Kolkata Book Fair: Reading between the Times

What makes the Kolkata Book Fair a perennial favourite across generations and locations

Kolkata Book Fair: Reading between the Times

Karuna Ezara Parikh

A magazine recently asked me to extoll the virtues of literary festivals or ‘lit fests’ as everyone calls them now, without the slightest hint of irony. I was soon lost in my first-ever memories of one, before realising that what I was remembering so fondly was, in fact, not a lit fest at all, but the Delhi Book Fair. Later, I remarked to a friend how the book fair is, essentially, the OG of lit fests. The original (and sometimes overlooked) space for literary dissemination and discourse, for tsundoku celebration.

I grew up in the Delhi of the late eighties and nineties, and the Book Fair was then a biennial expedition. Whenever it hit town, my parents hauled us off to wander through stalls that left us incredulous. It was my first experience of a dual sensation that has since become familiar—on one hand the panic of ‘so many books so little time’, on the other the peace of ‘however bad things get, there will always be more to read’.

By 1995, the Fair, which began in 1972 in a space just under 7,000 sq. ft, turned annual, stayed squarely in Pragati Maidan, ran for nine days a year (heaven!) and became a place for everyone to visit, not just young mothers desperately trying to inculcate culture in their young uns.

A few years ago, I moved to Kolkata, home to, amongst other wonders, the International Kolkata Book Fair. As an adult in Delhi, I had continued the tradition begun so fervently by my parents. Now it was time to see what Kolkata had to offer. I started by asking friends.

The answers were nostalgia-laden. I received long voice notes and saw hands fly emotionally to hearts as people sighed with warmth. Their memories had one thing in common—they all remembered going to the Maidan, which is where the Book Fair used to take place before the Calcutta High Court apparently sent it packing.

The popular art jewellery designer Eina Ahluwalia, who is based in the city, is childlike with joy when recalling it. “It was such a ritual. If I was travelling at the time, there was almost a physical ache of having missed out on something big and important, and at having to wait an entire year for it to return. The stalls were similar to what you see today, but more sustainable.

There was this particular smell of mitti and bamboo, there were jute carpets... the big bookstores had their stalls, of course, but in the middle, you found tables filled with books for as little as ten or twenty rupees. It was a really nice way to discover obscure one-offs. I still have a lot of them…” she laughs. “One was called Women: The New Criminals and talked about what drives women to crime.”

She describes the fried fish, prawn pakoras and particular chilli sauce available at the fair. I ask if she’s been recently and she says, “Once it moved, I went a few times, but it felt so different I didn’t go back, and now I haven’t been for many years.”

I was curious to see if the changes in location—from the Maidan to a location near Science City on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass and then Salt Lake— had had a blanket effect on the citizens of Calcutta, tucking them all cosily into their corners of the city, never to venture forward again.

On the second Saturday in February, I made my way towards the Central Park Mela Ground. I didn’t even need to feed this long name into my Google Maps, simply searching for ‘book fair’ did the trick. As we drew nearer, that map route went bright red and the taxi slowed. Laughing, the driver said, “Didi, I’ll drop you at the first gate I can.” Clearly, he wasn’t about to venture any further. I hopped out at one of the nine gates and joined the crowd.

It’s hard not to grin. Crossing under a hot pink banner announcing that you’ve arrived at the right place, you glance around. Humans, as far as the eye can see. Here, for books. How utterly, bookishly, beautiful.

Scenes of almost worshipful absorption. There an old man, shuffling along with a jhola full of Bengali texts, there a mother clutching the arm of a pigtailed girl who reminded me immediately of a younger me. Young couples momentarily unclasping each other to browse. Boys with massive book-filled backpacks waiting for security guards to let them into the busier stalls.

Traditionally, the Kolkata Book Fair began on or just after Saraswati Puja. It seems a lovely correctness, this coincidence, to merge modernity with the traditional festival for the goddess of arts and learning. In Bengal, where Saraswati Puja or Basant is considered a local Valentine’s Day, you have to wonder, while strolling the long lanes of the fair, about the dolled-up groups of young girls in crisp saris with flowers in their hair.

I make quiet jokes to myself about how it’s only in Bengal that you’ll see the girls doing this for ‘bois’ as opposed to boys. Because that’s what it really is. Not a ‘book fair’ which feels very literate, but a ‘boi mela’ which offers indescribable flavours, beyond what semantics seem to provide.

The numbers are out for me to fall back on. An estimated 26 lakh people attended this year, with a record sale of 25 crore plus worth of books. So much for the location change being a lasting gripe. I managed to speak with Mayura Misra, proprietor of The Story Teller Bookstore, about this. Mayura has been attending the fair for 25 of its 46 years, and was in charge of the Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster stalls this year.

“It affected crowds initially, but now there’s a direct metro line to the grounds,” Mayura tells me. In 2022, it seems Covid didn’t deter the crowds, but publishers responsibly held back. This year they all attended. “There were more stalls, almost a thousand, a focus on women writers, a children’s literature area, and authors coming in for signings.” Needless to say, there was also a lit fest. Most importantly though, “imports have started”, she adds.

Six months ago, stores and publishers sat down and created their import lists for the fair, which made for unique stock, chock-a-block with things like rare graphic novels. Asked what she would like to see next year, she says, “More foreign participation and more translations, including regional ones.”

Just before I bid her goodbye, she points out that the Kolkata Book Fair is special in this too that it isn’t a trade fair (unlike, say, the Frankfurt Book Fair). It is entirely open to the public. “It’s a family event,” she says. And then, just in case the crowds, the joy, the sense of community and adda, hadn’t convinced me yet, she adds with a smile, “It’s like Durga Puja, it’s for everybody.”

(Karuna Ezara Parikh is a Kolkata-based poet and author)

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