“Book Fair! So it is an entire fair dedicated to books?”
“Yes, lots of books from home and foreign shores.”
My father had a rather simple way of explaining the concept of a fair dedicated completely to books to me.
That was many springs ago. Since then, many things have changed -“Calcutta” is now called “Kolkata”, the venue of the fair has moved from “Kolkata Maidan” to a much more organised and environment friendly “Milan Mela grounds” and I have outgrown a grey hair or two.
In between all that, the book fair has managed to become something that I look forward to, every year. Not only because it is about one of my favourite things – books, but also about a few of my favourite people.
Truth be told, for anybody who has been a regular at the Kolkata Book Fair for long, can vouch that it is not only about the books. This annual cultural event is actually potpourri of books, friends, nostalgia, memories, food, favourite people and of course, ‘adda (friendly discussions)’.
My first memories of the book fair relates to buying “Nonte Phonte*” comic books or Chinese short story books translated in Bengali while holding my father’s hands. He was the one who introduced me to the world of Kolkata Book Fair. During those days, the fair used to be held at Kolkata Maidan. I was barely six or seven and the mighty gates, huge crowds and the sight of the imposing Victoria Memorial nearby, sketched a picture of molten warmth wrapped Kolkata winter in my mind. Somehow, that is one imagery of Kolkata that has remained with me always.
I used to stare at the huge volumes of “Sarat Rochonaboli” (Collection of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s works) or works of Sunil Gangopadhyay on the racks while my father said – “Ogulo na boroder boi, boro holey porbey, kemon?” (Those are books for grown-ups. You can read them when you are a grown-up too.)
Time, they say, waits for none. While ‘growing up’ I still visited Book fair religiously with my father every year but I also went back several times every year along with my friends. I progressed from Feluda to a more mature Byomkesh or the complex Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot on the ‘detective’ stories front.
My annual trips to book fair also gradually turned out to be ones where I would buy new novels of Suchitra Bhattacharya, get acquainted with the classic works of Jane Austen and Ashapurna Devi.
The Kolkata book fair was also the place where I first managed to get an autograph from my favourite Bangla band frontman – the one whose music made me fell head over heels in love with my city, all over again.
I was not living anymore in Kolkata when the venue shifted to Milan Mela grounds. The environmentally conscious lawyer in me welcomed the decision, but in one corner of my heart the nostalgia of the Benfish stall right in the middle of the fair, made me a little sad.
I did not attend the fair for may be 6 or 7 years in between. When I returned to live in Kolkata again, many a fancy new book stores had opened up in the city while the eternal College Street was always there, yet the joy of smelling a bag full of fresh new books bought at the book fair had not waned a bit. Just the way, the ritual of holding hands with your first love and gathering at the book fair to share your story with a set of trusted friends never gets old.
The eternally youthful city the continues to discuss which stall has the biggest queue, which new author is asking the most uncomfortable questions through the pen or just breaks into a new song of hope, every now and then.
Kolkata Book Fair is actually a celebration of our lives, of good old charm of Kolkata, of winter afternoons, of books and old friends and first loves – first loves which were about old Bengali classics and the fragrance of the ‘forbidden’ hidden inside the first read Saratchandra novel.