It is an eerier tale than Rudyard Kipling could have thought of. A high point in the early career of A.H. Wheeler & Company, the bookshop without which any Indian railway station would look like a poor simulacrum thought up by an unobservant Martian, was its publication of Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales in 1888. But now perhaps the company would like to hide its early moment of glory under a bushel, since the new railways minister, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, has decided to break its monopoly on station platforms. “Wheeler, Wheeler, Wheeler,” he thundered in the midst of his railway budget speech, “why do we have a Wheeler bookstall everywhere' The English have left this country long back.” That is what is so eerie. There is nothing English about Wheeler but its name, taken from the London booksellers called Arthur Henry Wheeler’s, by one of the founders of the Indian bookstall. This gentleman was the French author, Emile Moreau. His partner in business was T.K. Banerjee. They began operations in 1877, and the Indian partner’s descendants took over completely 53 years ago. A.H. Wheeler & Company is as Indian as they come.
The faux English name seems to have sent Mr Yadav chasing after the phantom of Englishness in a burst of impeccable political correctness, promising reservation of space for bookstalls in stations for minority groups, war widows and physically challenged persons. But the name Wheeler has been associated with the romance of travel for generations of Indians. Numerous children have grown up gazing longingly at the brightly-lit rows of books in dingy stations through the years, convinced that the name comes from the wheels of the display stands. The idea of a folding box magically opening out to form a display stand was in itself mesmerizing. Anything that sounded like wheels was potent with possibilities at a railway station. That association might still remain, for some children who walk into the modern Wheeler bookstalls in the stations today.
Few have accused Mr Yadav of not doing his homework, but the bookstall addiction of the Indian traveller may not have been quite within his horizon of reckoning. The mix of modern amenities and environment-friendly traditional kulhads in the trains Mr Yadav envisages does not allow for books from stalls with an English name. Reading for leisure itself might be a tradition of dubious cultural descent. Far less dubious is the simple set of principles that monopoly is a bad thing, and that competition, with reservations for the less advantaged, is a good thing. The intention is not in doubt. It is the reasoning that baffles. New India glories in its entrepreneurs. But they must sound Indian, seems to be Mr Yadav’s message, never mind the skill and creativity with which they have built up their business. Not for him the turns and twists of a motley “Anglo-Indian” cultural history Kipling might have relished. Everyone, reports say, was waiting to hear some of Mr Yadav’s immortal statements during his railway budget speech. But he was almost severe in his earnestness. It is only when his patriotic passion got the better of him that he provided the comic relief. Unintentionally, of course.