I don’t remember the year i last visited Kolkata Book Fair. All i remember from that visit are people taking selfies of themselves, TV channels conducting mini-events with prize giveaways, tomes on Marxism being sold at discounts up to 71%, posters of books by Mamata Banerjee everywhere, and romance and chicklit paperbacks flooding the shelves. That’s about it. The rest is blur.
What i do remember still, with crystal clear clarity, is Kolkata Book Fair from the 90s. The fair was held at a different place then, more intimate, people did not take selfies, Lenin fan fiction was yet to be marked down, just the shehnai on the loudspeaker, and the occasional announcement. I wouldn’t over-romanticise the past, not everyone was there for the books. The fair ground was a fair spot for affairs, after all “I am going to the book fair” is a line no Bengali parent could say no to, couples walking hand-in-hand with not even a plastic bag of books to hide their true intent, a fairly common sight. For many it was all for the cheap, oily snacks that should have carried a surgeon general’s warning for guaranteed heartburn, as the lines in front of food stalls were longer than for book stores.
Even the people in the book stalls were not all there to satiate their intellect, some were surreptitiously leafing through dirty joke books and illustrated Kamasutras, and the uncle standing next would cough uncomfortably sometimes if the book had been blocked for too long. But even that was better than the disapproving glares reserved for those buying books for competitive exams, because nothing more betrays the ideals of the book-fair-goer than someone buying books not for devotion to Goddess Saraswati but to Goddess Laxmi. That Bengalis equate success in competitive exams with financial riches is one of the reasons why industry has left the state, but that’s a topic for another day.
For me, the greatest joy of the book fair were the small stores, the ones very few people went to, old unsold books gathering dust, like biographies of people i had never heard of, flipping through a page or two and putting them back in their shelves, the pleasant quiet melancholia of the unsold, turning around to leave to suddenly alight on something very interesting, something you didn’t even know you wanted to read.
It was this opportunity of self-discovery that kept bringing me back to the book fair, year after year, once upon a time. That and, and to be honest, the fish fry with kashundi.
DISCLAIMER : This article is intended to bring a smile to your face. Any connection to events and characters in real life is coincidental.