regional language as well as English is thriving well in kerala. In Maharashtra (where I live) the classics still do good business but for new writers irrespective of the quality of the books….the prints wont go beyond 2000-5000 copies.
    But irrespective of the point you made, I read your article & liked it. Looks like you are a far better writer than the photographer in you (This is a comment on your writing & not on your photography)

    • sanjay austa says:

      HI Vijay. Ya but I am not sure you see them reading books in public transport etc like you see people in other countries.

      • Ankesh Saha says:

        Hi Sanjay,

        I am from bengal and can speak for that place. Reading is part of most of the bengalis daily life. You visit any bengali household and you will find tons of books. You can find good book shops almost every part of Kolkata and I am assuming you must have heard of college street, that entire stretch is full of books shops of all kind. And the point you mentioned about reading in public transport then you might be right, but reason for that is not affinity towards reading rather the unbearable crowd “bheed”. For that matter I have seen people in Kolkata even carrying books in cinema halls and reading it during the vico turmeric ads.

  11. anaam says:

    Dear Sanjay

    This was an interesting read. I agree to most of your observations and opinions but I disagree on the point of “dropping the mind”. Why should we do that? Insights are an amazing source of knowledge and in my opinion we should harness our insights and put them to good use. On the other hand, reading will only add to the whole experience. We should rather think of the two as friends rather than foes.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Hi Suruchi, Thanks for your feedback. ‘Dropping the Mind’ is the core of Eastern Mysticism- which primarily includes Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea is to have an uncluttered mind so one can be fully ‘ aware’ or ‘awake’. 🙂

  12. Akhila Ramaswamy says:

    Nice article sanjay! Maybe it is the lack of good quality vernacular literature why people don’t read anymore.

  13. Akhila Ramaswamy says:

    True, but they don’t get any shelf space and it is only available for those who go looking. I meant to say that good vernacular literature is like a well kept secret which people dont know about and therefore don’t read.

  14. Arun Sawhney says:

    Now I don’t have the statistics but I do believe people in the South read more than us North guys. But I do read a lot own a good collection. Still believe in good old paper, haven’t yet bought a Kindle thing.

  15. Arun Sawhney says:

    I understand that Sanjay. You’ve seen the store at my petrol station. In its heydays I kept a lot of books. I hadn’t been able to manage a local supplier. Had to go to Delhi and walk the length and breadth of Nai Sarak to find books. But what I saw was especially referring to Delhi tourists was the attitude – if kids picked up a book the parent would dissuade the child and ask him instead to pick up eatables. I was hurt as hell. I had to wind up that section. I have inculcated the reading habit in my children. Now to get the good pick of books at reasonable prices I order online from Amazon or Flipkart. Now that’s about me. Yes, atleast in Himachal I have observed that people do read newspapers and are well updated on current affairs. Rather I see not reading books as a reflection of our intellectual limitation.

  16. Shekhar Garhwal says:

    Nice photos!Nice observation!Thank you for introducing myth.They say,’a book doesn’t take you except to the mind of the author’. But do Indians really follow the ‘dropping the mind’ ritual?I mean the ancient ritual.Nah! We are lazy and obsessed with cricketers,movie stars and politicians.So,we lick newspapers.We don’t think just another guy may offer a different perception.West people know,famous people are junkies.So,they try hidden talents.This may help them.First read a lot.Then realize that i am still dumb.Then run for truth.Then west comes to east.And east wants to go west with ipods.

  17. Animesh says:

    Its an apt bit of insight on multiple levels. Svetaketu may have been fortunate, but there is another reality that contributes to this aspect. One of a certain comfort that comes from security. Both economical and physical, found more in the west as opposed to the east Also, as can be seen from the oldest times, a region that’s doing well on these fronts will throw up a bigger mix of intellectuals. Its not to say that they are a minority in a society that’s ‘subjectively’ oppressed. But, the ones that are, are caught up in other struggles and have scant amount of time for these pursuits. There are contrarians to this argument. Russian and German literature that has risen in times of great chaos.

  18. Harshit says:

    Very Nice article mate!!!

  19. JPS says:

    Nice attempt but incorrect.
    Indians read – but only religious scriptures (and associated works) which your piece also illustrates.

  20. Parani says:

    Good post Sanjay,

    That results in Indian edition books which have poor quality print and paper. A book which sells for USD 20 sells here for INR 300. Not a healthy eco-system for an author who shares 6 years of his work or 3 decades of his or her experience.

    But how do we get around this? How do we promote a culture which helps our countrymen into reading? And reading gives way to reflection and analysis, not lead away from it.

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