Sayoni Basu: Back at the Boi Mela

I grew up in the Calcutta of the 1970s and 80s, and the book fair was one of the most important events in our annual calendar. One saved up for months, and traipsed off to the Maidan with one’s family and an optimistically large number of empty bags. One started systematically at one end and had to visit pretty much every stall, look at every little magazine (my mother would buy several), and eat jhal muri and candy floss. Several hours later, one would be hot, cross, sticky, and one’s legs and shoulders would be aching. But everyone would be very happy.

So it meant a lot to me to be going back to the Kolkata Book Fair, some twenty years after my last visit as a customer, with Duckbill.

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Many things have of course changed in the three decades. The book fair has moved from the Maidan, via Milan Mela, to Salt Lake Central Park, which is central to Salt Lake, but not to the city. However, undeterred by that, people—lots of people—do keep coming, which is wonderful to see.

The second is, of course, that online shopping has rendered the ten percent discount at the book fair, so crucial to my youthful shopping plans, largely insignificant.

When I was buying books in the 70s and 80s, there were lots of well-established Bengali publishers, but by and large few English publishers in India. Penguin started its Indian list in 1987, for example. And while there was of course NBT and CBT and our homegrown Writers’ Workshop (established 1958) with its lovely handloom-clad hardbacks. But the publishers—if they had stalls, which I don’t remember—were largely unknown names to me that I would mutter to myself as I stepped into the stalls. This has changed dramatically.

The leisurely Calcuttan has, alas, also fallen victim to the pressures of time. So the languid meandering and visit-every-stall has changed. But it has changed in an unusual way.

The popular strategy seems to be one perfected from years of pandal-hopping during the Durga Pujas. When there are thousands of pandals to visit, careful planning of routes and the must-sees has to be done. This strategising seems to be brought into play for the book fair visits as well. People come armed with maps and lists of the fanciest pandals, aka publishers. From the queries made to us, we know that the most desirable stalls are Ananda Publishers, Penguin, HarperCollins and OUP, with Oxford Bookstore and Chuckervertty, Chatterjee and Co (who can resist a Chuckervertty?). Rupa (surprising for what is regarded as a Calcutta company) and Hachette were a distant fifth and sixth in the popularity charts. So visitors come armed, and dash out of one stall ready to head to the next target, refusing to be distracted by all else that comes in their way. (We are opposite the Penguin stall, so we hear people say, ‘Now HarperCollins’ as they step out!) The visits to the stalls are also quite puja-like, as in sightseeing, as huge numbers come out without bags of new books in hand! I have always believed that book buyers are largely publisher-agnostic, and aware of the particular author or book, but Calcutta has disproved this theory.

The puja-like flavour also comes from the crowds at the food stalls. There is food all over—the tantalizing odours of fried fish permeate the air. While there are two food courts, food stalls pop up everywhere. And there are always crowds there—consuming khichuri and dimer debhil at all hours. And the music—the morning begins with vaguely patriotic songs that we used sing in school, and Rabindrasangeet at all hours, and the occasional Sumoner Gaan thrown in, which brings in college nostalgia of the strongest variety. Kolkata Boi Mela also has its own song, as it rightly should, and this is played at regular intervals all through the day.

The joy also comes from the delightfully casual nature of the organisers. Everything gets done, so there is no organisational problem, but everything gets done in a laid-back fashion which bewilders non-regulars. The strict paperwork that characterises, for example, the Delhi World Book Fair, is absent—one wanders in and out at will. A friendly neighbour comes and tells us periodically that one more bit of officialese needs to be completed, but we know only because he tells us. The Publishers’ Guild people sit around and chat about life with anyone who visits, and there is a general sense of partying in the air. Despite this being the forty-third book fair, there is a joyful sense of ‘let’s figure it out as it comes, but why worry till it does?’

We had been told by various Delhi-based publishers that the Calcutta book buyer does not like to visit new stalls. I had dismissed this, given my memories of determinedly visiting every stall three decades back. But it is true! People gaze at us tentatively, some even comment on how nice the stall looks, but they do not want to come in. There are, of course, people who do, and exclaim that they have never seen these books, buy lots and promise to come back next year, but such people are in a minority. ‘Duck-bill,’ they read out, and move on—we are hoping to make it to the must-visit list next year.

And in the meanwhile, we sit and observe Calcutta fashion and sociological trends. Young couples hold hands much more in Calcutta, than they do in Delhi, which is nice to see. And the new trends in fashion are the nightie dress and the sari blouse with the very elaborate back. If you are planning to come to the book fair, do dress appropriately!

What has not changed though, is the general intrepidness of the book fair visitor. Three decades back, we would go there by bus and tram and taxi, and walk for miles. That is unchanged. The book fair is free, and people wander in and out, sit by the fountains and take selfies with random things. But even on the first day, when the cleaners had not come in, and there were mountains of garbage, the visitors still came. Long queues snake outside Ananda Publishers, whether it is a weekend or weekday. Our hall periodically gets so crowded that the very floorboards seem in danger of collapsing.

But still people come—with walking sticks and small babies, after school, on the way back from office and en route to weddings in all their finery. And that is joyful!

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