They witnessed the 1940s, the Second World War, the famine of 1943, fraternal riots, the Partition, and the indescribable pain of millions of people. They can recollect the 1962 war with China, the 1965 war with Pakistan, the 1971 conflict, and the independence of Bangladesh. They are unable to forget the tumultuous 1970s and the Naxalbari movement. Thousands of young people joined a violent political movement to change the world, but were tortured in prisons or eliminated by police bullets.

Even now, they are saddened while recollecting those days. We spoke to them, three well-known Bengali litterateurs more than 80 years old now: Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Prafulla Ray, and Sanjib Chattopadhyay. How are they coping during this difficult and long lockdown? Has World War III actually begun?

An invisible virus has affected millions around the world, and the death toll is escalating at an alarming rate.

No cure has been found for Covid -19, and the only solutions seem to be lockdowns and social distancing. As a result, towns and villages, offices and factories were shut for several weeks. And even as small steps were being taken towards the resumption of everyday life, Cyclone Amphan struck Bengal with all its fury. Now, more weeks may go by while people remain prisoners in their homes, or have no homes at all. Many have lost their jobs, many more their livelihood, many remain hungry, and uncertainty has cast a long shadow on the future.

No, these writers could not have imagined this even in their worst nightmares. They can’t write and are suffering from indescribable pain. What is there to write? Why? And who will read? Who is in a mental state to enjoy literary work? Everyone is frightened and worried. When will this claustrophobic situation change? When will this tempest cease and the world become safe and healthy? When will the rhythm of life return? No one can tell.

Caught unprepared

Apart from a few institutions, the foundation of the Bengali publishing industry is weak. Almost all magazines are temporarily shut, leaving many poets and writers without a space to be published in. Will the popularity of literary works remain unassailed, or will the habit of reading disappear altogether? The market for Bengali books is in any case limited. Will this world be able to recover from the ravages of the coronavirus, followed by the cyclone?

Many questions haunt Bengali publishers like ourselves. How many books will be published? Will we find the space to sell our books? Most bookshops and outlets are shut. When will they reopen? When will people be able to get out of their homes? When will public transport be restarted?

About 4,00,000 people are connected, directly or indirectly, with the Bengali book market. A large number of these people are daily-wage earners who make nothing if work stops. Publishers don’t have the resources to keep paying salaries even to permanent staff. Thousands are likely to lose their jobs; and publishers have no option but to cut salaries.

Bengali writers – newcomers and seniors – are also in a crisis. They don’t know when they will get their annual royalty from their publishers. Even the royalties they were supposed to get on sales at the end of March have been hit severely.

Out of tune with trends

This is not the condition of Bengali publishing alone. Like other creative fields, publishers across India and the world are anxious. But they are better off than Bengali publishers, because of their ability for good planning, which we lack.

I do not hesitate to admit that even though we might be able to compete with some national publishers, we have been unable to read the future. We have been happy to sell hard copies of our books through various channels, and our books reviewed and advertised in newspapers. We have sold our books at various book fairs in the state and to expatriate Bengali communities in different parts of the world. We had never imagined such a challenging situation, and never thought of an alternative if our sales channels were to shut down for months, or if book fairs were cancelled.

Nearly all our colleagues have been blind to the opportunities presented by social media or e-commerce platforms, which we could have exploited to reach a national or international market. Bengali publishers have never taken any initiative to strengthen their logistics support, and as a result, we have no route to take our books to readers on our own or through e-commerce platforms.

So, during this lockdown, when readers may have had some free time, we sat back empty-handed. Besides Amazon and Flipkart, there are e-commerce platforms dedicated to Bengali books at a national level, such as boighar, boichoi, and read Bengali books – all of them young enterprises. There are several such platforms that have, unfortunately, been largely ignored by our publisher friends.

The digital gap

We have never considered bringing out digital editions of Bengali books. I have tried to initiate the conversation about e-books by raising it at Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Guild meetings. In fact, when the National Digital Library, funded by the central government, proposed to convert our books into digital editions almost free of cost, no one – except a few young publishers – showed any interest. As a result, the endeavour did not take off.

And today, look at the situation of English publishing in India: most of them have published digital editions of their forthcoming books. Readers across the world can buy these books on Kindle, mobile phones or tablets. All Indian publishers in English have established links with e-commerce. With deliveries having restarted, physical books will now reach their readers easily..

I have been a publisher for nearly 40 years and believe that even after the retreat of the virus, people will continue using masks, gloves, and sanitisers, and adhere to physical distancing. In that case, we will have to bow our heads to the signals of time if we want to keep Bengali publishing alive.

We have to learn how to use digital platforms, social media, e-commerce, and most of all, to create and sell e-books. Or else…

No, I like thinking positively. I believe we shall learn. No one wants to learn swimming unless they are thrown into the water.

Tridib Chatterjee is Proprietor, Patra Bharati, and President, Publishers and Booksellers Guild.

Translated from the Bengali by Uttaran Das Gupta.

Post Script

by Esha Chatterjee

Cyclone Amphan struck Bengal and Bangladesh on May 20. Bengal has not experienced a Grade Five cyclone since 1737; no more than 10 such cyclones have been recorded through history. The estimated direct financial damage is close to Rs 10,000 crore. Parts of the Sundarbans have been washed away entirely, with nine out of ten houses destroyed.

On College Street in Kolkata, Asia’s largest books market, nearly Rs 5 crore worth of direct damages – books, stocks, paper, and real estate – has been reported. One of the things that makes Boipara, as it is called, such an iconic place are the temporary and semi-permanent bookstalls lined across the pavements and inside its narrow lanes. Virtually all of these have been blown away without a trace.

The ground floor godown of Patra Bharati is some 7,000-8,000 square feet in size, and it was flooded under one foot of water. Despite the iron lock-gates and precautionary measures, the water streamed in as its level on the main road outside had risen to almost five feet. We watched in horror the water seeping into the paper, printed books, semi-bound books, and book covers, for almost 48 hours – until the waters on the main road receded. The electric transformer outside burst during the storm and many electric lines were damaged.

The losses incurred by the Patra Bharati press alone is nearly Rs 16 lakh, while its English language division Bee Books has suffered losses to the tune of around Rs 7 lakhs, taking into account the permanent damage to the machines and vehicles. One can extrapolate from these figures to guesstimate the extent of losses for the industry as a whole.

After the cyclone, Boipara on College Street looked like a jungle with uprooted trees, broken roofs and shattered glass windows from the many bookstores. Thousands of books were found floating in water. The damage could have been controlled had the cyclone struck at any other time, because there would be more people to prepare for it.

But many of the small businesspeople operating from College Street had returned to their hometowns because of the nationwide lockdown. Three of our colleagues could only arrive on the evening after the cyclone struck, despite living in the same locality as we do. It was impossible to commute by road until May 21. Recovery will be a long and uphill journey.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.