When I was asked to write about the Kolkata Book Fair by the founder of Kolkata Bloggers, the event’s official social media partner, the first thought that crossed my mind was — Sigh, I haven’t been there in 10 years. That’s also the amount of time I’ve been away from the city where I was born and raised. Of course, there have been long, annual visits to the hometown, but never during the fair. May be it’s time I corrected it. And because I’ve not been to the fair in the last decade, during which it has changed venues and perhaps character too, I was a tad apprehensive of writing about it. But then, like the quintessential probashi bangali, I decided to dip into my rich reserves of nostalgia.(Wouldn’t life be utterly tasteless without ‘gia-nostal’ ?)
I must have been eight or nine when my mother took me to the book fair for the first time. And since then, it became an annual ritual for me, perhaps holier than even Ashtamir anjali. I could miss attending the latter but never the former. I’ve always devoured books, their smell, their textures, their colours, their lessons, and the enormous world they conjure up. But attending the boi mela year after year made me realize that it was as much about books as about food, music, art, theatre, conversations, crowds, chaos, and Bengali eccentricities. No one went there just for the books. (Well, College Street was enough for books.)
They went to smell the paper and heat and dust, they went to feast on the phuchkas and rolls and chaats, they went to hear their favourite poets and songwriters, they went to applaud the musical performers and the street theatre troupes, they went to walk hand-in-hand with their lovers, and of course, they went to discuss football, politics and the intensity of the winter. But, no matter how cold it got, a trip to the verdant Maidan and a stroll through the stalls, would warm their spirits on mellow January afternoons — a warmth that would keep them going in their years away from the city.
I remember an agitated uncle once asking me: “Boi mela te loke khete ashe keno? Joto bheed shob food stall gulo te.” (Why do people come to eat at a book fair? All queues are at the food stalls.) While it is true that there are more foodies than bookworms today, it is also true that the Kolkata Book Fair wouldn’t be half as vibrant if it wasn’t for the diversity of people who attend it every year. Contrast it with the Frankfurt Book Fair, supposedly the world’s largest event in publishing. It has yearly footfalls of 3–4 lakhs. The Kolkata Book Fair, on the other hand, recorded an all-time high of 2.5 million footfalls some years ago and manages to secure an average of 1.8–2 million footfalls every year. That makes it the world’s most-attended book fair. Isn’t that glorious? While Frankfurt celebrates the commerce of books, Kolkata thrives in the art of it. The boi mela is not a mere event, but a cultural carnival — an experience to be lived and cherished.
In the initial years (late ’70s / early ’80s) of the book fair when it would be held at the majestic Victoria Memorial, leading writers of the city would read from their new books to a captive audience. The incorrigible (yet brilliant) Shakti-Sunil, most notable among them, would make temperatures soar with their rebellious poems. That uncle I mentioned, the one who laments serpentine queues at food stalls, would be in attendance. The place would resonate with the energy and optimism of youth. Twenty-five years later, when I were to become a regular at the book fair, equally enthusiastic crowds would line up to shop for a bagful (jhola) of books, hear opar bangla bands, discover international writers, play Rabindrasangeet on guitars, and most certainly, gorge on double egg rolls and candy floss.
My first acquisition, so to speak, at the boi mela was a Feluda book. (Yes, I’m predictable like that.) Feluda Ekadosh, brought out by Ananda Publishers, stands on my bookshelf till date. A hundred other books picked up from the boi mela over the years gives it company. It was important to not only buy the best books but also hunt for the best deals, i.e. the steals. Because the next day when you’d go to school, you had to gloat about the irresistible deals your stall-keeper gave you. There was a special joy in deriding that friend, who might have shelled out a few extra bucks for the same books. “Emaa, tor theke beshi niyeche!” (Oh no, he charged you more!) That one line would fill you with a sense of pride and achievement. And it would also be the only time you derided your friend.
Now, of course, there’s a lit fest too on the fringes of the book fair. We live in a time when there are more lit fests than readers perhaps. We’re keen to click selfies with authors but we may not have heard of their books. Several of my friends have told me how much they detest the commercialization of the good, old boi mela. And that includes its venue being shifted from the beautiful Maidan in the heart of the city to the plastic convention centre — Milan Mela. But poriborton is inescapable. The boi mela will keep changing hues in the years to come. You and I might stop attending it. But someone or the other surely will.
Though German writer Gunter Grass, one of the fiercest critics of Calcutta, famously said that, “The Book Fair is a metaphor of life: A beautiful creation that, like the city itself, will fade, while the books will endure”, I’d like to believe that the boi mela will endure too. And continue to define the city of Kolkata like nothing else does.