Early on some Saturday mornings, for the past one year, a group of 20-and-odd people gather under a tree at the Rabindra Sarobar Lakes in Kolkata. These are the members of the Sarobar Book Club, who meet at 7.30 am on the first and third Saturday of every month. Most book clubs are book based clubs – members choose a book, which they read and discuss during their meeting. The Sarobar Book Club, however, as member Charulatha Banerjee points out, is a theme based club. A theme is chosen for each meeting and members bring relevant readings – excerpts from novels, stories and essays, newspaper articles, poems.
Of course, people bring books too. You will probably read out a brief passage from a thick novel but you have the book, right there. It is passed around, and those familiar with the work or other works by the writer share opinions and memories. Someone else recommends other works you could consider reading. And before you know it, someone asks to borrow your book, you hand it over gladly, and are fairly confident that you’ll get it back.
It all started in November 2016, when the entrepreneur Mudar Patherya broached the idea of a Book Club to Samantak Das, Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. They contacted prospective attendees ahead of the meeting and requested them to bring their “favourite pieces” about Kolkata. “We thought January would be a good time to start,” says Das, and the group met for the first time on January 7, 2017.
People came to the first meeting with pieces in different languages and the multilingual character of the sessions was established organically. The readings are mostly in Bengali and English – not surprising, since these are the two languages that people in the group are most comfortable with. However, it is not as if other languages are missing – almost all meetings have Hindi and Urdu readings. And some members bring German and French texts. Of course, Das occasionally reminds us that we can’t confine ourselves to reading only in one language.
Members read from a wide range of works. For example, a session on “Animals and Literature” held in June, 2017 comprised, among others, readings from Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Dog That Ran in Circles by Gangadhar Gadgil, Flush by Virginia Woolf, Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, Bolta Bolta by Rajat Subhra Bandopadhyay, Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, and Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall. The session on “Alcohol and other Intoxicants” included readings from Indo Aryans by Rajendralal Mitra, Valmiki Ram O Ramayan by Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, Thirukkural by Thiruvaluvar, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker, and several poems by Ghalib, Zokh and Firaq.
Thiruvaluvar was first read in Tamil, followed by a reading from an English translation by Gopal Gandhi. “I especially love how the mood of the group takes unexpected turns alongside the literature we discuss,” says Shrutakirti Datta, a researcher. “So we can go from a fun limerick to a historical anecdote, and one is always kept guessing about what one might encounter next. My range of reading has definitely expanded because of this.”
Members of the book club read from their own works too. At the first meeting, one of those attending read an excerpt from an essay published in an anthology. At another meeting, members were spellbound as Malini Mukherjee read her account of conducting a workshop with teachers in Mongolia.
It is word of mouth that brings members to the Club. People simply ask their interested friends to come along. If they enjoy the day and can get over their fear of arriving by 7.30 am, they keep coming. Of course, there is this member, who arrives long after the proceedings have begun, and in keeping with Kolkata tradition has been nicknamed “8.28” by a fellow member. Fun and laughter, food and music are part and parcel of the book club. Inevitably, along with their reading for the day, some of the members also bring food. Sandwiches and samosas are there, and quite often, members come with other delicious offerings.
Music is an integral part of the sessions. One of the earliest sessions was on Music and Literature, and when the talented singer Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya died tragically in a road accident, there was a meeting in his honour. Very often, a reading triggers a musical association, and the singers in the group are cajoled to sing. There have been occasions when walkers and joggers have stopped in their tracks and listened mesmerised to the accomplished vocalists in the group.
There are no membership fees or formal rules. The first time you attend, you enter your name, phone number and email ID in a notebook. The Book Club has an email group and in keeping with the times, a WhatsApp group too. Both the WhatsApp group and the email group include people who may not be regular at meetings. In fact, some of the people on the electronic groups don’t live in Kolkata at all!
The WhatsApp group sees lively discussions and debates regarding posts. Responding to an article titled “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” ’a member wrote about her conversation with her mother, many years ago, whom she asked how she could possibly enjoy the music created by philandering male Carnatic musicians. “I am going to listen to him sing, not have my daughter married to him,” said the mother, matter of factly. The daughter then wrote that she’s not sure if things are always so easy to decide, especially when it comes to offences like rape or child sexual abuse. “This group, like many have said, emboldens me to articulate without hesitation,” she concluded.
The members say that the group has come together very well. “It is amazing how so many like-minded people came together,” says Sarmishtha Das. She is unable to attend most meetings because of teaching commitments. “The WhatsApp group allows me to engage with so many issues and people. Sometimes there are sharp differences of opinion, yet people are willing to listen and there is respect and cordiality in exchanges.”
Many members have pointed out that they enjoy the diversity in the group. The age range is wide – people in their twenties rub shoulders with those in their sixties, and everyone else in between. It is a happy congregation of entrepreneurs, homemakers, NGO professionals, mediapeople, teachers, doctors, students and researchers, among others.
Choosing what to read for a session is what members find particularly exciting. Many go back to favourite works of their childhood and youth, some read from books they are reading at present, and some are emboldened to read something that they wouldn’t normally have read. “For a session on Sport and Literature, I decided to read from my favourite stories by Moti Nandy. Growing up, I used to devour the festival numbers of magazines with stories of the young cricketer, Kolaboti, and her fascinating world,” says Sampreeti Sen, a university student and a budding actor.
Spontaneity, curiosity and flexibility are characteristics that define the Sarobar Book Club. Some members of the Club responded to the suggestion of a food walk during Ramzan and were led through the lanes of central Kolkata by Iftekar of Calcutta Walks, sampling delicacies and then attending prayers at the Nakhoda Masjid, where hundreds gathered to pray and break their fast. When Yogendra Yadav was in Kolkata, a meeting was called on the last Saturday of October 2017 and members arrived to discuss books and ideas with him. Luck too, has favoured the Book Club. Not a single meeting was washed out during Kolkata’s vigorous monsoon season. Nor was the sun too hot for a meeting during the long and hot summer. The breeze was gentle, the tree generous, and the readers sat by the water and read.
As we read, we share stories, and members have often brought memorabilia to meetings. During a session on Rabindranath Tagore, a member brought along some family treasures – samples of Tagore’s handwriting and original letters from him. During a session on water as a theme, another member showed us a drawing by Trevor Stubley, a Yorkshire artist, that she had bought when she lived in England. This drawing had been commissioned for Ruskin Bond’s book Angry River.
Our two-hour Book Club meeting generally comes to a close with a quiz that Patherya prepares on the day’s theme. Like all good quizzes, they are entertaining, and many of us become aware of the depths of our ignorance. As a group, however, we don’t perform very badly. The meetings end with members gathering at a nearby tea stall for a cup of tea and saying goodbye till we meet again.