Sunday, October 11, 2015

Tracks of Time: The Wheeler story

Coming to railway stations always excites me, primarily for one thing; the fact that I can visit the book stalls there and get submerged in the world of my favourite books. As a child, I remember coming to the Howrah station and sauntering towards one particular bookstall that would keep all the gleaming new comics that I could ever dream of having. I named it and they had it. Chacha Chaudhary, Tinkle, Archies, Nagraj; they had it all. With time, the name of the bookstall got slowly ingrained in my system- AH. Wheeler. That name has had such a profound impact on my psyche that now, whenever I enter any Indian railway station, the first thing I automatically do is to scour for an A.H. Wheeler bookstall. In fact, such is the ‘Wheeler effect’ on me, that whenever I am traveling in a train and it passes through a station, I crane my neck to peep at any Wheeler bookstall that might be in it.

About a month back, I visited the Howrah station again after almost two years. True to habit, like I always do, I chose a place right near my favourite bookstall to keep my luggage. And then, I immediately scurried towards the Wheeler bookstall to gaze at the wonderful assortment of books they kept. I could notice now that besides comics, this bookstall also had a wide array of books- bestsellers, classics, magazines, newspapers, children’s books, et al. However, I deliberately ignored all the others and brought myself a couple of Tinkle Digest magazines; perhaps as a tribute to my childhood. 

The A.H. Wheeler bookstall at the Howrah Station, Kolkata, West Bengal

As I sat in the waiting lounge, browsing through the contents of the comic book, a thought suddenly dawned on me. I wondered that despite being attached to Wheelers for so long, I knew nothing about it. Surely, A.H. Wheeler too has a story; its own history laced with interesting facets. I hence decided to dig deep.

A.H. Wheeler- the beginning

The seeds of the birth of Wheeler took germ way back in the late 19th century. A Frenchman named Emile Moreau came to Allahabad and spent a lot of time in the railway station there; observing people and noticing how they would always be on the lookout for finding books, magazines and journals. Moreau had a passion – of reading and collecting books. He then came up with the idea of setting up a small bookstall at the Allahabad railway station in the 1870s. The ‘stall’ here was just a sheet; where Moreau kept his own personal collection of books and sold them at less than half the price of the originals. Little had he thought that his idea would become such a tremendous hit. As profits splurged, Moreau then set up a proper bookstall to house his wide collection of books at the same station in the year 1877. He named the company A.H. Wheeler; named after a popular London book-store chain. There was no looking back after that.

A.H. Wheeler slowly made its name throughout the country. People from all walks of life would throng the bookstall to grab the rare copies of books that was very hard to find those days. Such was the popularity of Wheeler that budding writers found it an ideal platform to showcase their talent to the country. In fact, not many would know this, but even the great author Rudyard Kipling’s first book, The Story of the Gadsbys, was sold by A.H. Wheeler.

Wheeler, hence, became a renowned name in a very short span of time and soon they stretched their network to different cities and their railway stations across the country. In 1899, Moreau, called in an exuberant Bengali youth named Tinkari Kumar Banerjee; who had been working thus far in the Wheeler’s Kolkata division (but was born and brought up in Allahabad). Impressed with the young man’s efficiency, Moreau asked Banerjee to continue work from their Allahabad office. Thus came the defining moment in Wheeler’s history.

Within a few years, Banerjee rose through the ranks to become one of the partners of the company in 1922. However, when Wheelers was raking in the moolah, Emile Moreau decided to leave the country in 1937; due to falling health. Unfortunately, Moreau died three years later in 1940. But not before he had transferred his Goodwill Partnership in the name T.K. Banerjee who thus became the sole owner of the firm. Through six generations hence, the Banerjee family has been successfully operating the ‘House of Wheeler’. Today, A.H. Wheeler has a massive 378 bookstalls across 258 railways stations in the country.

The numbers would have been much more had there not been a freeze on expanding our network by the government,” laments Amit Banerjee, director of operations, A.H. Wheeler, as he speaks to me from his spanking office in Allahabad; from where this entire network is efficiently managed. Amit speaks of the directive given on 1st January 1976, which put a hold on A.H. Wheeler to extend the number of bookstalls. The number hence has remained as 378 ever since.

Nevertheless, apart from those bookstalls, Wheeler today has an additional 500 counter tables and an equal number of trolleys across several stations in the country. More recently, Wheeler has also introduced around 600 ‘basta hawkers’ – the ones who carry books in a small tray. “More than the business for us, this gives livelihood to many poor people,” says a satisfied Amit, who incidentally, is the great-grandson of T.K. Banerjee.

The struggling days

Not all has been hunky dory for Wheeler though. There was a time, not too long ago, when sheer panic had gripped the company.

“Angrez chala gaya, lekin Wheeler rah gaya,” (The British have left, but Wheeler has remained), were the words of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then Railway minister, back in the 2004 Railway Budget Speech. Until then, Indian railways had an exclusive association with A.H. Wheeler. Lalu chose to discontinue that, for some unknown reason.

We obviously panicked. There was disarray everywhere in the company. We tried to reach out to him (Lalu) and make him understand how vital the partnership (with the railways) was for the company. But we just couldn’t make him understand that. Those were difficult times indeed,” recalls Amit with a shudder.

The Banerjees then fought the ruling in the Allahabad High Court and won. The matter today is still pending in the Supreme Court.  What further helped matters for Wheeler was that the next railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi, overturned Lalu’s decision in 2011 and hence the Banerjees could breathe easy and continue their contract with the Indian railways.  It is something that the entire Banerjee family is still thankful to Trivedi for.

 Moving on?

All said and done, the pivotal question now is how long would A. H. Wheeler survive in today’s cut-throat world of competition?

30 % of the company’s network lies in little known and small railway stations, where they do not make any revenue from. The only reason they continue to do business there is because it provides employment to thousands of people from those small towns and villages.

Added to it is the fact that they cannot extend their bookstalls courtesy the freeze. Will the 137- year- old organization then live on for another 100 years?

The Banerjees sound super confident of their future. They have indeed survived through some very turbulent times and lived to tell the tale. Today, the Wheeler bookstalls are brimming with popular books and magazines rather than the classics of yore, but that, perhaps, is the order of the day.

 Looking ahead

On a more positive note, Wheeler is now looking for some extensive expansion plans, which, the director says, will be heard pretty soon.

Their top priority currently is to standardize the book stalls. Something, they believe, should infuse a fresh lease of life in them. They also plan to increase the number of exclusive Wheeler bookshops across the country. Currently, there is only one, located at Allahabad; which caters to the need of countless voracious readers by its exhaustive variety of books.

However, one feels, that these expansion plans notwithstanding, the most important thing that Wheeler does is to provide employment and livelihood to more than 5000 people today. Hence, in the interest of those people, it is essential that Wheeler survives.

Oh I think we will survive,” chuckles Amit before adding proudly, “See, selling books is a lot about emotions than just business. And that is why we have survived for so long. You know, even today, I meet a lot of people, especially from small towns, who say that they owe their career to Wheelers. Coming from small towns, these people never got their hands on educational books in their own places. They would thus request the Wheeler agents to get those books for them and we would then arrange it. There have been several success stories which have come out of this. That, I believe, is our single biggest achievement.”

There is no denying that A.H. Wheeler is a massive part of India’s nostalgia and history. Those wooden structures crammed with a sea of books are synonymous with the eternal charm of the Indian railways.  I am certain that there are many out there who have their own ‘special’ memory with Wheeler. Hopefully, another hundred years down the line, there would be countless of us who would keep getting enamoured by Wheeler and throng its bookstalls. And hopefully, several more generations would have had their own ‘special’ memory of Wheeler by then. 

** The Wheeler bookstall at the Howrah station in Kolkata is quite exceptional. Built from Burma teak, it is a one of its kind bookstall with slanting doors and was brought to Kolkata in 1905 after being specially made in England.  

** Wheelers contributed in India’s national movement in its own little way. Many people would excitedly swarm around the Wheelers bookstalls around the country to get latest news of the happenings in the capital and other cities.