The very first time I visit the World Book Fair in Delhi, I am determined to hate it. Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong a word – I could never really hate a book fair – but I am certainly determined to turn my nose up, because, naturally, no book fair in any corner of the world can possibly hold a candle to the original-book-fair-to-end-all-book-fairs, the boi mela in Kolkata, which has shaped my childhood and teenage years, and which I will end up missing this year since I am stuck in cold, miserably, foggy Delhi, attending classes (by which I mean doing the things that self-respecting students do when their parents believe they are attending classes).
It is the winter of 2006. I live on campus in JNU – it is our village, it is almost perfect, and we don’t really step outside its boundaries too often. I am still new to Delhi, I barely know the city. These are innocent times. For one, floppy drives are still in use. For another, there’s no WiFi on campus.
We have mobile phones, yes, and, in the second year of my MA, I will trade my bulky desktop, that I had brought to Delhi on the train wrapped up in an old bedsheet, for an IBM ThinkPad. But that is still months away. Only a few students can afford individual internet connections in their rooms. We mostly depend on cyber cafes for all our work, and the famous one across the road, perched high upon a rocky cliff and accessed through a precarious stairway, stays open till midnight and saves our asses big time.
Most crucially, there is no Amazon and no Flipkart. For books, we must depend on the JNU library and our professors, and the gazillion photocopy places dotting the campus, which replicate these books for us in hours and spiral-bind them in minutes.
On some afternoons, I take the 615 bus to the Le Meridian hotel, and, there, wait patiently for an auto-rickshaw to get me to the libraries at the British Council and the American Centre, both on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, or, to the Sahitya Akademi on Copernicus Road, in search of books, real books, ones that I can stack on the floor next to my bed and get attached to. (Photocopies, despite their utility, are so dry, and I am so spoilt from having spent my college years on Calcutta’s famous College Street, when on good days you found rare treasures at throwaway prices at street-corners.) The books from the libraries are treasured and sniffed and loved and renewed and, eventually, returned.
But somewhere deep inside, my book hunger remains coiled and ready to spring, eager to possess. It often gets a taste of blood at the campus bookstores – which are very high on theory and a certain kind of serious fiction – but, more often than not, in the discounted piles of Om Bookshop. Then one day, borne aloft on the wind is the news of the World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan. My acquisitive tendencies uncurl.
One of my classmates has studied at LSR. She is full of information about Delhi – from the sequined alleys of Lajpat Nagar to the far-away climes of Noida – and she promises to lead a pack of us to the book fair, to Pragati Maidan, which feels further away from our gaon than any other place we know. According to her, the World Book Fair in Delhi is amaaayzing. All shops offer 20 per cent discounts. When she was in LSR, she and her friends had something something something...So on and so forth.
That night, despite my determination to not allow the World Book Fair – this possibly trumped-up wannabe Delhi thing – any claims on my soul, I decide upon an ambitious course of action. And I have Toni Morrison to blame for it.
In January, when term began, I’d signed up for a course on Morrison offered by (the now late) Professor Navneet Sethi. We are going to study Morrison’s entire oeuvre for the next few months. Last semester, I’d encountered The Bluest Eye – in a tacky cloth-bound photocopy of course – as a part of our African-American Literature course and I had lost myself so completely in the prose that I’d wanted, dearly, to possess the book myself. Now, I had a copy of Sula at home – it was a present from my college best friend Esha – and Paradise, which I’d bought in College Street in Kolkata and could not make head or tail of.
I’d brought both these books along with me when term began. (My poor father grieved as my bookshelves at home got lighter with every semester, assuming I was leaving home one carton of books at a time.) Earlier this month, I’d found a copy of Morrison’s latest book – Love – from Om Bookshop, where some idiot had decided it should be sold at 80% off. How I’d blessed that idiot. Sula, Paradise, Love.
Therefore, to complete my Toni Morrison set, I would only need the four other novels.
QED: the book fair.
I remember reading a short story called Rabindra Rachanabali. It was about a boy who came to stay with his newly wealthy uncle and aunt in Calcutta. The uncle had made a lot of money during the Second World War and now they lived in a mansion, where the living room boasted of a brand-new set of Tagore’s complete works – the eponymous Rabindra Rachanabali. The books were kept under lock and key.
One day, unable to contain himself any longer, the boy asked his aunt if he could borrow one of the volumes for a bit. A strange silence descended upon the hosts. After all, the sumptuously bound books were like the fanciest of fancy china: meant to be showpieces, not really read.
My takeaway from the short story was that to be truly cultured, you acquired the complete sets, of course you did, when you had the money that is, but you also savoured the books. You pored over them, you slept with them, you held them a handspan away when you ate. On the way to the book fair, I bored my classmates witless with this story, in a bid to explain why I was obsessing over the damn Toni Morrison set.
It is colder than usual, and the sky is overcast. We stuff ourselves into a single auto, wind streaming in from either side, and we are grateful when we finally get inside the buses at Pragati Maidan, warm, smelling of ink and mud and people, and finally find the well-lit halls, full of books. At this point, my memories coalesce.
I was to tramp up and down the halls of Pragati Maidan during the World Book Fair so many times after that first time – 2008, with my colleagues at work, when I found out through a book called The Key Lime Pie Murder that I simply adored mysteries with recipes; 2010, hunting for books to read on our travels through the country, books which would eventually be left behind at my friend Gee’s; 2012, to an event when I was supposed to read from my new book and no one turned up to listen; 2013, from when the book fair became annual and my friend-and-editor Karthika bought me a French cookbook she had published many years ago; 2014, when I had a mini meltdown that my writing career was going nowhere; 2015, when I wrote an article about the book fair and compared book-buying to sex! It all gets mixed up. I can no longer visualise the specifics from 2006, the stalls and the spaces, without some of the other memories crowding in.
But the one thing I remember distinctly from 2006 is that I am acutely conscious of the twelve hundred rupees in my wallet, the money that pays for my bed and board at Yamuna hostel, the money that I am going to spend on Toni Morrison and the auto-rickshaw rides today, tomorrow be damned.
Luckily, I find Beloved and A Bluest Eye – both – in the Penguin store, almost as soon as I mention Morrison, and they give me a discount too. Even so, I end up parting with more than half of my crisp notes. Now begins the real search. In the three hours that I have before I must meet my friends at the appointed place, I go to every single stall that might potentially stock the book.
There are other major distractions of course – gorgeous academic books and wonderful novels. (I end up buying Terry McMillan’s In Which Stella Gets Her Groove Back for my friend Chumki whose birthday is near.) Then, an enthusiastic young man at a stall disappears for half an hour while I wait and waver and browse and he eventually returns with a battered copy of Song of Solomon.
Song of Solomon is sometimes considered the weakest of Morrison’s novels by critics, possibly because it’s the most accessible of them all. I don’t know all that yet. I am just thrilled – on cloud nine really – because that’s the one we shall start discussing in class on Monday, and now I have my own copy to read in bed tonight while the illegal heater casts a warm glow on the wall. Not an ungainly photocopy. But a beautiful white edition (if slightly dusty) with a purple-blue butterfly on top. I just need to close my eyes and I can see the cover and feel a sense of the cold night in my bones.
When we reconvene outside, it is dark, and, luckily for me, it begins to rain. We are forced to rush right back into the warm and brightly lit halls. My friends are all in high spirits, happy with their purchases, and one of them even volunteers that she may have spotted Jazz, the book that will later become my favourite, in a stall somewhere. But which one? We try to piece together the puzzle.
Willing to indulge my obsession, my friends try to trace the way back to that particular stall, where a copy of Jazz, slim and unyielding, is apparently sitting silently. We rush, first this way, then that. We get distracted by other books. Our parents call from home – we are not supposed to lurk outside campus until late because Delhi is so unsafe – and we lie through our teeth. We nearly give up. In any case, I tell myself, I probably don’t have enough money to complete my set and that I must buy a book for Saurav too. We are ready to leave.
And then, in the manner of films with happy endings, in a bookstall where I had passed my eyes perfunctorily over the shelves several hours ago, I spot, from five metres away, a copy of Jazz sitting on a table. Someone had found it in the store and then left it atop a nearby surface and gone onto other things. Jazz. A white Vintage cover with a golden cage on top. I cobble together some money from friends to cover the cost of the book and the auto-rickshaw back to our hostel.
Eventually, I will have to explain to my mother how and why I blew up a large part of my allowance at the book fair. But all that is for later. For now, deeply in love with my complete set, that I can see bookended upon my messy desk already, a think of beauty, I laugh in the rain as we run towards the gate, swaddling my beloved books in a shawl close to my chest. At night, feeling smug about my beautiful day, I sit in Saurav’s room in Jhelum hostel, admiring my books and toasting my feet at his heater. I fish out the syllabus from my file and decide which books I would begin reading when. That’s when I realise my mistake.
I have forgotten Tar Baby.
The set is incomplete.
I would have burst into tears. But Saurav tells me we should forget about Tar Baby for now and go to the dhaba and eat anda parathas and if I feel terrible about it tomorrow, we can go back to the book fair. We don’t in the end. I leave a little gap for my Tar Baby – I can’t remember when I get the book finally – and decide that sometimes you have to have to wait before you earn the right to complete a set.
All photographs by Sambit Dattachaudhuri.