From Lawrence Liang’s Shadow Libraries chapter on India:
Shor in the City narrates the intertwined lives of three characters in Mumbai from very different class backgrounds. The film opens with one of them, Tilak, planning to kidnap a prominent author from a party. Unlike traditional kidnappers, Tilak is not after ransom but the electronic files of the author’s latest novel, which he plans to publish and sell. Tilak, it turns out, is a book pirate—and a barely literate one. His method is to strike up conversations with customers at bookstores to find out which books are popular. He then buys these books, copies them, and wholesales them to children who sell them on the streets of Mumbai.
One of the books that Tilak picks up from the bookstore is The Alchemist by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist takes on an important role in the film, serving as Tilak’s method of educating himself and as the means through which he and his newly wedded wife get to know each other better. Stumped by many of the words in the book, Tilak begins to read with an English-Hindi dictionary, educating himself while also developing a relationship to the book beyond its value to his trade. Coelho’s The Alchemist is not an accidental choice in the film. The book was widely pirated in India and remains very popular, both in mainstream bookshops as well as among pirate sellers on the street. When Coelho was alerted to the fact that The Alchemist was being sold by teenagers on the streets of India, he said that he was honored that his book was being sold in “the smallest bookstore in the world” (Bazzle 2015)….
Practices like those shown in the film Shor in the City have played an important role in the development of literacy and book culture in India, serving publics for whom the commercial market and the library system have failed to significantly expand access to literary works. As we will see, the intellectual biographies of many Indians pass through such networks. As we will also see, these forms of street and commercial piracy are distinct from the needs and forms of access associated with student life. Higher education creates a different set of challenges, structured by demand for more specialized materials and met by a different constellation of legal, illegal, and contested forms of access. Here, supply and demand relate primarily to the specialized textbooks, monographs, and journal articles required for participation in increasingly globalized fields of knowledge. This chapter explores both sides of this ecosystem— the popular and the academic—and their diverse points of contact in intellectual biographies and institutions that mediate the two spheres, such as public libraries. As in the other chapters in this book, we take a close look at how these issues play out in the lives of students in the social sciences, law, and medicine at several major universities….
Let’s stay with film references for a moment to look at another exemplary scene of piracy—here with respect to university journals. In 2013, as part of an effort to popularize its academic journal databases in India, Sage Publishing offered a week of unlimited access to students at a leading university in a south Indian city. This was a promotional arrangement intended to encourage the university to subscribe to the service. This taste of access, however, led to an unexpected gulp. Anticipating that the university might reject Sage’s subscription costs, a group of students, led by a PhD candidate in literature, downloaded all of the important Sage journals into an offline archive. They called themselves “Pradeep’s Eleven”—a reference to the U.S. heist film Ocean’s Eleven. Within days, the university received a warning and free access was withdrawn. By then, however, the students had assembled a very large archive. This new archive, in turn, was combined with a still-larger unofficial library assembled from other clandestine copying, including material brought by students returning from abroad. This combined library now circulates widely within the university on portable hard drives and flash drives. As students acquire new materials, the collection slowly grows and new versions become canonical. As new students enter the university, the collection is passed on.