February 12, 2013

The Kumbh Mela of bibliophiles: Kolkata Book Fair

On Sunday, February 10, I spent a day at the Kolkata Book Fair. Those who know the city or the event can imagine what I experienced. This is no ordinary book exposition; it is the Kumbh Mela of bibliophiles. This past weekend, I was one of 200,000 visitors. Over a fortnight, it is estimated two million people have entered the gates of the Book Fair. Business worth Rs. 20 crore (200 million) has been done at what is now a social and business institution in the city.

My trip to the Book Fair brought back memories. This was a regular haunt every January and February when I was a schoolboy. My father headed the Kolkata branch of a leading publishing house – he went on to become its chairman in New Delhi – and the Book Fair was special for him and his colleagues. Typical of my father, he made it a family affair.

My mother used to cook and carry food for those from the company tasked with setting up and running the stall at the Book Fair, some of them working 16 hours a day for two weeks at a stretch. The boys – my brothers and I – left for the Book Fair almost as soon as was possible on getting home from school. Duties at the stall were carefully delineated. I was made to stand at the delivery counter. Next to me was the person who took the money from the customer and next to him the person who wrote out the bill, after having examined the books purchased.

My job was to put the books into a packet and hand them to the customer with a smile. At the end of the fortnight, I got my first pay cheque: a princely sum of Rs. 100! Years later, in 1991, I released my first book at the Kolkata Book Fair – Quizzical - a quiz book dedicated to my city. It was an exciting day for me, and I woke up nervous.

If you’d reached the venue early in the morning that day you would have found a hyper author pasting posters advertising the book on corrugated sheets. In those simpler and happier days, we did everything on our own. On Sunday, I was back at the Book Fair to release my latest book, Speak Up, Speak Out: My Favourite Elocution Pieces and How to Deliver Them. This time I wasn’t pasting posters as well! Things were very different – and yet, at some fundamental level, they were the same.

The Book Fair used to be held on the Maidan, the sprawling green expanse in the heart of Kolkata. Now it’s moved to the Fair Grounds near Science City, in the newer eastern suburbs of Kolkata. Perhaps it was my memory playing tricks with me or maybe it’s just that things are better organised now, but the crowds seemed thinner than in my childhood. My friends at the Publishers and Booksellers Guild – familiar faces who have painstakingly organised the Book Fair for decades – say there are fewer visitors these days but more buyers. The conversion rate – casual browsers to actual purchasers – is higher.

There is also more to do and hear now. For the past two years, the Kolkata Literary Meet - a literary festival, has complemented the main Book Fair. In absolute numbers, more books are being sold and more people are buying books than ever before. I did my own share, availing the author’s discount that the Penguin and Rupa stalls allowed me.

Even in the age of the Internet and Twitter, and of Amazon and Flipkart, I was gratified to find hundreds and thousands of young people – schoolchildren, undergraduates, boys and girls just entering working age – line up to buy books. It says something of a culture that queues up to buy books, and of a people whose biggest secular festival is not a gladiatorial sports contest or a beer drinking binge, but a civilised celebration of books.

There are many reasons I’m proud to be a Kolkatan, but I can’t think of a better one than the Book Fair.