The men who sleep on books

Moving House, While You Sleep, Home

College Street is a narrow stretch of road in Kolkata, India, famous for the cheek-by-jowl bookstalls that crowd its pavements. It is often referred to as Boi Para (Bengali for "colony of books") and during the day, the street is animated by the din of vendors advertising their stock. Customers are often students from the neighboring colleges, bargaining for better deals on textbooks.

But as the day dims and the shops close, this refuge for readers becomes a temporary shelter for homeless laborers. Its many wood and iron countertops and shelves turn into makeshift beds. Many of these workers are migrants from the neighboring states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Sleeping on the street saves them the cost of renting a room.

Historically, Kolkata has been an important destination for rural-to-urban migration in eastern India, but the issues of migration and protection of the rights of the migrants are yet to be addressed by government policies and programs. “In India, there is no migration policy, except that people have a constitutional right to move, leave, and work for their livelihood, in any part of the country,” the 2009 Urban Poverty Report observed.

According to the 2011 state census, nearly 70,000 homeless were living in Kolkata, up from 55,000 in 2001. Out of the 132 prescribed homeless shelters in the city and neighboring Howrah, only two were actually operational in a survey conducted in early 2012.

Among the migrant workers sleeping in College Street, some have fixed spots. Others, like 25-year-old Mangru Bind, who comes from Bihar and hunts for work in the mornings and ferries books around College Street during the day, sleep on their handcarts parked alongside the bookstalls.

Ironically, in a city where the homeless face acute marginalization, hostility and apathy, the cultural landmark of College Street and its bookstalls offers them a strange form of security. In fact, Sheikh Wasif Ali, owner of Tuk-Tuki Books, says he feels safer knowing that somebody is sleeping at his stall — an additional security measure besides the night guards appointed by the bookstall owners' union.

At dawn, the ghost citizens get up and leave the stalls to go look for work in Kolkata’s markets and ports. As the colony of homeless leaves, the colony of books slowly retakes control of the stalls, until the sun will go down again. 

Blogpost by Roshan Kumar Mogali
Photos by Arko Datto