book fairs

In photographs: Even in its new venue, the Kolkata Book Fair held on to its indefatigable energy

This is the one time every year that indie voices of publishing and writing in Bengal can be heard.

Most Bengalis cannot be bothered with the idea of waiting in queue for anything. (Even during demonetisation, the queues in Kolkata ATMs were decidedly shorter than in other parts of the country). But they do not mind the wait when it comes to things that matter – football tickets, Durga Puja pandals, the first batch of soft sandesh at Nakur, the best cuts of tender meat at their local butchery on a Sunday morning, and their favourite authors at the Kolkata Book Fair.

And therein lies a paradox. There may not be half a decent bookshop for the serious and discerning reader in the city anymore. But there is no stopping the hundreds and thousands, for whom the Book Fair is the annual, unmissable ritual.

So even as the Kolkata Book Fair – which has just winded up its 43rd edition – self-titled the largest such event in the world, shifts venues, hosts Man Booker winners and floods the ground with digital displays, it retains its cottage industry feel. Perhaps that is what gives the event its unique timbre. It would be a shame, if the Kolkata Book Fair were to be corporatised or wrapped in steel and glass.

It has certainly has come a long way since its dusty, chaotic, delightfully clumsy early days at the Kolkata maidan. With the city trying to hold on to and assert its cultural identity in the face of a national backlash, the Book Fair, just like the Durga Puja, has become a powerful symbol of Bengali pride. Even if with some robust political muscle behind it.

At the new venue this year, Central Park in the north-eastern neighbouhood of Salt Lake, the Book Fair fetched compliments for its bandobast. No dust, no coughs. Lots of space to walk around. Drinking water. Food. Clean toilets. It has also been a great venue for the side shows that splash the book fair with carnival colours.

A cycle rickshaw has been converted into a pretty prop that carries books by poets you would have never heard of. A crowd settles down to listen to a baul belt out “songs of life”. Children hop around with paper crowns on their heads, carrying everything from telescopes to comic books and balloons. Smart management trainees try to engage the crowd in a quiz: “No googling please,” they urge.

A weatherbeaten woman accosts you, “This time we have a new author...she is brilliant, do give her a try.” An elderly gent selling booklets on the environment is happy to pose for everyone. Another septuagenarian is deep in conversation with a young couple, telling them why they need to pay just forty rupees to encourage a brave new voice in literature.

Elsewhere, a young boy is holding up a placard that says: “Detective stories in a completely new style, Rs 30 only.” In the “Little Magazine” arena – where literary journals that are pure labours of love with little economic hope – it is always about discovering new but somewhat feeble voice of dissent as silver-haired publishers converse with women with flowers in their hair and fire in their eyes.

Art college students sell picture postcards and scores of other struggling artists offer to make you look prettier on their canvases. There is a song here, a dance there, a freak show somewhere else and plenty of gimmicks strewn all over the fair ground.

Tea and coffee, pakodas, “fish fries”, cutlets, pastries...all of them disappear from paper plates as the crowd swells abd streams in and out of the hundreds of book stalls at the fair ground.

The Kolkata Book Fair is indeed a glorious celebration of every stereotype, every cliché and every trope that the city has been bestowed with. And from the looks of it, nobody seems to mind.

Yes, you will find the ruling party’s centrally located arena devoted to the prolific author-poet leader, rubbing shoulders with jewellery brands, Gujarat tourism, software security companies, and auto majors. Renegade authors, poets and cult publishers vie for their share of the wallet with yogis and momo sellers. You will also notice how most of the pavilions, large or small, have selfie-friendly walls – the perfect backdrop for a Facebook or Instagram post. But you will also wonder why a shop selling old maps and atlases is such a big draw, and marvel at the fact that travel and wildlife writing has its own loyalists.

This fair has never been as much about the big daddies of publishing, who are now drawn like moths to the flames of litfests and the more commercially significant World Book Fair in Delhi. No, this festival celebrates the small, independent voices which get heard once a year, every year. It is also a huge public platform for displaying vernacular publishing. Which could explain why it holds a special place in the heart of Bengalis, whose children may have discovered Ray and Tagore in English first.

You may have misgivings about that hideous car on display, wrapped in a banner that reads: “Boi porun, gari jitun.” (Read a book, win a car). But then you hear an announcement: Ten-year-old Souvik has been separated from his family. Presumably, he was lost in the pages of a book.

You walk away as evening descends and little white balloons rise into the air from the illuminated fair ground. And you may be forgiven for thinking all is well with the world after all when there are so many people in it who love books.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.