Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reading in Kolkata

The lauded annual Calcutta / Kolkata book fair is cancelled this year. This would have been the 33rd year of the festival, which features throngs of people and hundreds of stalls of books in Bengali and English. With no book fair to go to, a disappointed attendee decides to take a literary tour of Kolkata instead. He then realizes that the Publishers Guild have put together a semi-clandestine makeshift book fair (nowhere near on the same scale as the official one):

"A few hundred book lovers are seated in plastic chairs in a
recently-restored hall decorated with chandeliers, columns and bunting. Before them sits an unlikely gang: the Bengali poet Sunil Gangopadhyay; the US consul general, who's fluent in Bengali; and Paul Theroux, who shares a few clumsy words on Hinduism and American transcendentalism. The crowd, he remarks, looks like "people meeting secretly for some furtive faith - like early Christians in a cave".

The Publishers Guild views the fair's cancellation as a blow to
Bengal's tradition of egalitarianism. "The rich can afford to go to the malls and buy books," says Mahesh Golani, joint secretary of the Kolkata Book Fair, whom I meet at the Guild's office. "It is the middle class people who cannot go to such malls in big swanky cars. Our visitors are also from the [rural] districts. They will feel very sad that they have lost the opportunity to come to the book fair."

So the Guild seem to be in the right, keeping the tradition going despite the High Court decree. But then our attendee finds himself talking to some publishers of small presses who claim that the fair "isn't about books anymore; it's about business. The Guild is guilty for this" and that "[a]ll the Guild wants is prestige[.]"

Most agree that the fair has been tainted by commercialism; the books are more expensive than they need be. Still, Kalkota's literary community is a vibrant one--Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh are all associated with the city--and there is a large audience for literary periodicals. It would certainly be a shame for all this interest in literature to stagnate under commercial pressure.

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