I am neither religious nor a big bibliophile. And yet the things I miss most about Calcutta and my old life , without doubt, are Durga Puja and the Calcutta Book Fair.
That is because Durga Puja is not only about religion. Just like the Book Fair isn’t merely about books.
People. Yes both of them are also about people. And the essence of Calcutta—my favoritest city in the whole wide world.
When I close my eyes and think of Book Fair, the sound of shehenai on the public-address system comes warbling back to me—through the many years that have passed. I am flooded by memories—the puddles of water on the Maidan, the discarded bamboo poles lying about, the dust everywhere stirred up by the peripatetic peregrinations of millions, the tattered newspapers flying around in a midafternoon vortex of air, the smell of freshly-printed books, the sense of peaceful hustle-and-bustle all around. All was well with the world.
Make no mistake. The Book Fair is about books. Only not just about it.
When I was a kid, eons ago Book Fair was The event. It was where I got to spend my birthday money and set sail for imaginary worlds where I would encounter the antics of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Professor Shanku, the tall tales of Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Teni-da, the spooky charm of “World’s Best Ghost Stories”, the adventures of Tintin and the surreal comedy of Bantul the Great and the naughty Nonte-Phonte.
My memories of these early days constitute strikingly fresh images of a small boy going wide-eyed into the huge pavilions holding his father’s hand tight lest he get lost in the crowd. And his father reaching up the shelves and then looking down and saying—this book is good for you. Let’s buy this.
I also remember the feeling of irritation and impotent desperation as this aforementioned father took his sweet time going through heavy books in the boring Oxford book stall while the horrid book agent (who used to sell books at Indian Institute of Management) kept on showing him one new arrival after another. Aghast at the time being wasted on this futile activity, the small boy, with a strand of freshly-eaten pink cotton candy hanging from his nose, kept on pulling at his other hand —reminding him that the Rupa bookstall was filling up. And the “Limca Book of Records” was flying off the shelves like hot cakes.
Samuelson could wait. The man with the longest moustache could not.
As I grew older, things became different. Baba would come on his day and me on mine. Of course there was one family day—Baba , Ma and me. But bookhunting became more personal.
I never liked coming with friends to the Book Fair—I preferred solitude . It was easier to get lost in the crowd while being alone. Also my friends were too much into question papers, GRE big book, competitive exams and VC++ Unleashed —which to me was too much work. And quite against the spirit of the whole thing. I had nothing against GRE test papers and did a fair amount of mugging too—-but thinking of the corporeal world at the Book fair was to me like entering a temple with shoes on. In short, anathema.
Just as much a cosmic disturbance as forsaking the pakoras and coffee at the Coffee House stall for the chicken kababs and roast legs from the Arambagh Hatcheries cubicle.
Okay I confess. I ate all of them. Because one should never book-hunt on an empty stomach. Or discriminate between the Coffee House laddoo, the Rollick ice cream, the Fish Fry from Benfish and the Paan from Mantu’s.
One of the principal attractions of the fair was being able to physically leaf through the books —an experience we seem to be gradually losing in the world of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And the books that were ideal for leafing through were those lavishly photographed expensive picture books which you would never see anywhere else—-the World War encyclopedias, the National Geographic’s anniversary collection, a collection of greatest pictures from Life magazine.
And also those pictorial Kamasutra and erotic massage books —-furtively going over a page or two before a disapproving stare from an older person would lead me to quickly reach for the Complete Gardening and Home Improvement book reclining next to it.
Every year of course there was one hyped-up, must-do thing at the Book Fair. Once Jacques Derrida was the special guest[sorry my mistake: not Saki as I initially typed] and a lot of people turned up just because he was “heavy”(or because of the reassuring “da” at the end ). Another time, Shobha De came to promote one of her steamy KLPD novels and a minor riot broke out to see her. Another year the hottest selling book and topic of conversation was , hold your breath, Arindam Chaudhuri’s Chicken and Egg book. I remember asking the popcorn guy to put more butter on my popcorn while he discussed with his mate this great new “management” guy (yes he used the word) whom he had seen in a book-signing session nearby and how he looked like a mahamanush (great man). And was a Bengali too.
The magic of books. And the ponytail to provide an aura of intellectualism.
However I was not the one to be taken in by the hype. Okay maybe a few times. But in general, I never found the big stores particularly appealing–most of them were just like the other. And I could go to these places any time of the year.
However what was unique to me at the Bookfair was the little stalls. They were the lifeblood of the event–totally bereft of commercialization, selling books noone could possibly sell in an economically viable way. Some were motivated by a belief—the Ananda Margis, some by a cause—punish the Rajakars (the Pakistani collaborators during Bangladesh’s war of independence), and some by a dream that had passed them by—old emaciated men peddling thick tomes of Marx and Engels.
Then there were the amusing ones—stalls for selling Yoga books by the Ironman of Bengal where one could get weighed for free if one bought one of their books.
And finally the foot-soldiers of the fair–those peddling “Little Magazines”—printed versions of what we would nowadays call blogs—poems, small bits of prose, humor, satire, rants–all sold at bargain basement prices. And what’s more the authors were themselves selling it, engaging you in a conversation that sometimes intentionally, as part of their salesmanship was escalated to a heated debate and then asking..no compelling.. you to buy the “Little Magazine” for prices that ranged from Rs 2 upwards.
Sometimes the magic of the bookfair lay in sitting down on the ground and just observing people. Because those who love books are as fascinating as the books themselves. The young intellectual–bearded, jhola in hand and a faded kurta. The struggling artist—peddling his pictures and small sculptures. The bald-headed, thick-glassed bibliophile wending his way to Subarnarekha–the stall that sold rare, out-of-print books. The family out for an evening of fun with the packet of shrimp bought from the Benfish stall being the principal purchase. A group of college kids talking and laughing. A couple holding hands, lost in themselves.
And me sitting, a bag of fast-disappearing pop corn in my hand leafing through the book of life. Free of cost.
In conclusion, my abiding memory of Book Fair would be this man we met a long time ago. My father and I were sitting on the grass. Poverty writ large on his face and his faded, threadbare shirt, he came and started reciting a poem. And then asked my father whether he would like to buy a poem for 10 paisa. (His punch line was ” a poem for 10 paisa”).
He had in his hand several printed copies of a small leaflet—each of which had 10 poems written by him. And he was selling it for Re 1 a pamphlet.
My father asked him what he did for a living. Smiling shyly, the man said that he is a poet. He lives far away in a remote village in North Bengal and all through the year he goes to different fairs all over West Bengal—mostly village melas where he recites and sells his leaflets. He also proudly pointed out that every few months he comes up with new material.
When my father asked him where he stayed during the Book Fair, he smiled enigmatically and the poetic, dignified silence left no doubt as to the fact that he possibly slept on a footpath.
My father bought one of his leaflets and after he had gone read a few of them. They were of middling quality—a jewel in the dust this man surely was not.
But therein lay the beauty of it. The beauty of conviction. The beauty of dreams. The fact that this man believes that one day he will make it as a poet . And what’s inspiring is that despite the odds he faces every day, he still manages to radiate enthusiasm for his craft—a luminant joi de vivre that comes from believing in what he does.
That sales pitch of “a poem for 10 paisa” accompanied with the boisterous recitation—he must be doing this routine about hundreds of times every day, mostly to people who are irritated by his presence (I saw another group on the grass who basically told him to f*** off) and just want this nuisance to leave them alone. Looking at him going about his work, I realized that not once during his numerous sales pitches does his enthusiasm or self-belief waver, nor does he ever sell his poverty and ask for sympathy—not when insulted, not when rebuffed and not when sleeping on the footpath on a cold Calcutta night.
That , my friend, is the mark of a true artist.
And the Book Fair is where you find him.