An author and translator asked his audience: “If you had the option of getting your favourite new novel free as an e-book, but had to pay Rs 300 for the paper version, which of the two would you choose?”
His audience answered with either or both. None answered for neither, so I thought I would.
Ideally, I would try to think not only as a consumer, and would wait for second-hand and hand-me downs in both versions, after enquiring if the author is appropriately supported. After the aesthetic and human questions, there arises a matter of (forsworn) ethics, no? Real costs (to “this earth of mankind”) of production and consumption now in both media. Not morality, I insist, just indebtedness of creator and audience to the network of relationships in which they are ensconced/embedded/trapped and on which they depend visibly or invisibly.
There are real, perceptible and cascading effects of everything we do, and — this is perhaps more difficult to remember — of everything we do not do. Every book I buy used, every clean bit of paper I do not reuse, every item I do not try to recycle (no matter how short a distance the recycling chain goes before it becomes cargo on a trash ship changing flags before it dumps itself on a rotting port in a ‘third world’ country too poor to refuse the money in exchange for allowing the ‘first’ to treat it like a loo) , every bit of fancy and needless clothing, every bit of gold and diamond jewelry I ‘celebrate’ with — all of this came at cost, sweat, blood, tears, labor, hunger, poverty and depravity and perhaps even death.
When we think of ‘investing’ in new property or a car or whatever catches our hedonistic new fancy, do we think of the sun-blackened young laborer exhaustedly asleep on the ton of bricks that open lorry is carrying in the midday tropical sun? Really, you do? In my mind, the cost of the marble flags in my parents’ floor is calculated in the pressure on that coiled extra lungi that laborer used to haul it up those newly laid stairs, the grunts and groans of men hungry and sturdy, shouting and shouted at. Or perhaps in the number of ‘bidis’ and joints he could have bought if he stole a slab of marble and sold it on the street.
Perhaps a perverse calculation, but hardly less accurate than any other. After all, what is the exchange value of a thing?