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.