Friday, February 19, 2010

Kolkata Book Fair

I think it's safe to say that for us Calcutta Bongs, there are two major events that mark each year, events that we look forward to and which our lives revolve around - Durga Pujo and the Book Fair. As a child, I didn't know which I loved more, which got me more excited - the prospect of five days of fun, food, revelry and new clothes with family and cousins at the pujo bari, or three-four days of fun, food, dusty joy and new books with parents at the Maidan. A decade spent in Delhi meant that I invariably missed the Cal book fair - I'd listen to my parents tell me about it, how good or bad it was, what the food stalls were like with nostalgic longing, and wish I was back home. Well, now I am, and since our return two years ago we have spent many, many happy days waiting for the book fair, and then happier days throwing ourselves into it once it started.

Going to the Cal book fair is, unlike, say, the Delhi book fair, an event in itself. You don't go just for the books - you go for the sheer experience of it. Where else would you find a book fair that invokes an almost festive atmosphere, where entire families, including ancient grandparents, show up to make a day of it, where you can rub shoulders (literally, that) with people of every class, every socio-economic background imaginable? What unites us all at the book fair is the love of books and the printed word, yes - you'll find everyone carrying bags that will contain at least one new book - but also the peculiarly Bong trait of turning every event into a large, communal picnic where gastronomic delights preside. Food is about as important as the books - from samosas to rolls to fish cutlets to biryani to ice cream to the ubiquitous Bengali sweets - you name it, you'll find it at the book fair, along with large crowds of people slurping away as if their lives depended on it. (We join in enthusiastically - I've had the best biryani in Cal at the book fair, and this time we traipsed every inch of the fair ground, carrying heavy bags of books, just so we could locate that particular stall.) There's an infectious camaraderie pervading every bit of the book fair - you smile at strangers browsing the same shelf as you; you exchange remarks with someone you see buying a book you're interested in; you grin at the delighted squeals of children as they pounce on books they want to buy - and grin wider when you hear parents stepping in with a firm 'Porikkhhar age kintu ekdom porbe na!' (You're not to read it before your exams are done!).

Our pilgrimage spot at the book fair is a stall called Book Line, which offers the most amazing titles at the most unbelievable prices. K and I are favoured customers, mostly because we spend the greater part of what we earn all through the year at that stall, but also because the owners, who know their books, have learnt that we're serious, discerning readers. We're greeted like long-lost friends, our bags taken from us and stowed away, hot tea appears out of nowhere, and solicitous helpers are assigned to look after us. We spend about three to four hours at that stall and emerge, triumphant and tired, with three big, heavy bags of books and an evening of messing about with them, looking over what we've bought, smelling them, writing our names inside to look forward to.

One comes across avid readers who one would never meet otherwise: every year, I meet a scholarly gentleman at Book Line who looks around for classics; seeing a Borges (which K had picked up) among our piles of books, he told me a gentle story of entering a Paris roadside cafe which has carefully preserved the table Borges used to sit at. His eyes shone with pleasure when he talked of sitting on that very chair. I saw a young boy, perhaps in his mid-teens, picking out books he thought his mother might like (R.K. Narayan) and then begging her to buy him a couple of books that were a little more expensive than they'd budgeted for; a group of schoolteachers on a mission to stock their school library were busy buying up every children's book in the store, from Enid Blytons to Roald Dahls to Harry Potter. Then there was a sad-looking young man looking for 'electric-er boi', and the bunch of giggling teenagers whose sole form of entertainment was huddling together, getting in everyone's way, and picking up random books, bursting into giggles, and then replacing them. And 'Cheton Bhogot', of course, remains infuriatingly popular.

But what I love most is the festivity, the way the entire city joins in the fun of buying books; the book fair might be a localised affair, but a large chunk of the E.M. Bypass is brightly lit up, traffic jams all over the city are worse than usual, loudspeakers make all sorts of announcements, sometimes playing songs, the only distinguishable lyrics of which are 'Kolkata ... boi mela ...'. The local news channels devote sections to the book fair, the daily papers make it a front-page affair. And it's not just about books (and food!) - art lovers go to see if they can spot anything good among the works young, struggling artists put up for sale, you can even get your portrait sketched if you want, or buy bits of terracotta jewellery and knick-knacks.

Ten days go by all too quickly, though, and we're left feeling low and flat - till our eyes fall on the piles of books with their as-yet unknown riches waiting to be discovered - and then we immediately cheer. After all, ashche bochor abar hobe!