University of North Carolina, USA
Wheeler booksellers: railways and reading in colonial India
This paper examines links between spreading railway travel and the growth of bookselling, the circulation of newspapers, and the expansion of a reading public in colonial India. Railways came to India in 1853 and the first formal bookstall at a railway station opened in the late 1870s: the A.H. Wheeler bookstall located at the bustling Allahabad junction. Over the next few decades, Wheeler bookstalls became a staple at most large and medium-sized stations on railways in India. Especially in northern India, Wheeler had a near monopoly on selling books, newspapers, and magazines at India’s railway stations (Higginbothams dominated railway stations in some of the more southern parts of India) With over 350 bookstalls, Wheeler remains ubiquitous at Indian railway stations even today. As railway travel increased in popularity, generations grew up getting their news and newspapers, popular magazines, and multitudes of inexpensive novels at Wheeler bookstalls. The numbers were not insignificant: in 1876-77, when the first Wheeler bookstall was established at Allahabad station, the East Indian railway line on which it was located transported close to seven million passengers (or about 25 percent of the roughly 30 million passengers who traveled that year). As Wheeler bookstalls spread to more stations on more railway lines in India, this expansion coincided with dramatic increase in passenger numbers: 175 million railway passengers in 1900. Wheeler’s influence widened as the bookstalls became more eclectic in their offerings, selling both a broader range of newspapers and publications, as well as material other than the English-language books and journals imported from London. This change, in part, coincided with its founder Emile Moreau acquiring an Indian partner, T.K. Banerjee, who became Wheeler’s sole owner in 1913. Subject to imperial licensing and press regulations, Wheeler’s wares simultaneously became entangled in conflicts pertaining to imperial censorship of the nationalist press.
Ritika Prasad is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the author of Tracks of change: railways and everyday life in colonial India (Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Her research and teaching focus on colonial South Asia and she has also published in Modern Asian Studies and South Asian History and Culture. Her current project examines the triangular relationship between press, public, and governance in India from the late eighteenth century onwards.