If you ride in a car in any of Dhaka's major roads, they are bound to run into your window glass: the booksellers selling photocopied versions of English books at traffic signals. If you look like someone who reads English, and your car is stopped at the light (or a traffic jam) they will wander over and show you their stuff.
For the past few weeks the "top three" that they always show off first are: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, Khushwant Singh's Jinnah and Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice. While they fan these three from their right hand, their left supports a stack of another dozen including the two Obama books and an assortment of self-help, business and fiction titles.
In the past I have seen other Dan Brown books, Adiga's White Tiger, and a motley assortment of past and present bestsellers including Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon. Oh, and a version of Lonely Planet's Bangladesh Guidebook including color copies of the color photos. I wonder why Mikey Leung's Bradt Bangladesh Guidebook has not received the honor yet.
How much does one pay? About Tk 200, less than USD 3.
But here is the thing I puzzle about most: how are the books picked? I mean, who picked Sen's philosophical and dense treatise? I only read a review and it made my head hurt. Now imagine you are stuck in the heat in Dhaka's traffic jam, temples throbbing, unenviably late for that important customer meeting at Motijheel. Are you sure reading this book is going be the right thing for you to do at this moment?
And Singh's Jinnah??? Do many people here really care? I think they'd prefer to read Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age instead, don't you?
Do people buy these books because there is nothing else affordable? Or do they really read these books? I don't know. (Well, I read The Lost Symbol though I wish I had not, but that's another story.)
So, to the powers-that-be of the sidewalk bookseller world, here is my wishlist of real and imagined books that could actually be helpful in a traffic jam:
a) Randy Pausch's Last Lecture for inspiring reading
b) Anything by my favorite "trashy" authors: Connelly and Crichton
c) Maybe a couple of "serious" novels: Cairo Trilogy or some Booker winner
d) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez
e) One Hundred Crossword Puzzles to Work on While in a Traffic Jam by Anon.
f) One Hundred Magic Tricks in Sixty Easy Steps While in Your Car by Jadukor
g) Teach Yourself Sign Language on the Mohakhali to Dhanmondi Stretch
h) IPCC Reports on climate change so Bangladeshis can really figure out if/when they will sink (on second thoughts, maybe not a good idea)
i) The Difficult Art of Owning Up, Or, How to Fix Our Khaislot by Shotyobadi
j) The Art of Moving a Government File: The Who/When/Where/HowMuch of Palm-Greasing
In case you are wondering why a) is on the top of the list: I like this book a lot, but I found (when I was in the US this summer) that it was unreasonably priced, which meant that after Dr. Pausch's untimely death, someone was trying to cash in quickly.