“Do you know what makes it possible for us to enjoy our rights and freedoms? It is Bharat ka Samvidhan [the Constitution of India].” Rampyari Kawachi held up the volume for a customer who was browsing through the books in his mobile bookshop. The Constitution was the thickest of the books displayed at his stall in the haat at Ghotgaon village, in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district. The weekly market is held about 13 kilometres from his village, Joradabri Ryt, in Dhamtari’s Nagri block.

Rampyari, who cannot read or write, was explaining the Constitution’s importance to whosoever came to see his wares that day. Like him, his potential customers belonged to the region’s Adivasi communities, and the bookseller was only too keen to introduce them to the Indian Constitution.

It is “the one holy book”, said Rampyari, that everyone needed to keep at home, and learn from about their rights and duties. “Do you know, we Adivasis and Dalits get reservation [in higher education and government employment] because of the Constitution of India  and its provisions, and the fifth and sixth schedules [that protect tribal communities]?” he said to the people at Ghotgaon, who were at the haat to mainly purchase groceries, vegetables and other essential items.

Rampyari Kawachi looks like he could be 50 years old. He belongs to the Gond community – the largest Adivasi group in Chhattisgarh, where the Scheduled Tribes are one-third of the population. Most of the books he sells – with titles such as Teesri Azadi ki Sinhgarjana ; Birsa Munda: Sachitra Jeevani ; Bhrashtachar ; Hindu Adivasi Nahin Hain – are in Hindi. But he also stocks a few books in the Gondi language, and some in English. When someone picks up a title, Rampyari explains its contents, often sounding like a short book review.

Rampyari Kawachi (right) selling books and other materials during World Tribal Day celebrations in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh, in 2019.
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur
Rampyari loves wearing a red turban when he goes to haats, melas and madais
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur

Left: Rampyari Kawachi (right) selling books and other materials during World Tribal Day celebrations in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh, in 2019. Right: Rampyari loves wearing a red turban when he goes to haats , melas and madais

“I have never been to school; I cannot read and write,” Rampyari tells me. He takes the help of a retired sarpanch in village, Sobsingh Mandavi, who is in his late 60s. “I request him to read the books. He tells me what they contain, which I then explain to the customer. I can't even read the price printed on the book, but once I am told what it is, I don't forget,” he says.

Before he started selling books about 15 years ago, Rampyari worked as an agricultural labourer on others’ farms. Then he started selling seeds and pesticide at the haats . He still sells seeds at the weekly markets in central Chhattisgarh, within 10-15 kilometres from Joradabri Ryt. Seeds of vegetables like okra, tomato, cucumber and beans are laid out in a separate section, next to the books and other items like calendars and clocks.

At first glance, one could mistake Rampyari as just a vendor of  books and seeds. But he is much more – he says he is a karyakarta , an activist. He started selling books to help the Adivasi people learn about tribal issues and their rights. At the madais (harvest festival) and melas (fairs) where he would go to sell seeds, the debates and discussions about Adivasis' concerns would draw him deeper into thinking about them. He wanted to do more.

“I am creating awareness among fellow Adivasis,” says Rampyari, who also sells interesting and inspiring posters. One of them features Ravan, the mythological character whom the Gond Adivasi regard as an ancestor. “Our people are deprived of education and rights because they are not aware. Though the Constitution gives us strength we are not able to use our rights. We are exploited because of the innocence of our people,” he explains. Besides books and posters, his stall at madais and melas has other items on sale: calendars marking Adivasi events and festivals; the anti-clockwise-moving Adivasi ghadi ; and bracelets and necklaces with Adivasi symbols.

A floral procession for guardian deities at a madai (harvest festival) in Dhamtari.
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur
Dhol performers at a mela (right) in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district. Rampyari had set up his stall on both occasions
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur

A floral procession (left) for guardian deities at a madai (harvest festival) in Dhamtari. Right: Dhol performers at a mela (right) in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district. Rampyari had set up his stall on both occasions

Rampyari travels the length and breadth of Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi belt, including Bastar and other parts of south Chhattisgarh. He even goes to attend fairs and meetings in the neighbouring states of Odisha, Maharashtra and Telangana, taking with him books – 400-500 at a time ­­­­– and other materials to sell. In the past decade, this reporter has met him on numerous occasions in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

“Earlier, I used to buy books and distribute them. I might have distributed about 10,000-12,000 books for free,” says the book supplier, who for a long time transported bundles of books on his motorbike. He sources his collection from the cities like Nagpur in Maharashtra, Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, and Raipur in Chhattisgarh. He says his income is not fixed, and he doesn’t keep a record.

The books are priced between Rs. 10 and Rs. 350. “These books are about our society, so we need to spread it among people. They need to read them. When someone like you [the reporter] asks us questions, we become shy and are not able to speak to you. I realised, it is because our ancestors were denied opportunities that we were not able to speak or raise our voice,” he says.

To make his journeys easier, Rampyari bought a secondhand multi-utility vehicle some years ago. He borrowed money on interest from someone he knew. But during the Covid-19 lockdowns since March 2020, he found it difficult to repay the loan instalments. It is tough even now, he says.

Rampyari Kawachi (attired in yellow) and his helpers selling books on a hot summer afternoon at an Adivasi mela in Sukma district
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur

Rampyari Kawachi (attired in yellow) and his helpers selling books on a hot summer afternoon at an Adivasi mela in Sukma district

There is no warehouse to store his goods. Rampyari keeps them all at his three-roomed, tile-roofed house in Joradabri Ryt, where he lives with his wife, Prema Bai. Neither she nor Rampyari know how old they are – they have no records or birth certificates. When she can, Prema goes with Rampyari to help him with the stall, though she focuses on housework and on cultivating their small patch of land in the backyard.

“I do this work because I get a lot of satisfaction from it,” says Rampyari . “We Adivasi people come together during madais and melas , and celebrate. I can earn anywhere, but in such places, I not only earn some money but I get to do what I live for.”

People knew Rampyari as a kochiya (vendor) before. “Then they called me seth (trader),” he says, “but now they see me as ‘ sahityakar ’ (litterateur). I love that!”

Purusottam Thakur

Purusottam Thakur is a 2015 PARI Fellow. He is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. At present, he is working with the Azim Premji Foundation and writing stories for social change.

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