A look at Asia’s Biggest Book Fair

Book Fair: The Ferris wheel we ride once a year

It was one of those last days of January when dusk pervades the gray sky stealthily, I boarded a bus – headed towards the 47th International Kolkata Book Fair. As I watched the dazzling concrete monuments passing by, it was almost as if the familiar aroma of books diffused in the Kolkata air had me in its stronghold. This is how Kolkata embraces a new year every time, with an eclectic book fair that seems to have something for everyone. Contemplating about the city and its remarkable resilience against unforeseen onslaughts on its culture, the tedious hour-long bus journey seemed to have passed in an instant.

I was dropped off near the book fair, and as soon as I alighted, I found myself facing a colossal crowd. As I made my way through the busy gates, before me, peeping out from a bag, in the midst of a million bodies- a sudden long-stemmed yellow rose. The surprisingly beautiful image of a woman carrying a yellow rose – a woman I did not know- lend an air of romance to my visit. I was reminded of Gabriel García Márquez, who was fond of the colour yellow. And for a fleeting moment, I wondered how Márquez would have described the Kolkata book fair and its maddening pulse, the aroma of overturned page, and the nostalgia of the written word. The book fair with its nuances, it’s intricate detailing might in fact appear quite Márquezian in its setting. It seems quite apropos to borrow a few lines from García Márquez here: “More people came. The women who had left when the town died came back…some of the former inhabitants of the town returned. They’d gone off to get filthy rich somewhere else and they came back talking about their fortunes but wearing the same clothes they’d left with.”

I started walking towards the stalls. A beautifully decorated cottage selling jute bags was the first stall I came across. A sudden desire to carry books in those gorgeous jute bags led to the purchase of a white-coloured bag with a soothing yellowish embroidery on both sides.

To overcome the dilemma of choosing a particular stall to begin with, I entered the first stall that came into my sight-an old and rare books stall, where one could find rare books at a cheap price. Though, I couldn’t find any rare books that I was inclined to buy, I did however chance upon a rare edition of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” stuck between the decayed yellowish old magazines. The narrative seemed to be imprinted in the form of a comic book with colorful pictures – a suitable edition for the kids to begin reading Orwell. A few old and rare editions of Dostoevsky, Gogol, and some old Soviet journals caught my eye too, but I decided to buy them at a later date from College Street. That done, I then moved towards the Little magazine stalls. 

It took me about five minutes to reach the Little Magazine stall, and as I walked upon the makeshift wooden floor, through the labyrinthine of narrow lanes where the tables showcasing the little magazines were kept, the ambience surrounding me beckoned to a time when the fearless Bengali poets tried their hands at an arduous experimentation with letters and verses, a time when multiple significant literary movements broke out challenging the establishment. Of course a handful of Little magazines have emerged recently but the advent of Little Magazines in Bengali literature, during a paradigm shift, certainly harks back to the past that still guides us and serves us as our beacon of hope.

The little magazine tables showcased poetry, experimental prose, critical essays on literature, interviews of 20th-century stalwart Bengali literati, and of course some of them had the literature of the infamous Hungriyalist group, known to be the biggest disruptors in Bengali literature. This inclination of Bengalis towards an anti-establishment culture, and the endless search for a new dimensions in literature, perhaps also makes them distinguishable in the cultural fabric of India. This year people were keen to read Hungry literature, especially those who hadn’t read them before. Perhaps this had something to do with the unfortunate demise of Malay Roychoudhury and Debi Roy – the pioneers of the Hungry movement – which is why people are curious to read more of their work. A lot of people were talking about Malay Roychoudhuri’s poetry at these tables, discussing his avant-garde poesis, and his translations, and it seemed that amidst this moribund land people still haven’t recovered from the shock of losing the powerful voice of Malay Roychoudhury. 

I bought an anthology of Shaileshwar Ghosh’s poetry, two unpublished stories, and a book of essays on him from Karubasana (named after Jibananda Das’s novel). Afterwards I walked up to another stall, Doshomik, from where I purchased a book containing 26 poems of Nitya Malakar (another hungry poet) and Utpal Kumar Basu’s translation of William Faulkner’s “A rose for Emily.” Other than these, I also procured a collection of Manabendra Bandopadhyay’s interviews. While turning the pages of Manabendra Bandopadhyay’s interview collection, a gentleman standing beside me asked if I was interested in translations and we had a brief but very enriching and in-depth conversation on Manabendra Bandhopadhyay’s huge corpus of translations, his craft of trans creating Latin American writers and poets. Coincidentally the next book I bumped into was a Bengali translation of one of my favorite Argentine poets, Alejandra Pizarnik. It was translated by Jaya Chowdhury, a veteran translator of Latin American fiction. This was a revelation for me, as I hadn’t known that Pizarnik was translated into any of the Indian languages, let alone Bengali.

Moving across the tables I then chanced upon a yellow-covered book titled “Country without a post-office.” The book reminded me of Agha Shahid Ali and his verses tinged with melancholic blues. In a moment, a crippling sadness made me numb. Silently staring at the tiny little book, I tried to recollect a couple of lines from “Leaving your city”, one of my favorite Agha Shahid Ali poems, but failed. At times I pity my memory. However I checked the lines after coming back home; they were: “My finger, your phone number at its tip, dials the night / and your city follows me, its lights dying in my eyes.” In any case, since the lovely book had already cast its magic spell on me, I just had to buy it. The book I bought was a Bengali translation of poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Shahzada Rafiq, Maryam Ala Amjadi, Afreen Faridi, and a few others. I turned the pages and read a couple of poems while standing there, a sense of loss running through me – emanating from the poems – a “loss” Kashmir had to go through for decades. The book jacket was an illustration of Edel Rodriguez, depicting a black hand tied by red laces. The table from where I bought the book was named “Kaali, Kolom and Easel” (“Ink, Pen and Easel) – a publishing house located at Tiljala, Kolkata. Their enchanting sense of esthetics, their book-jackets, bookmarks, and even the invoice copy they gave had a touch of fine delicacy and arguably they were the only ones who paid so much attention to the aesthetics of the craft.

The next table was waiting with a surprise for me, something that was enough to make my day. It was Bidur – a publishing house where I spotted Binoy Majumdar’s diary. Binoy was a poet I have loved since my late teens and over the years my intimacy with Binoy only grew more deeper – a special relationship that readers often share with their favorite poets. I now took the book out and turned its pages. Some diary entries seemed familiar and I figured that they were the same poems that appeared later in his anthology “Ami Ei Shobhaye.” When he picked some of the entries as poems to include in the anthology, he edited them and made some subtle changes that prove Binoy’s expertise as an editor – a side most of his readers have missed to this day. Apart from the diary, the stall had Jyotirmoy Dutta’s English translation of Binoy Majumdar’s “Fire Esho, Chaka” – arguably his seminal work. Standing there, looking at the book in my hands, I pondered on how the prolonged negligence of our academics and translators has abjectly confined Binoy’s poetic brilliance to the dilapidated abode of Shimulpur. With these afterthoughts, I made my way to another corner of the Little Magazine stall.

This corner was mostly covered by the communists selling their literature, pamphlets, and posters at a low price. People of all ages gathered in front of the tables and kept themselves busy engaging in various debates. Indistinctly I could hear the names of Bakunin, Trotsky, and Plekhanov being mentioned. When I look at them it seems to me that these people have been standing here for an eternity and yet they still have the energy to keep the debate going on. I leafed through some Bengali translations of “The Communist Manifesto” and noticed a collection of Marxist essays on Palestine among them. It looked interesting. I bought the essay collection and from the very next table I purchased three old issues of the “Frontier”. After this, I was about to leave the Little Magazine stall, but before leaving I glanced at the group of people who were still immersed in the debate. Watching them lost in a critical discourse, trying to figure out how they could participate in the betterment of our society I felt an immense secret joy. Maybe in the near future, most of those discussing here will define their youths through these ideals, while some others will become more radicalized but hopefully their empathy will be alive since they seem to have been reading the works of Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky from an early age.  

Having spent hours walking around the little magazine counters, I next walked towards the Jadavpur University Press stall to collect “Dublin-nama” (a Bengali translation of James Joyce’s “Dubliners”), one of their latest publications. Sadly though, their copies were already sold out. There were several other important translations at their stall, for example, the Bengali translation of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, titled “Adivasira Aar Nachbe Na” – an important book that speaks of resistance. However, I collected some academic journals from them and walked out onto the ground where a cultural program was taking place.

The JU press stall was located almost in the middle of the book fair ground, making it a nice place to observe people from there. People walked around carrying the books that they had bought. Many were lost in conversations, while others were busy making memories – memories that would remind them of this merry time in the distant future. I saw a girl ebulliently carrying the long picturesque books of Tintin. While watching this charming scene momentarily I longed to see again, the lady who had carried the long-stemmed yellow rose – a mischievous act of the heart. I wondered, what would happen to all these books? Some books will be devoured, others would be gifted, many would recommend books to others, while many others would be unread for years until an enthusiastic reader comes along to inherit them, and a few others might also be borrowed and never be returned.

Knitting my thoughts together, I walked towards the center, where an energetic crowd had gathered in front of the huge installation, where the theme of “The Constitution of India” could be seen in the form of a cut out. In a disturbed state of affairs that the country is going through, this seemed to bring much solace, a sort of reiteration if you please. Many people were taking pictures with this as the backdrop, a keepsake for them. It was a brilliant idea, I reckon, to use The Constitution of India as an emblem of resistance. The preamble that reads “We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic’ and to secure to all its citizens” is perhaps the most important page of letters that we must read every day in a tumultuous times like this to keep the character of our nation intact.  Not too far from this point, a cultural program was underway and the voice of a lady reciting poetry of resistance permeated the air. The site made me ponder over the fact that the Kolkata International Book Fair had withstood the high tides of language and cultural impositions, religious polarization and yet preserved its protestant character. Very little here has succumbed to the passage of time.

I took leave from the site, brimming with the young and enthusiastic, committed to standing as the vanguards of our constitution, and moved towards the Pratikshan stall. A few years ago, a friend had taken me to their stall and I still cherish the memory. “Pratikshan” was special partly for their amazing collection of books but mostly because of their opulent collection of paintings. Prior to my first visit to their stall, I had never seen the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, Jogen Chowdhury, and Pablo Picasso in print, all I had seen were digital copies. A few years ago I had my first encounter where I saw Abanindranath Tagore’s famous artwork “The Passing of Shah Jahan” – a big print covering most of the wall. From then onwards I have collected many paintings from them. They sell multiple paintings of an artist packed in a file at a cheap price. Unfortunately though, this year I could not find what I was looking for. I was looking for a file of Marc Chagall which was not in their stock, however, I bought an anthology of Abbas Kiarostami’s poems, trans created by Abdul Kafi. I ended up spending so much time at “Pratikshan”s, searching for books crammed on the shelves amongst hundreds of other people, looking at the paintings, that I became forgetful of how thick the air had become inside. Suddenly I felt claustrophobic, and made a hasty exit.

By this time, I was almost done browsing through the different stalls, and I’d used up most of my money too. But before leaving, I wanted to visit the Bangladesh stalls. I didn’t want to miss out on what our neighbors were reading and was curious about their recommendations for Bangla literature. A man sitting outside one of the stalls, sang a few folk folk songs in an elevated voice, accompanied by his Dotara, it transported me to a different, a calmer world. Under the same umbrella. there were other maze of stalls where one could find Humayun Ahmed and his fictitious characters “Himu” and “Mishir Ali” which continued being best-sellers with the readers in kolkata, like every other year. I feel kids, on the verge of adolescence, still enjoy reading Himu & Mishir Ali. However, people were interested in buying Akhtaruzzaman Elias and Shahidul Zahir too. I recalled how a few years ago I had bought a copy of Elia’s “Chilekothar Shepai” and the novel with its typical Eliasesque hallucinatory stylization had floored me.

By the time I was done visiting all the Bangladeshi stalls, it was already 8:15 pm. The musician with the Dotara was no longer to be seen, but his soulful voice echoed in my mind. The stall-keepers had begun languidly closing the curtains, the show was about to come to an end for the day, and I realized that it was time to leave. I was reluctant however, it had been such an invigorating, happy time, pursuing books along with the literary minded. I walked now towards the exit gate. This larger-than-life fair felt like a Ferris wheel, where we let loose some excess baggage our mind feels burdened with throughout the year. The childlike joy, the excitement here, as infectious still.

Within a few minutes I was on my way back home, behind me the banner of Federico Garcácia Lorca – that hung on one of the book fair gates – looked blurry in the approaching distance. The country has many book fairs, the New Delhi Book Fair being a prominent one, where large volumes of books are sold, but I’ve always felt that there was something different about the Kolkata book fair. Commerce, being only one of the aspects here. There was an atmosphere of resilience, a joy of being amidst books, and its celebration in various ways, that felt special. This bond, and its survival with our world of the written word, between books and their readers, this emotion seems to have been well preserved here.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Soumalya Chatterjee

Soumalya Chatterjee is an independent researcher. He has completed his Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. His research interests include Latin American literature and culture, as well as world cinema and photography.