If you are able to get chocolate while they say it is the end of the world, should not you be able to get books too? This was a question posed by a Kerala bureaucrat, who did not want to be named, when asked about a central puzzle in the ongoing tussle between center and the state.

The question assumes importance in the new debate that has emerged between the center and states on what to be exempted and not during the partial easing of the lockdown. Hardly it gets as peculiar as with Kerala’s case of books.

Kerala wanted to establish its own list of services that can be deemed as vital, as it moved to ease the lockdown in some of its parts that are not hotspots this week. The move was supposed to allow a resumption of operations at micro-and-small-scale industries within municipal limits, restaurants, motor vehicle repair shops, barbershops— and true to its cent-literate stature, book stores too.

But those edicts have raised questions from the center. Hours after Kerala’s move, a spokesperson of the Union home ministry tweeted that the state “has allowed the opening of activities, prohibited under Consolidated Revised Guidelines”. The tweet had attached a 19 April letter sent to Kerala’s chief secretary Tom Jose on the matter, advising the state to comply with the orders “without any dilution”. The move forced Kerala to revoke some of the relaxations, but book stores were allowed to operate on two days in a week.

So, are books essential in a pandemic? In Kerala, nearly everyone agrees. For instance, when the country-wide lockdown began, one of the firsts things two of the biggest Malayalam movie stars, Tovino Thomas and Manju Warrier, did was to rush out to buy books, said a person who was privy to the sales, requesting anonymity.

Thomas went to a book store in central Kerala and purchased a bag full of books worth 10000, the person said. Warrier could not get out, so she got herself home-delivered some of the top-selling titles by Malayalam authors such as Benyamin and TD Ramakrishnan, while she was hunkered down under stay-at-home orders, the person added.

For the publishers, who have been reeling from no revenue for more than 40-days into the lockdown, the answer to that question is a big yes, so much so that there has been intense lobbying from vested interests to get books into the essential lists, much like the other fascination of Malayalees, alcohol.

“It is most essential, not just essential, for Malayalees,” said Ravi DeeCee, Managing Director of DC Books, the Kerala-based publishing giant who oversaw such an effort. To their favour, he said, the administration remained positive on the need for book stores to be opened.

“There are more than 100 publishers in Kerala, publishing more than thousands of titles every year. The kind of readership and sales in Kerala is always on the rise. Even if you look at something like PDF piracy in Kerala, you won’t see that anywhere else in India,” he said.

“Since the lockdown began, we were flooded with requests from reading groups and individuals asking us can we buy one book at least. The government has taken note of it and agrees that it is part of the mental health of the public,” said Dee Cee.

“We put up this memorandum to the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan for book stores to be open and he responded within eight hours. Now we have also asked if the government can purchase 25% books from all publishers since this is a crisis situation. The 25% can be calculated using the three years average sales of publishers. Currently, we are given a breather of two days opening, Tuesdays and Fridays,” he said.

Being the only buyer for books, the bibliophile in Kerala has suddenly become a hero for other major publications in India too. “Since the lockdown started, physical book sales went to zero. You are not getting any money. So when Kerala announced book stores are opening, it was kind of a relief. That felt like some sort of normalcy is beginning. We expect soon other parts of the country will start to do the same. It’s just that sense of relief,” the person said.

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